PROFESSOR SIR CHRISTOPHER FRAYLING: Marc Newson’s work as a designer has touched and indeed touches the V&A at many points. Design art, postmodernism, one-off pieces that tell tales, Milan in a Van, even Cold-War modern, in that Mark has a love of the sets of Ken Adam for James Bond and Dr Strangelove, something we share, and indeed for the spaceships of 2001.
The chairs we’re going to be sitting on for this conversation are in fact Mark’s chairs for the Qantas first-class lounge, made in Italy. And a big Manhattan collector of his work has said that the thing about his chairs is that not only they are beautiful and comfortable but they make you feel horny as well.Well time will tell ladies and gentlemen, I’ll let you know in 50 minutes. And talking of time, Time Magazine recently named him in one of those lists, one of the hundred most influential people in the world. Not designers, people.
Will you please give a very warm welcome to Marc Newson.
You’ve designed right across the spectrum, coat hangers to jet aircraft…
MARC NEWSON: Yeah
C F: We are going to see both…
What’s your line on specialists versus generalists, you know there’s one faction that says you should train, you know furniture designer and that’s what you do for the rest of your life but you haven’t done that, you’ve moved into all sorts of different areas. What do you feel about that?
M N: Well to begin with I never trained really… in a particularly specific way. I went to art school and I …decided to concentrate on jewellery. But I concentrated more on making jewellery rather than on designing jewellery. So … and as you have pointed out I’ve drifted across a very, very broad range, I mean I think just about as broad as you could possibly be. I mean there are not many things that I haven’t tried to kind of address. Not because I want to address or not because I want to tick all of those boxes but because I think as a designer you…really the metier is the same. And you know you’re dealing with different materials, you’re dealing with different …different scale obviously, that’s a big differentiator. Different processes, different materials, different techniques, but, but really that’s for me that’s what design is all about. It’s being able to kind of you know learn from one area and… and sort of cross pollinate. Take the expertise that you’ve picked up from say designing a sneaker and apply it to let’s say the luggage industry.
C F: And would you say that drawing is at the root of everything? Cause you’re famous for manically sketching all the time, ideas, anything that comes into your head. Is that the root it? Whatever you’re doing?
M N: Well, I’m… I’m more comfortable certainly drawing than I am working on a computer, let’s put it that way. You know I find that you know I’m very much a kind of, you know, I work in a pre-digital way. But my sketches are not the typical kind of designer sketches. You know again I didn’t learn how to draw with sort of, you know, wonderful big sort of Pantone,… you know Pantone pens and things, you know my sketches are like thumbnail sketches that I draw with you know with a fountain pen. And my drawing book is like a diary of ideas, so. But it’s really just a means to an end and it’s a way of recording ideas, it’s not, you know I don’t chase ideas.
C F: Yeah, yeah.
The other big issue in design today is this in house versus consultant that… you know most of my students at the…at the Royal College hope as was had the ambition to set up on their own as consultants and sell their services across the piece. And the idea of working in-house for a company is very unsexy, you know for better or worse. And people like James Dyson would have said it’s more fun than it looks…
M N: …Unless you’re Johnny Ive
C F: Yes, well exactly, Johnny Ive for Apple is a very good example.
What do you feel about it well in fact you’ve done both?
Well, in fact you’ve worked for yourself, you’ve worked for companies like Alessi and Qantas, I mean and you’ve worked on commission. You’ve done all of them. What’s your take on that?
M N: I’ve worked for big companies in a slightly different capacity, always as a consultant, so I’ve always managed to maintain my own you know sort of autonomous…ness, I guess, and…and so interestingly a lot of large organisations engage me when they have their own design team. And they find it somehow necessary that someone from outside the design, from outside of their design world can come and…and try to solve their design issues in a slightly different way, you know look at it from a different perspective. So…I’m not sure if I’d say one is kind of better than the other, I know what I’d rather be doing. I’ve never worked for anybody, you know on a…on a salaried basis, so I don’t think I could ever do that.
C F: But when you’re doing Qantas say, say you’re doing the interior of this, you know, huge passenger aircraft. You know there’s health and safety, there’s bureaucracy, there’s all sorts of things that come in which you know you’re making a Lockheed Lounge, knocking it up in some workshop is a very different experience. I mean how much creativity is left when you do something like a Qantas aeroplane?
M N: Oh not much, you know I would say probably 5%.
C F: I would have thought a bit more than that actually.
