Marc Newson talks about playing with materials and techniques in some very unusual and entertaining ways
Context is what's new, not materials. It's a constant process of 'relocating'.
Marc Newson's designs have a certain alchemical charm, often involving painstaking attention to detail, incredible patience and a skilful blurring of the line between design and art. His extensive body of work ranges from the Apple Watch to a lounge chair that broke records at auction, and from limited-edition fashion items to homeware and even nautical products. Newson, who is set to join forces with Jony Ive (former Apple chief design officer) for a new venture, held a solo exhibition at Gagosian Hong Kong earlier this year, featuring experimental pieces such as cloisonné furniture, Aikuchi swords and Czech glass chairs. The designer told Perspective about his passion for resurrecting ancient crafts, how he finds 'newness' in context and how bad design helps to fuel his never-ending creative oeuvre.
How did your interest in traditional Asian crafts come about?
I have always felt particularly comfortable in Asia. When I was a child, my family travelled all around Asia, and we lived everywhere, from South Korea to Hong Kong to Tokyo. Later in life I lived in Tokyo. I am a huge admirer of Japanese craftsmanship and of how it is valued in Japanese society as being culturally significant. The Japanese retain and honour their ancient crafts and skills. I am in awe of the incredible mix of ancient and new cultures there. They exist happily side by side and are equally respected.
With the unfortunate demise in crafts – a worldwide phenomenon – I think designers have a role to play in helping to sustain some of these industries. Designers can effectively become the conduit between more specialised and sometimes obscure crafts and the real world we live in. In short, this connection may be one of the last hopes for the survival of crafts.
How do you approach working with new materials?
Context is what's new, not materials. There are degrees of newness in the materials we are exposed to now. Some have been around for years, if not decades – like carbon fibre, composite materials, titanium and so on. 'Newness' means taking something out of one context and putting it into another. Often when I am designing, I take the materials and process from the aviation industry into the bicycle industry or the automotive industry, or the furniture industry. It's a constant process of 'relocating'. As well as changing the context of these elements, I am also trying to do something else with them that hasn't been done before in any context. Like taking a piece of aluminium and playing with it like a piece of plastic. By doing so, I realise a lot is possible.
How was your experience of collaborating with old masters?
I have been lucky enough to spend time with the master samurai sword-maker in Japan, Saburo Nobufusa Hokke, while I was designing the Aikuchi Katana sword in 2015. He is over 85 years old and I felt honoured to observe this superb craftsman in action at his workshop in Tohoku. It was not only fascinating but a huge privilege. Likewise, spending time with the lacquer and wood craftsmen Yuya Susaki and Iwayadu Tanshu. And in China, watching the massively labour-intensive craft of cloisonné. Even though the name is French, the work has always been done in China – really only in Beijing – and there are not many people left who can actually do it.
I am motivated by the kind of anger I feel when I see something that's really badly designed.
Observing dedicated craftspeople – many of them women – who specialise in each part of this kind of mad and intricate process, was humbling. It is almost alchemy because every one of the different colours of powdered enamels pooling in each piece fires at different temperatures, varying by about 200 degrees: a painstakingly meticulous and complicated operation.
What keeps you motivated to do what you do?
I find inspiration in many things – in particular, popular culture – wherever I happen to be in the world; in nature itself; in new technologies and processes; and new scientific discoveries; as well as a desire to improve on what already exists. I am motivated by the kind of anger I feel when I see something that's really badly designed.
Photos courtesy of Gagosian Hong Kong