The high-flying designer lands in Miami
By FRED A. BERNSTEIN
The last time Marc Newson was in Florida, it wasn't to promote a new development (like Philippe Starck), or to unveil an installation in Miami's Design District (like Ron Arad). Newson, the 43-year-old designer, came to witness a launch at Cape Canaveral. Fascinated with rockets since childhood, Newson imagined himself not only making the trip into space someday – but doing it in a craft of his design.
Sound unlikely? It's no more unlikely than Newson's career trajectory to date. Fifteen years ago, Ian Schrager paid about $1,500 for a hammered metal chaise by Newson, called the Lockheed Lounge, which he installed in the lobby of Manhattan's Paramount Hotel. (At the time, Newson was described in the press as an Australian surfer who occasionally built furniture.) Last year, a chaise from the same series sold at Sotheby's for just under $1 million. At New York's Gagosian Gallery, in January, Newson will unveil about a dozen new pieces, in limited editions, that are likely to fetch equally stratospheric prices. Buying a chair or table by Newson (which are produced in editions of less than a dozen) has become the equivalent of buying an artwork by Damien Hirst or Vik Muniz – it takes both money and connections.
Still, Newson doesn't know whether to call his limited-edition pieces art. "I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't," he said by phone from Paris. "It's clearly not design -- because it doesn't really perform any particular function, nor do I want it to have to live up to all of those expectations. Neither do I think it's necessarily art. And," he says, wryly, "everybody in the art world would agree with me on that."
"It may be something that doesn't have the right definition yet," says Newson. "But," he adds, without a hint of bravado, "it seems to be a hot ticket at the moment."
In fact, some of his limited edition pieces do function as furniture – just ask George Lindemann Jr., the Miami investor who works at an aluminum and bright-orange-glass desk by Newson in his office on Biscayne Boulevard. But to Newson, the pieces are more experimental than the word "design" implies. He says, "I'm digging deep to try to learn something about materials. The more I learn, the better I'll be at designing mobile phones and sneakers and airplanes."
Especially airplanes. For most of the last five years, his "day job," as Newson puts it, has been as creative director for Qantas. (His previous aviation work involved small private planes.) Qantas has given him a broad mandate, which includes designing the interiors and countless accouterments for the airline's fleet of A380's, the Airbus jets that were expected to come off the assembly line this year. Naturally, Newson was disappointed when Airbus announced several delays in completing the A380. Among other things, "I can't show anyone what I've been doing for the last five years," he says. "It's an enormously competitive industry, and you can't give away the game." Luckily, other projects for Qantas have been completed, and a first class lounge at Sydney Airport – Newson's largest architectural project to date – is expected to open next year.
Newson has also created high-profile interiors, including the bar at the Puerto Madero Hotel in Madrid; an Azzedine Alaia shoe boutique in Paris and the restaurant at New York's Lever House. But interiors, no matter how complicated to build, turn out to be ephemeral: a Berlin boutique by Newson, built in 1992, was dismantled and sold at auction in New York just 10 years later.
In the 1980's, Newson studied jewelry and sculpture at Sydney College of the Arts. "At the time," he says, "I was preoccupied not with designing things, but making things." All of his early pieces were hand-crafted, using the few techniques he had picked up in school, or hanging around surf shops in Sydney. (The Lockheed Lounge combined the two – it's made of metal over fiberglass.) Back then, "No one was going to make these things for me," he says.
These days, he has manufacturers lined up. His current projects include kitchen tools for Alessi, furniture for Poltrona Frau, and kitchen appliances for Smeg. He has also designed luggage for Samsonite, a concept car for Ford and a sneaker for Nike, the unlikely result of collaboration with the Russian Space Institute.
He is also partnering with New York's Adam Lindemann to bring out several dozen watches under the Ikepod label. In the 1980's and 90's, with his first Ikepods, Newson "reinvented the watch – conceiving it in three dimensions rather than two," says Lindemann. Starting in February, he will be offering a mix of new and classic Newson watches, all in precious metals, with prices starting at around $10,000. "People want to own pieces that have influenced and altered the world of design," Lindemann says of Newson's appeal to collectors.
That kind of talk puts a lot of pressure on the designer, who divides his time between London (where he employs about 15 people) and in Paris (where he opened a smaller studio to be closer to the Airbus factory). He has homes in both cities but spends much of his time on airplanes – sometimes to meet up with his girlfriend, Charlotte Stockdale, a fashion stylist who, he says, travels about as much as he does.
Confined, so far, to the earth's atmosphere, Newson indulges his passion for speed in a fleet of cars that includes an Aston Martin DB4 and a Lamborghini Miura. These days, however, most of his driving consists of taxi rides to and from airports. Including the airport in Miami, where this month he'll be arriving during Art Basel, to be honored as Designer of the Year.