M N: Well yeah, but this is terrestrial. So you know when you’re in the air, you know, designing aircraft seating like this for example, it’s…I mean there’s not a hell of a lot you can do. You know I’ve done about as much as I think as you could possibly do in…in a design like this. Never the less I think it’s important to be done. You know I think it’s far more important to do it in an aeroplane than it is on earth because people spend, you know, because people are obliged to spend extended periods of time in aeroplanes.
C F: It always looks so good in the brochure doesn’t it.
M N: It does yeah, I know. They took a few seats out to do that shot, yeah.
C F: Also you’ve said, ‘I’m a geek and all designers should be geeks’. What do you mean by that?
M N: Maybe I meant that all the designers I know are geeks.
C F: Was it to do with how things work, taking things to pieces, having that detailed sense of…
M N: I think maybe when I talk about being a geek I talk about being sort of being obsessional and although I think I probably was in denial for a number of years I now realise that I am truly obsessional. And I don’t think that you can be really, you know design, good design for me is all about that, it’s all that, it’s all about the detail of course, it’s all about how things are made, it’s all about quality, it’s all about production, materials, techniques. And you’ve really got to kind of be obsessed with all of those things in order to understand how they all work together. And I just, you know, I don’t think you can be sort of sloppy with design, you know, everything has got to kind of mesh, everything’s got to work, everything’s got to fit together.
C F: And it’s a certain turn of mind about process and detail and how things come together. We’ll get to your training a little bit later on about whether that was always the case and indeed when you were growing up. But let’s for now… let’s start with the Lockheed Lounge because this was the thing that made your name and has had this extraordinary afterlife.
You had graduated from Sydney College of Arts, having done jewellery, although eccentrically you exhibited furniture on a jewellery course.
M N: Absolutely, yeah.The only reason I did jewellery, as I said before, was because maybe I wanted to learn how to make things and, and the art school that I went to like most art schools, was really slightly esoteric. And they didn’t really teach people how to physically do things. The only department apart from sort of printmaking and ceramics was the jewellery department. So that’s why I did jewellery because I could actually learn how to physically make things. I could learn how to weld, I could learn how to solder, I could learn the difference between brass and copper and stainless steel and mild steel. You know, I could learn how to rivet, I could learn how to set stones. You know, I could learn about real things and really that was all I wanted to do. And I never made jewellery in the jewellery department but I did make furniture. And I sold it to the lecturers because I was able to, you know, jewellery departments are usually pretty sort of odd places.
C F: Tight, usually much tighter than that, they expect you to do jewellery.
M N: Well, you know, my argument was that furniture’s as much about the body as a piece of jewellery is so, you know, they bought that, hook, line and sinker.
C F: Sounds very convincing.
M N: It was big jewellery really.
C F: Yeah, yeah…and then you, you leave and you, you know you sort of do, do various casual things but the breakthrough is you get an exhibition at a gallery in Sydney.
M N: That’s right, yeah.
C F: And you made this Lockheed Lounge for it.
M N: Absolutely, yeah.
C F: Can you tell us… I mean the process, because I gather it started off with cutting up foam, then you make a mould and then you cover it in aluminium.
M N: The whole process was something that I learnt….in… a lot of it learnt when I was studying the jewellery, but a lot of it I’d learnt before that because one of the things about, that you learn…Australia’s very much about do-it-yourself. It’s a kind of DIY culture and… in a lot of ways it’s a very kind of inventive culture but you really have to do it yourself. There’s really not that much industry that… well certainly nothing near… I mean if I had been an Italian designer I don’t think I ever would have done this because, you know the amount of industry that you have at your fingertips. But it was built a bit like a surfboard and it was the actual internal shell was made in… in much the same way that you’d make a surfboard, which is to sort of carve a foam shape, cover it with fibre glass and then you had a rigid plastic form. And it was a very fast… it was a very immediate way of realising a shape simply. I wanted the thing to look metallic and the only way I could think of doing that was to cover it in tiny pieces aluminium. I mean, They were as big as they could be because I couldn’t physically get them to bend around a three dimensional shape if they were any larger. They’re all attached because I didn’t want to glue them and that’s kind of why the thing ends up looking the way it does.
C F: Right. And then you chose the name Lookheed as a sort of industrial aviation reference?
M N: Yeah, they still haven’t contacted me about that but…
C F: I’m sure they will….
M N: Yeah.
C F: Lounge, it’s interesting because in Australia a lounge is a synonym for a sofa?
