Planet Newson

At 41 Marc Newson is the newest member of an exclusive club of tastemaking designers who reshape our world one item at a time.

There's a story Marc Newson tells about how he got his first break. It was the late eighties and he was recently out of art school and living in Tokyo, where he hoped to start a career as a furniture designer. Born in Australia, he'd moved to the city to be with a girlfriend working in Japan as a model.

One rainy night a courteous pedestrian offered Newson's girlfriend his umbrella and they struck up a conversation. This man happened to be Teruo Kurosaki, the head of Idée, a manufacturer of art furniture that produced work by Philippe Starck. The girlfriend mentioned that she was dating a designer. One thing led to another and eventually Newson not only met Kurosaki; he ended up creating furniture for Idée and getting to know Starck, who in turn introduced him to the Italian company Flos, for whom he would later design lighting fixtures.

Newson considers the umbrella story an example of the role dumb luck has played in his success, but it also illuminates something else: his uncanny gift for meeting the right people and transforming those encounters into fruitful collaborations. These days the 41-year-old belongs to an exclusive cartel of international tastemaking designers. Like Starck, Karim Rashid, Jasper Morrison, and a handful of others, he works in numerous mediums (in his case, creating everything from curling irons to automobiles to restaurant interiors) and manages to attract attention to his every venture. He is the rare designer whose pieces are admired by collectors and the general public alike; the former pay top dollar for his limited-edition designs at auction, and the latter snaps up his mass-produced items.

Newson, who stands five feet eleven inches tall and favors a uniform of coveralls and sneakers, moved to France in 1991 ("Another girlfriend," he says) and now splits his time between studios in Paris and London. But mostly he lives in airplanes and hotels while trying to keep up with the global demand for his talent. In a recent, fairly typical week he flew to Toulouse to work on the interiors of a new batch of Qantas jets at the Airbus plant, then to Tokyo for the launch of a clothing line he conceived for G-Star, next to Madrid, where he has designed the sixth floor as well as the lobby bar of Hotel Puerta América, and finally to London, where the Design Museum was hosting a retrospective of his career.

While this itinerary would be the envy of any designer, what distinguishes Newson from his peers is his incredible fluency and technological sophistication across a range of disciplines. "One of Marc's greatest talents is his ability to relocate information and knowledge," says Libby Sellers, curator of Newson's Design Museum show, "to take lessons learned from, say, the airline industry and apply it to the construction of a bike or a mobile phone."

Though Newson hasn't lived in Australia for years, his childhood there strongly influenced his design sensibility. His parents split up before he was born and he was raised by his mother in Sydney. She worked for an architecture firm and later ran Reef House hotel, which is noted for its cutting-edge modern design. From an early age, Newson was exposed to both sophisticated aesthetics and the complexities of the service industry. In his teen years, his mother married a pharmaceutical executive who moved the family to Seoul. Ever since then, Newson says, "I've always liked moving around and finding myself in new situations." He returned to Sydney for art school, where he studied jewelry design and sculpture, albeit with an ulterior motive. "I knew I didn't want to be a jeweler," he says. "But you learned how to make things and they left you alone. Design school was much more regimented and I couldn't handle that."

After graduating, Newson experienced his first big hit with the Lockheed Lounge, a six-foot-long, three-legged aluminum-clad chaise, which introduced the smooth biomorphic lines that have defined his work over the years. The piece, equal parts surfboard and space capsule, won instant raves in Sydney design circles and eventually caught the eye of Madonna, who featured it in the music video for "Rain." A few years later Philippe Starck installed one in the lobby at New York's Paramount Hotel. Today ten original models exist and they are in high demand. Recently a Lockheed Lounge sold at auction for $105,000.

By the early nineties, Newson was already a star in the design press, but he still struggled to make ends meet. He branched out, accepting offers to plan interiors of trendy bars and boutiques. In 1992 he broke into the world of consumer products, creating a perfume bottle for Shiseido. That provided his first big paycheck, which he promptly blew on a pristine vintage Aston Martin DB4. "It was the thing I needed to have," he says. "I can't say I have any regrets."

Obsessed with technology, Newson then moved on to fashioning ultrasophisticated wristwatches under the brand Ikepod, at the same time dabbling in household fixtures and kitchen gadgets, including lights for Flos and the Stavros bottle opener, which became a top seller for Alessi.

Newson's track record was so impressive that even the insular auto industry came calling. He spent most of 1998 working on a concept car for Ford at its Turin, Italy, factory. The resulting 021C looks a bit like a souped-up, Technicolor version of the boxy East German-made Trabant. Newson pared his prototype down to essential parts (the dashboard is stunningly minimal) and endowed it with ingenious features, such as seats that swivel—making exit and entry easier—and a trunk that opens like a drawer.

Ford executives were uneasy about unveiling such an offbeat vehicle, but Newson flew to Detroit and hit it off with then CEO Jacques Nasser, a fellow Australian, over dinner. It was Nasser's idea to name the car the 021C, which is the Pantone number for the orange color that Newson chose for the exterior. The vehicle was presented at the 1999 Tokyo Car Show, and while the automotive press gave mixed reviews, it won admirers the world over. "Small, simple and elegant...a perfect mass market city car," raved Time magazine's Joe Klein.

