The Psychological Complexity of a Design Genius

“Is There Anything Marc Newson Hasn’t Designed?” The titular question of this New York Times article is a fair one. Being arguably the most prolific industrial designer in the world, Mark Newson has designed a bevy of wildly successful products ranging from cars to chairs to toys. In an extensive exploratory piece, Times writer Chip Brown delves into the career and psyche of this design prodigy through a narrative style as he follows Newson on a pair of meetings fitting of his stunning diversity – designing a children’s rocking horse and a military-grade shotgun.

“The way I work is to try to get the idea out of my head,” he said, picking one of the charter-service-lunch petit fours off what he said was a vacuum-formed plastic plate. The French Alps were gliding past in the window. “I’ll be daydreaming in a taxi or in front of the TV, sometimes just staring into space, being quiet, but in my head I’m building something. Ideally I have the finished object in my head.”

When Newson, 48, was a child and first began to exhibit the obsessive tendencies that characterize most great designers, he was entranced by the space-age utopia of the Jetsons, the early-1960s television cartoon about a family who zipped around in personal aerocars. Modernism and the idea of the future were synonymous with the romance of space travel and the exotic materials and processes of space technology. Newson’s streamlined aesthetic was influenced by his Jetsonian vision of the future, a future that didn’t pan out and left him, years later, conceding ruefully that “the future isn’t futuristic anymore.”

But in some ways the shapes of that world live on in Newson’s work, much of which reflects his irritation with the seemingly inexhaustible supply of badly designed products. I asked what bugged him most. “Ninety-nine percent of all cars,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of all sneakers. Ninety-nine percent of all cellphones. Ninety-nine percent of all door handles.”


Statements like this disavowing of the work of most designers could only ever be made by someone as cryptically brilliant as Newson. While this statement would be arrogant and rude coming from almost anyone else, in this context it is simply an honest extension of the neuroses that make Newson such a fascinatingly talented designer. This peek into the thought process behind his pursuit of better design is what makes the article a riveting read.

As a practical matter it’s easier to list what Marc Newson hasn’t designed than what he has. “I know he hasn’t designed a washing machine or a bra,” said his press director, Patsy Youngstein, one of about 10 employees in his studio, a white-walled loft in a renovated Edwardian building in central London that was once used to sort mail.

The has-designed ledger includes tables, chairs, lights, watches, mirrors and faucets. Also necklaces, luggage, pans, sunglasses and, of course, Newson’s remedies for the headache of most door handles, sneakers, cellphones and cars. His O21C concept car for Ford was named for its orange Pantone color number. His one-off Kelvin40 personal jet — as Jetsonian as anything he has ever done — was commissioned by the Fondation Cartier in Paris. He has designed bicycles, boats, snowboarding jumpsuits and jet packs. He once did an interior of the Lever House restaurant in New York, now closed. A recording studio in Tokyo. The shoe boutique in Azzedine Alaïa’s Paris store. While he mostly goes from project to project for a broad array of companies, he has had a steady gig for the last five years as the creative director of Qantas Airways, where he completed his biggest project, designing everything from cabin lighting and seats to coffee cups and cutlery for the airline’s fleet of A380 Airbus jets.

In some sense this dizzy profusion of design jobs can be traced back to a nutmeg mill that Newson found in his mother’s kitchen 36 years ago. At the time he was a space-crazed 12-year-old growing up Down Under — a self-starting apprentice in mid-1970s do-it-yourself Australian culture who didn’t yet have strong feelings about door handles but liked nothing better than to make stuff in his grandfather’s garage. The nutmeg mill came from the catalog of William Bounds, an American company that has been turning out kitchen accessories since 1963. Inspecting it, Newson was amazed to find a tag line that the founder, Bill Bounds, flush with enthusiasm for the nascent American space program, engraved on the base: “Made on the Third Planet From the Sun.”

“I hadn’t considered there could be an emotional entity responsible for an object,” Newson said one day last spring over lunch near his London office. “Objects were made by machines; machines don’t have emotions. But the nutmeg grinder had wit and humor, and the phrase on the base gave it a kind of lightness that showed the designer’s confidence and said the person who conceived it was proud enough to imbue it with his personality. It was just so cool.”


A simple setoff for such a renowned career. Following the explanation of his variety of work, the contrast between Newson’s professional practice and first nutmeg mill inspiration is drastic and engrossing.

I asked if he sometimes felt personally assaulted by the riot of mediocrity.

“I’d put it this way,” he said trying to be diplomatic. “I’m constantly being reminded of the opportunity that exists to improve designs.”

His eye drifted to the small flaws of the pepper mill.

“O.K., assaulted,” he said.

What distinguishes Newson’s career as much as the range of products is the diversity and imaginative application of the materials he uses: steel, aluminum, marble, shagreen, carbon fiber and polyethylene. He has upholstered chairs with surf-suit neoprene and once spent three months in Bangkok learning to work with wicker. He often employs materials used in the aerospace industry, like the borosilicate glass of his Ikepod hourglass, which he filled with stainless steel “nanoballs” instead of sand. And he often treats traditional material in untraditional ways. The Voronoi shelf, with its tessellated patterns derived from the diagrams of the Russian mathematician George Voronoi, was extracted by stone saws from a five-and-a-half-ton block of veined white Carrara marble; the massive honey­comb structure has the incongruous delicacy of filigreed lace. Where mahogany or teak might typically be employed, Newson decked a speed boat with a material called micarta, made from layers of linen laminated with a phenolic resin, commonly used for knife handles. Every Australian manufacturer who reviewed the design for his 1988 Wood Chair declared it was impossible to make; Newson eventually found an artisan in Tasmania who was able to realize its hairpin bends in Tasmanian pine. The chair is now part of the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Newson’s most celebrated works, like his aluminum-clad Lockheed Lounge, are limited edition “design-art” pieces whose aesthetic reputations have outstripped their practical purpose. His 2007 show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York marked the first time the influential venue featured a living designer. For the past several years, Newson has ranked first among contemporary designers in auction sale revenues, with nearly one-quarter of the market. His work has been incorporated into the permanent collections of at least 23 museums.