M N: Yes.
C F: It’s interesting that because I’ve never come across that because over here a lounge is like a living room.
M N: Like a room, yeah, there you go.
C F: Because when I first read about the Lockheed, I thought he’s designed a living room.
M N: Yeah, no.
C F: The Lockheed Lounge… So you have this exhibition… and about a year later, we’re now in the mid 80s… you’ve got a wooden chair, Tasmanian Oak, which you also, I think, exhibit…
M N: …pine actually.
C F: Pine, sorry.
M N: Yeah, I designed at that point in my career I was really obsessed with the idea of designing and building furniture because …it seemed to me the perfect expression of, or well maybe not the perfect, but a very logical expression of design. A lot of architects and designers had chosen the form of a chair, or had used… the form or had a chair as a medium with which to express an idea and I thought you know it was a great place to start.
C F: Why is that do you think? Why is it that designers always want to have a crack at a chair? You know I always used to say to the students …. John would be interested in this…..I’d always say, you know the students cause they always want to have a go at a chair and you think guys there’s so many bloody chairs why don’t you do something else. But the chair is the big high ground you’ve got to have a go at.
M N: Yeah, perhaps it’s because it’s a sort of human invention, you know it’s sort of a compromise standing and lying on the floor. You know it’s a kind of an essential object like a wheel in a way. But you’re absolutely right…
C F: …it’s the high ground you’re competing with the whole history of design when you take on a chair.
M N: Yeah, absolutely, and so that’s why, that’s why I did it. I designed a number of chairs, you know twenty years ago. Like this, you know a whole slue of pieces… trying to kind of address that very issue. But they were very much about form as you can see and materials…The wood chair obviously trying to use wood in a slightly interesting way, the embryo chair… the one that was before this.
C F: Felt, is that a Joseph Beuys reference?
M N: It was originally, yes, because this chair was made of felt originally and I subsequently made the same chair in fibre glass.
C F: There’s a very funny thing. There was an imagined TV programme made last year about you and you’re in your apartment and here’s the felt chair which’s looking rather worse for wear because your cats had a go at it.
M N: That’s right, I …
C F: …if you have a felt chair…if you have a cat in the house and you have a felt chair it’s very tempting I would have thought.
M N: Absolutely.
C F: Expensive mistake that one but…
M N: …Disaster.
C F: …Yeah, and a style begins to emerge through these chairs. You know this rounded sort of organic but industrial look…
M N: Yeah.
C F: …of the first phase of your career I think.
M N: Yeah, this kind of odd, sort of hourglass shape which I sort of refer to as my orgone shape. I was inspired by Wilhelm Reich,
C F: Yes, yes.
M N: And his kind of orgone, various orgone contraptions.
C F: Yes, yes, well, I was mentioning about your chairs and their reputation earlier in the introduction…
M N: …absolutely yeah, keep your socks on.
C F: Yes, well it’s not working yet, but anyway. But you did… sometimes with these chairs you do a sort of one off piece for exhibition and at that stage, and then a couple of years later you do a batch model of it, or a different version of it, you revisit it so that it’s, say a limited edition… which is quite interesting, you kind of revisit your own work, but in a different medium.
M N: Yeah, there are these themes that sort of tend to reoccur…you know throughout my, well for years really. I mean, this is one of the pieces that is I guess could be considered a piece, you know it’s a sculptural piece of furniture I suppose that…
C F: …I love the inside/outside thing with that.
M N: Yeah, well…
C F: The inside is very much a part of the design as well.
M N: Yeah, it is something I was always particularly obsessed with in my work and something I think I picked up, one of the things that I, maybe the only thing that I picked up when I was studying jewellery and I designed a whole series of pieces that were you know as much about the inside as they were about the outside. But it’s…again it’s the kind of obsession with detail and the obsession with the way things are made that… really you would have to…think as much if not more about the way things are built…and the things that you don’t see.
C F: It’s a table.
M N: These pieces are all made from aluminium, which is a material… you know a metal that I particularly like using. But it’s one you know, one point four millimetres thick and they’re completely made by hand and welded together and in a kind of painstakingly built. But they came from production pieces, the production pieces that you saw before.
CF: Which was the, which one was the one that you put stretch fabric on, skin diving, you know the very thin skin diving material that gives the, that gives that kind of…
M N: …This piece, the embryo chair and it’s… Again, I designed and built that when I was in Australia and there weren’t an enormous number of sort of upholstery, interesting upholstery fabrics available. So I simply upholstered it in wetsuit fabric which was commonly available. So it was very much about trying to use materials and technologies and processes that were available.
