Marc Newson looks like a laid-back hipster on holiday as he sits in the VIP lounge at Design Miami, an elite, three-day trade fair of high-end contemporary furniture, on view from Dec. 7 to 10, 2006 (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/12/06, "Design Miami: Sun, Surf, and Sales").
The industrial designer, whose portfolio ranges from shoes for Nike (NKE) to a concept car for Ford (F), is slim and gracious, has fashionably longish hair and wears a yellow t-shirt, baggy pants, and rubber flip flops. Although his demeanor and wardrobe are clearly relaxed, Newson is in the midst of a frenzy of media attention, skyrocketing sales, and a bevy of corporate projects.
"Design is about being broad," he says when asked about the wide—and wild—range of projects he takes on. "I'm a gun for hire, a troubleshooter. Companies need me to look at their products with fresh eyes. Nike, Samsonite (SAMC), or Ford have lots of in-house designers. They need someone new, with the point of view of a consumer, as an outside designer."
Although this year he took the position of creative director for Qantas Airlines, he retains his outsider status by continuing to work for other clients such as LVMH Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Swarovski. One of the reason's for his popularity with corporate clients is his halo effect. His design star status lends a "cool" factor that boosts a company's brand image timeliness and trendiness.
Coming Into His Own
He's hardly the first design star to lend prestige to his corporate clients. But what sets Newson apart from his predecessors is that his limited-edition objects are also fetching record prices at auction houses, establishing a new market for high-end collecting that parallels that of the booming market for contemporary painting and sculpture and establishing Newson as a historical design figure.
Earlier this year, his 20-year-old Lockheed Lounge, a curvaceous divan made from aluminum, sold for $968,000 at Sotheby's in New York, setting a record for the highest price paid in history for furniture by a living designer—he was 42 at the time. At Design Miami, all 12 of his limited-edition Chop Top tables sold for $170,000 each—a day before the fair opened its doors to the public. A number of Newson's pieces are about to go up for auction at high-profile sales at Sotheby's on Dec. 15 and at Christie's on Dec. 19—and are expected to sell well.
"He's part of a new generation of designers," says David Revere McFadden, chief curator at New York's Museum of Art & Design, as part of an explanation for Newson's success. "Modernism and industrial design used to produce practical but impersonal pieces. Marc, and other contemporary designers such as Ron Arad, use the process of manufacturing to make intimate objects."
Shaping the Surroundings
They achieve this partly through shape, partly through materials. Newson's Lockheed Lounge, for example, is made from ultra-industrial aluminum, bent and riveted into a voluptuous, body-hugging form that suggests that the seat, with its slick metal surface, is actually quite comfortable and cozy.
This "seductive and tactile" quality, which McFadden notes, is evident in all of Newson's work, from his ultra-high-end furniture to his watches, luggage, and shoes. Their rounded, organic geometries soften the sturdy, often industrial materials he uses.
Although McFadden's institution doesn't have a piece by Newson in its permanent collection—unlike the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and New York's Cooper-Hewitt—the curator has a photograph of Newson's Lockheed Lounge tacked on his bulletin board. "The Lockheed Lounge has had a profound cultural impact.
I think it's so resonant among younger [collectors] because they have grown up in airplane society, and can see the design of an airplane applied to a chair and appreciate the playfulness and imagination of the piece," says McFadden.
Mother of Invention
Born in Australia and now residing in London, Newson admits he never predicted the lounge would be in such demand when he made the prototype in 1986 as a struggling designer. Working by hand, he drew on skills he had learned while studying jewelry design at Sydney College of the Arts to coax aluminum into the soft-looking shapes he hoped to achieve. "That was the only way I could think of doing it at the time. I couldn't afford to make it any other way," he says.
While he now has deeper resources, Newson still likes to experiment with the same hands-on, sculptural process that helped define his signature style of curvilinear silhouettes. He says he applies the fresh shapes that result from the more creative, artistic work he does without a client to projects he completes for corporations with specific and practical parameters.
In fact, he's currently working on free-form chairs and other furnishings for a much-awaited exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York, to be on view from Jan. 25 to March 5, 2007. It's the first major show for a designer at the gallery better known for showing blue-chip artists such as Richard Serra. The show casts Newson as a highly creative force, on a par with leading painters and sculptors of his generation.
"When I make a sculptural object, its shape will carry on to commercial projects. It also works the other way around," says Newson. "In my aviation work, I get exposed to state-of-the-art tech, then I apply new materials and tech to creative projects." Newson's brand of cross-pollinating adventurous, even artful forms in industrial, high-performance materials has largely fueled Newson's popularity among elite collectors and also among makers of goods for the masses. Why? They're sturdy, practical, and durable—great qualities for both archival collections and everyday use.
Beyond the booming prices at auctions and fairs, Newson garnered a 2006 Designer of the Year at Design Miami (an honor that went last year to "starchitect" Zaha Hadid, whose own limited edition furniture has fetched $300,000 at auction) and a 2006 Red Dot: Best of the Best Design Award, a prestigious European prize, for one of his luggage designs for Samsonite.
And this fall he was bestowed with the honor of Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts in Britain (that nation's top accolade in design) for his overall body of work.
But Newson's phenomenal sales records in auction houses and furniture fairs add a new dimension to his career—and suggest a new trend in design. If Target's (TGT) work with Philippe Starck and Michael Graves brought great design to the masses, Newson is leading the charge upmarket bringing industrial design into the rarefied world of contemporary art collectors.