An object lesson from the master
Is there anything Marc Newson hasn’t designed? As we sat in the Design Museum in London’s Shad Thames on a humid summer evening, perched on the Jetson- style Orgone chairs he knocked up in 1993, surrounded by the latest in a series of G-Star Raw collections he has rolled out every season for 10 years, with the man of the hour wearing said collection and a watch he designed for Jaeger-LeCoultre, it seemed an obvious question.
Shoes (for Nike), aeroplane interiors (for Qantas), pens (for Hermès), surfboards, spectacles, sofas, perfume bottles, beer kegs – all are off the list. Not for nothing is the Australian-born Newson one of the most influential designers in the world. In 2009 he also became one of its highest-paid, when his Lockheed Lounge chaise-longue was sold for $1.6million (£1million), breaking all auction records for a living designer.
So what’s due a makeover? “Well, the world of automobiles I just find completely heinous. Really, really horrible,” he says in a soft Aussie accent, leaning forward semiconspiratorially. “I have old cars” – a Fifties Ferrari, a 1959 Aston Martin DB4 and a yellow 1969 Lamborghini – “but I rarely drive them anywhere. I must confess we do have a s----- Peugeot peoplecarrier thing that I really hate going in. But car design, ultimately, is driven by marketing, by people that are not designers. And it’s just a completely sort of myopic approach.”
Picking holes in things is part of Newson’s creative process. “One of my biggest sources of inspiration as a designer is basically looking at things and hating them,” he says, good-naturedly. “I have other designer friends who feel the same way, like [Apple’s senior vice president of design] Jony Ive. We’re always sitting there going, ‘God, that’s horrible, that’s so s---’. Sitting there, ranting about what we hate. And it sounds really negative but actually it’s sort of not – because if everything was great, then we wouldn’t have a job.”
Luckily it wasn’t hatred that drew him into conversation with Jos van Tilburg, the founder of the Dutch denim brand G-Star Raw, in 2003. “He simply wanted to talk to me about the possibility of doing something together,” Newson recalls. “And I made it very clear that I wasn’t a fashion designer, and had no intention of being a fashion designer, didn’t want to be.”
They concocted an idea for a micro-collection of garments based on workwear, and 10 years on, it’s still going. “It’s a tiny collection, certainly in the world of G-Star, which has grown incredibly. But there are people that buy this,” he says, gesturing blithely at the racks of clothes on show behind us. “It’s got a kind of cult following all over the world.”
The stand-out piece in the 10th anniversary offering, and Newson’s favourite, is a silver silk bomber jacket covered in patches that commemorate each of the previous collections. It’s the kind of jacket a John Hughes high school hero would kill for – but it looks equally good on Newson, who is a slight, floppy-haired 50. “I’ve always been conscious as a male consumer of clothing that it’s much more difficult for men than it is for women. I can wear a tailored suit, but on an average day I’d want to wear this.” He tugs at the stripy T- shirt and stiff grey trousers he’s sporting. “I’ve sort of inadvertently designed myself a uniform.”
He’s no stranger to the fashion scene, partly by virtue of being married to one of its chiefs, the stylist Charlotte Stockdale, currently fashion director at Garage, the style magazine owned by Roman Abramovich’s partner Dasha Zhukova; the couple have two young daughters. Newson thinks the traditional design world has a lot to learn from fashion. “What [the fashion] industry has, and my world doesn’t, is this incredible sense of speed. It’s brutally efficient.” He cites Azzedine Alaïa as a true creative – “because of his understanding of and appreciation for how things are made” – and Hermès as one of his favourite brands.
Incidentally, he’s just designed a pen with a retractable nib alongside the Hermès creative director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, who recalls discussing the project with Newson: “When I told Marc about the pen, the first thing he took out of his pocket was a Capless from the Japanese company Pilot. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was the only pen my father used.”
Newson says it was “a significant coincidence” and talks animatedly about the mechanism. “All of this pen’s subtlety derives from the way it works – there’s nothing technological about its appearance. But it’s hiding a mechanism that’s part genius, part magic.”
There’s an advertising slogan in there somewhere, but it would be too twee for Newson. “My day job is not this – my day job is a classical occupation: I’m an industrial designer.”