C F: But it adds to this sort of sleek, industrial, science-fictiony look that you were developing at that time I think.
M N: Yeah, probably subconsciously as far as I was concerned…you know this was the direction that I was just headed and I didn’t really stop to think about you know why I was doing it.
C F: Yeah, yeah. And then the Qantas… material which we’ve seen. I read a thing a couple of years ago about how a lot of the great innovations in furniture design have come through cars and planes and even railway seats. You know the ergonomic research that has to go into those has had a huge influence on as it were the civilian market. And certainly you have to think out the function of the chair in a much more direct way. I think when you’re dealing with obviously an aircraft cabin, than you would have to when you’re doing a sort of gallery piece.
M N: Oh, completely, I mean, yeah, there’s absolutely no question that, you know there’s no, it’s fifty times more complicated to design something for an aeroplane than it is to design something, you know for a sort of terrestrial environment.
C F: Yeah, and this is I think, is this the only Australian client you’ve ever worked for?
M N: Yes, ironically, yeah. It’s sort of my biggest client and the only Australian client that I’ve ever had.
C F: Cause as we’ll see you’ve worked in Tokyo, Paris, also London, all sorts of different places, but this is …
Did they approach you or did you approach them?
M N: They approached me originally and to design the very first programme that we worked on in 2002 which was what was referred to as the Sky bed. Then I actually won a…I guess, I won a sort of bidding process or a tender to design all of the interiors for this A380 Aircraft which was a project that lasted for about seven years. And that’s pretty much been the focus of my involvement with Qantas, you know designing really the entire interior of their fleet of A380s and they have the second largest fleet of those in the world, they’ve got twenty-two, so it’s quite a big, yeah it was a mammoth task.
C F: And a brave thing for them to do in a way to entrust this incredibly complex design thing to you. I’m not saying that you haven’t shown, as we’ll see you’ve done other transportation projects, but it’s a hell of a thing to take on.
M N: It was a crazy thing for them to do in a sense. I mean when you consider the kinds of people I was competing against, you know the sort of tried and tested designers that work in the industry. But you know we did it and of course I have a team that I work with. Not a huge team, we’re about ten people, somewhere between ten and twelve people, sometimes more, but …and we were able to work with airbus, you know throughout this project, so you know from the moment, you know these aircraft didn’t exist when we started working on them. You know they were very much on the drawing board.
C F: Yeah, yeah…Let’s move onto transportation then, obvious link. The, the first thing you did I think in this area was the concept car for Ford.
M N: Yeah…
C F: …One of the first, which is having its tenth anniversary this year.
M N: It is.
C F: And I think we should explain that this is a concept for a car which is sort of inspirational rather than a production model. The idea was wasn’t it of giving you the idea of a car and they’d send it over to Deer Bourne to Ford and it would inspire thoughts about car design, which is quite an interesting concept.
M N: Well there’s…you know, a huge history of automobile manufacturers designing concept cars. It’s what they do at the big car shows you know, they present their concepts. This actually works, I mean it’s a real you know, it’s a functioning vehicle… however it never went into production so it’ll always be a concept car. But yes, it was…it was made for the…it was presented at the Tokyo Motor Show and then it went to the Detroit Motor Show and it kind of did the full…it did the full circuit of car shows.
C F: Jo Maise, the sort of creative director at Ford said a very interesting thing about you. He said “In a world of sameness you’re different”.
M N: Well I came up with this idea of the kind of the…
C F: …The boot coming out…
M N: …Of the draw boot, which is kind of partially ripped-off by somebody but not very well.
C F: And the doors open fanning out…
M N: Yeah, that of course had been done before but not on such a small car. It was an absolutely miniscule car, the wheel base was smaller than… the smallest wheel-base that Ford had you know in their fleet. I even got to design the tyres at Pirelli…so…
C F: …Gosh…
M N: Yeah, that’s kind of how real it was I mean, you know. The idea was really …
C F: …and the dashboard, what I love about the dashboard is that there’s hardly anything on it. You know, usually they look like some space ship but you’ve just got a couple of …
M N: …Well my…
C F: …Dials and a few knobs.