“To me, Marc is like the Picasso of design,” says Reed Krakoff, the creative director of Coach, who owns about a dozen Newson pieces. “He integrates design with the techniques of his time, but the technique doesn’t become the design. He’s clearly one of the great design minds of our time.”

“I think Marc is fairly peerless now,” said Jonathan Ive, who met Newson 15 years ago in Japan. “Marc’s forms are often imitated, but what other designers seldom imitate is his preoccupation with materials and processes. You have to start with an understanding of the material. Often your innovation is just coming up with a new way to use material.”


That’s legendary Apple designer Jonathan Ive calling Newson peerless. This comment gives scale to the scope of Newson’s design influence. It also shows the extent of the top-tier design network. The people operating at this level in the design world have developed a great sense of respect and camaraderie for each other.

Having inspected his bunk bed and his rocking horse, Newson headed for the Italian city Brescia, putting up for the night in a converted Benedictine monastery where he was met by Nicolas Register, his longtime design associate, who had flown in from London.

In the morning they wound their way along the iron-rich hills of the Val Trompia to the palazzo headquarters of Beretta, the Italian gun and hunting-­accessory company that first made gun barrels for the armory of the Republic of Venice in 1526. Fifteen generations later the company is still run by the Beretta family. A delegation of Beretta designers, marketing experts, product managers and technical specialists accompanied Newson and Register into a conference room where the walls were hung with paintings of loyal bird dogs and startled pheasants. The lights were dimmed and Register put up some 3-D technical models of Newson’s shotgun, a double-barreled version rendered with his sleek signature lines.

Suffice to say that designing a shotgun is akin to staging a ballet in a phone booth, and most of what Newson could do entailed making subtle changes on the surface of a mechanical apparatus that has been essentially unchanged for at least a hundred years. The discussion in English and Italian was scrupulously technical; after two hours I was mercifully invited to tour the company museum. Newson was scheduled to depart at 1 p.m. Register would be staying on a few days to work out engineering details for the prospective design. As we headed to the airport in Brescia, I asked Newson how in less than 48 hours he could zigzag from bunk beds to rocking horses to a shotgun.

“It’s just mental calisthenics,” he said. “The only difference is material and scale. It’s the same métier. You just apply the same logic to many different things. It’s what keeps me sane. I’d go insane if I had to do the same thing all the time.”
We talked awhile on the plane, but he seemed eager to rest. A white-cloud armada escorted us over the Italian countryside. Two hours later, descending above south England, the plane began to lurch violently in turbulence. Before we touched down southwest of London, Newson, who had been dozing, sat up but otherwise seemed unruffled. Perhaps his Australian nonchalance was physiological — he once pulled seven Gs without throwing up during a paid joyride in a MIG-29 jet.

I spent my last day in the studio paging through proofs of Newson’s retrospective book, all his creations complemented with early photographs of him at work and sketches from his yellow notebook. Eugenio Perazza, the head of Magis, had remarked how well Newson’s designs aged — they looked fresh, unlike so much postmodern stuff. What struck me was how much the Jetsonian vision of the future, which had captivated Newson as a kid, now seemed suffused with nostalgia. Meet George Jetson! His boy Elroy. . . .That old vision was steeped in the innocence of Newson’s boyhood, his youthful excitement about a nutmeg mill, his thrill at opening design magazines from abroad. It harked back to the naïve optimism of the 1960s, when air travel was glam and space exploration conjured pioneer boldness, rather than weary cynicism about the costs. Perhaps it even harked back to the frontier character of Australia, where Newson marshaled his ambition and talent and escaped the clutches of a parochial life. He rocketed to success beyond anything his mother anticipated for him; he lived and worked all over the world; he modeled clothes for Comme des Garçons and posed naked for Karl Lagerfeld’s camera, certifying beyond all doubt his status as a cosmopolite. And yet home is home, and a George-and-Elroy remnant of what he was when he was there striving for his future is part of everything he has made.

What made the nostalgia seem even keener was something that happened in the car when we were heading into London after the flight from Italy. Newson’s iPhone rang. Ive was calling to tell him about the death of Steve Jobs the night before. Newson listened as Ive tried to convey how moving it was to be in the room with Jobs and his family during the last moments. And how strange it was to be driving home afterward, hearing the great apostle of design eulogized on the radio by the president of the United States. Newson listened and commiserated and said a few of the usual things. Did it seem hard, all of a sudden, to put so much faith in the idea that nature never makes a mistake? When he lay the phone down, he was quiet for a long time. The outskirts of London rushed past the window. It was in the car with us, whatever it was — his friend’s sorrow or the finiteness of life and the mystery of its inscrutable design.


A sobering end to the article. The comparison of the mystery of life to the mystery of design bears some discussion. Although a stretch as a metaphor, perhaps its not as far off as it initially seems. Design truly is a complex puzzle, an endless pursuit with no clear victory. The processes of simplification and beautification are what drive Marc Newson, and this inherent need to improve everything is the catalyst that will fuel the remainder of his already influential career.


Is There Anything Marc Newson Hasn’t Designed?

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