While working on the 021C, Newson took yet another excursion into uncharted terrain—the world of chic Manhattan restaurants. He did so at the invitation of John McDonald, a young entrepreneur known for starting MercBar, an early supermodel hangout in SoHo. The two met through a mutual friend, a furniture dealer, and quickly forged a bond. McDonald is always scouting the next hot thing (he publishes the bimonthly magazine City); he and Newson made a perfect match.

Their first restaurant together, Canteen, occupied an odd, below-street-level location (now the site of McDonald's Lure Fishbar) in downtown Manhattan. Some design aficionados loved Newson's space-age Day-Glo furniture, but the place never caught on. In a less than enthusiastic review, then New York Times food critic William Grimes wrote that it felt like a departure lounge and said Newson's chairs "look as if they were engineered for Warp Speed 9."

Canteen ended up closing, but McDonald was hardly cowed. He adored Newson's work—"It's more like engineering, there's a logic to everything"—and hired him for his next restaurant, Lever House in Manhattan. This was an even trickier commission: The space was an unused, windowless room on the ground floor of the Lever House building, one of New York City's great modernist landmarks. The design would have to both respect the building's pedigree and make diners forget that there was no natural light or view of the outdoors.

"Marc is very confident and he more or less nailed it on the first pass," McDonald says. "Seventy-five or eighty percent of what we ended up doing was in his first CAD drawing." Newson's solution involved creating an elegant capsule that suggested an enormous airplane interior, with gently sloping walls and clean, minimal forms. The design called for a lot of wood, and Newson chose a light-colored oak that lends his retro-futuristic aesthetic a warm glow. Realizing that dining in a place of this caliber should be a voyeuristic experience, Newson created a row of booths on a platform along one wall, offering optimal views of the rest of the room. The influential design magazine Frame called the restaurant a "picture-perfect movie set [that] might even threaten the modernist classic Four Seasons."

Despite the success of Lever House, Newson says he is not eager to take on more dining establishments. "The problem with [working on] restaurants is restaurateurs," he explains. "It was different with John, but most only know what they don't want." He would prefer to collaborate with clients like Qantas, which hired him in 2001 to revamp the airline's business-class seats. His private podlike Skybeds were so well received that Qantas saw a marked increase in the demand for business-class service. The airline now has him reconceiving the entire interior of their A380s. "There are a thousand different issues you must consider simultaneously," Newson says. "You have to think about where someone is going to put their bottle of mineral water because if you don't get something like that right, everything else doesn't matter. When you think you've got it perfect, they strap it to a sled and slam it into a wall at a hundred and fifty miles an hour and [then] they tell you all the things that have to change."

Newson has a particular affinity for air travel. Over the last few years, he also created the Kelvin40, a two-person concept plane crafted, he says, for a future time when flying usurps driving. Unlike the 021C, the Kelvin40 is not a functioning vehicle. Nonetheless, the plane was a crowd favorite at the Design Museum retrospective. "I think people were amazed to look at a plane designed by the same guy who did the bottle opener they just saw," says curator Libby Sellers.

It is routinely said that no other designer today can match Newson's range. However, Sellers believes that his methods are comparable to those of Jonathan Ive of Apple, who gave the world the iPod. "Like Ive, Marc starts with the concept of working out what's wrong and what's extraneous, then completely rethinking the entire design to the nth degree and specification to make it better. It's about reduction and perfection."

Of all his current projects (another big one to be unveiled this year is a line of ultralightweight, affordable luggage for Samsonite), Newson is especially passionate about Talby, a mobile phone he made for the Japanese company KDDI. It is not outrageously expensive and offers no shockingly new features. It's simply a cleaner, more dignified version of a ubiquitous item. "It would be nice if a single object could change the world," he says. "But sometimes you just have to settle for something that you're not embarrassed to hold in your hand."

Newson Notebook

Stavros Opener 1997 An example of Newson's knack for reimagining everyday objects.

Komed Chair 1996 His chairs have been described as space age and surfboardesque.

Hemipode Watch 1996 Newson enjoys working on technical pieces—watches, for one.

Lockheed Lounge 1986 It won raves in design circles and a spot in a Madonna video.

Zvezdochka Trainer 2004 A limited-edition sneaker for Nike, it sold out immediately.

Talby Mobile 2003 Newson wanted a phone "that you're not embarrassed to hold."

021C Concept Car 1999 A prototype for Ford with simple yet brilliant innovations.

Plastic Orgone Chair 1998 Newson's furniture has few hard lines or sharp corners.

Hotel By Designers

The Hotel Puerta América (in Madrid), scheduled to open in May, is an architectural candy store—each of the 12 floors is by a different designer, and it is an elite cast: Besides Newson are Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, and Ron Arad, among others. Even in such distinguished company, though, Newson stands out because he received two assignments—the sixth floor and the bar. His 30 rooms and suites (illustration below) are instantly recognizable; as with much of his work, the dominant idea might best be described as space capsule. There are no hard corners or wasted space. The furniture, all custom designed for this project, is finished in subdued tones of gray and off-white. "I spend a lot of time in hotels and I designed the rooms the way I want mine to be," Newson says. "I don't want to feel confronted by somebody else's taste. I want a place that works." He brought more theatrics to the sleek little bar on the ground floor, whose main wall he decorated with 400 blades of laser-cut aluminum. The bar itself, lined with skinny, elegant stools, is composed of one 26-foot-long chunk of white Statuario Venato marble. Newson and his team visited a quarry in Carrara, Italy, to select the giant rock themselves. "I'm always looking for something I haven't done before," Newson explains. "That's what keeps me interested."