M N: My kind of thinking here was to sort of demystify the whole… you know cars are very complex. They’ve gotten increasingly more and more complex and so I just I really wanted to try to…
C F: Isn’t that great…
M N: Yeah, but that’s all…
C F: …So simple…
M N: …That’s really all you need. The good thing about, the interesting thing about this concept was that you know it could easily be right and left hand drive, there was actually no, there’s no, there’s very little tooling that has to be modified. You know that’s the number of controls that you have.
C F: …No I love that. Jo Maise said that when it arrived, you know he said why haven’t people thought like that before, you know it was just one of those why not situations really that you’d done. So it certainly did its job I think in getting…
M N: Yeah it won the car of the show at Tokyo and where it was presented and so it was very well received.
C F: Then the Falcon jet, a business, a sort of private jet, and you did the interior of that.
M N: Yeah, this was the first private jet that I designed and subsequently ended up doing a huge amount of work in the aviation industry, both commercial and private. But this was the first of several private jet interiors and liveries that I did. But this was you know well over ten years ago now so it’s ended up becoming the sort of mainstay of my business really designing aircraft…you know things to do with aerospace.
C F: And then that’s everything, the seating, the carpets, the livery, the colour scheme?
M N: Yeah, I mean, everything you can see on the inside.
C F: …And then, very strangely a concept jet. Now this is…this was new to me. The Cartier Foundation for whom you’ve done I think a sculpture before, created a sculpture, asked you to produce a concept jet that’s never going to take off but shows off the Foundation Cartier…and I was reading and you called it Kelvin, which is a reference to Solaris.
M N: Well, reference to the scientist and to the film.
C F: Yeah, and to the film…and there was a wonderful catalogue where the great French philosopher, Paul Virilio no less, I think this is really class mark actually wrote an essay about how you’d invented a whole new concept, the fictitious object, which looks like it’s functional but actually doesn’t do anything.
M N: Yeah, well…
C F: …And this was it.
M N: And it took the Cartier Foundation to you know commission the thing. It was a very, very bizarre project. I mean I thought if the automotive industry can design concept cars why can’t the aviation industry design concept planes? I mean there are a lot of good reasons why they wouldn’t do that but I thought why not have a crack at it. I approached a number of aerospace companies and they all kind of laughed at me. And I went to Cartier, well in fact the Cartier Foundation had come to me and wanted to do an exhibition and for years I couldn’t think about what to do because you know the Cartier Foundation is, is very much a place that exhibits art you know and I’m a designer, so I was still slightly at odds with that… that issue. And I said, “Why can’t you help me design my concept plane and… we’ll exhibit it in an art gallery and we’ll make it all about the context of this object and they loved the idea”. Subsequently all of the aviation manufactures came running and wanted to be associated with this, so people like Dassault, the French jet engine manufacturer Schenkman. I mean it’s actually got a real jet engine in it. And we did all of the wind tunnel testing.
C F: It’s such an extraordinary idea. It’s a piece of engineering in an art gallery.
M N: It was a…fantastic!…
C F: …Yeah, I know, I think it’s really interesting.
M N: Yeah, and this was, these are just some shots from the wind tunnel testing that we did.
C F: Were you disappointed it never took off?
M N: Well I never really thought it would to be honest with you. I mean, you know you’d have to be a kind of crazy or a very rich person to want to kind of fund a project like that. But it could have flown…you know we did as much as proving it…it could fly. I mean it really, it was as good, you know it was a virtual, real thing, you know I didn’t need to prove that it could fly cause I knew would cause we did all these, you know, fantastic computer simulations at the, at the…the largest aeronautic institute in France, and because I’d come from the Cartier Foundation they did it all for free.
C F: Fantastic… And then an even more ambitious piece of aviation, your sub-orbital rocket…The first piece of tourism into the zero gravity of outer space.
M N: Well, not the first.
C F: Isn’t it?
M N: Well, actually no one’s done it yet. No one’s actually…
C F: …it’s never actually gone up, but it isn’t it the first to have been designed?
M N: It’s never gone up. It’s a number of sub orbital concepts, space tourism sort of concepts that were launched simultaneously… most of which have fallen by the wayside.
C F: This is for EADS, the European Aeronautical Development
M N: …Defence…yeah.
C F: Defence, yeah.
M N: In a, more specifically it’s for…here I can play you a little animation. More specifically for a company that’s owned by EADS called Astrium. Astrium is the largest European manufacturer of launched vehicles, i.e. rockets. EADS also own Airbus. So they have a… unlike any of the other players in this industry they have a… expertise in aircraft and rockets. So that’s a kind of unique combination…and they came…they approached me because of …what they’d know about me in the aviation business, the aviation interior business…to design the interior of this thing. But I ended up designing more than that, I mean this is a full scale mock up, but designing actually the entire exterior of the nose. In fact it’s everything from the rear pressure bulk head forward… I mean everything behind that is rockets.
C F: And the interior, I mean, part of it is the seats that move as you go into these different atmospheres and as you take off and everything, so you never actually leave your seat during takeoff until you reach weightlessness.
M N: Yeah…well in fact you can’t… Yeah, I mean you’re experiencing a huge number of Gs when you’re…
C F: And then when you’re weightless there are those little yellow things to hold onto. You think of everything… so everyone’s floating around and you can grab hold of these things.
M N: Absolutely, you just kind of navigate yourself around the…you know you navigate yourself around the cabin.
The point about the, the way that these seats work is that … most seats in aeroplanes are seriously, heavily actuated, which means that there are a number of electronic motors, pneumatic mechanisms that you, that move the seat in any particular direction. The risk for failure of any of those mechanisms is immense and as I’m sure you know that they often do fail. If it failed in an environment like this it would be kind of catastrophic. The other thing is you know, so what I did was devise this kind of hammock system which essentially enables gravity, the weight of your body control your orientation relative to the direction you’re going in. So there are no actuators, so basically you’re sitting in a kind of hammock that tilts and the reason they’re in that position is because I wanted to maximise the internal volume of the cabin, because that’s what you really care about when you’re up there. You’re only up there for a number of minutes and the last thing you want to be doing is kind of you know bumping into seats when you’re floating around.
C F: You get great views to actually, there’re lots of windows which I guess will be part of the trip when people do it.
M N: Absolutely, I mean it’s all of a, you know ironically… the one thing that they probably won’t remember when they get back to earth is the interior of this. You know it’s all about what’s happening you know outside. I mean people just want to look out the window.
C F: Have you booked your seat yet?
M N: Well, yeah I have, absolutely.
C F: First time it goes up.
M N: Absolutely.
C F: Ok, let’s just before we open it out to the audience, final section really which is objects and interiors. Interiors as Mark mentioned you’ve done interiors, for boutiques, hotels, shops obviously departure lounges and so on…and I thought it would be worth looking at one or two of those.
M N: I’ve done a number of retail environments…and hotels…and things like departure lounges, commercial environments, interiors. This was a very small project that I did for a fashion designer in Paris and this is really more of a kind of what I would call a boutique interior. I mean a lot of, the way that I design interiors is really to think about them as objects rather than interiors…rather than an architect would think about them I’d think about them, the way as an industrial designer would think about them. So for example this interior was built offsite completely and then shipped and assembled, so I knew exactly what it was going to be like. And that’s kind of very much like …
C F: What’s the material?
M N: Marble.
C F: It’s marble.
M N: Yep, yep… Which is exactly…
C F: So it’s carved. You chose your marble…
M N: Well I do a lot of, a lot of the pieces that I designed and that were exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery…I’ll just, sorry…this is against the rules, pieces like that are made out of a solid piece of marble.
C F: Yeah, yeah, yeah… it’s wonderful, I mean imagine it in the block and it was Carrara wasn’t it?
M N: Yeah, it’s all Carrara. I tell people that I’ve developed a way of thermoforming marble…a lot of people believe that which is incredibly interesting, but then you know there are sort of slightly more ambitious interiors, for example a very large lounge which is where these chairs were designed, or what these chairs were designed for. This was a first class lounge for Qantas in Sydney and these have been rolled out in a number of other cities around the world. But this was the sort of flagship lounge and it was actually a large construction that was built on top of the airport and as you can see…
C F: …fantastically comfortable actually…
M N: …yeah, yeah, what’s really cool about this is that you sit there and look out these windows and the A380 parks up right underneath you, so you sort of go out and straight down and into the plane, so it’s very kind of George Jetson but a lot of fun.
C F: And then, finally, objects, things, right across the piece from luxury items to these everyday things that I’ve described… luggage, Samsonite.
M N: Yeah, and I’ve worked with a lot of different companies like Samsonite, designing things like luggage, and you know cookware, toilets, sanitary wear, shoes. I mean you name it but this was an entire range of products for Samsonite that were launched in 2004. I’m not sure if they’re still available but they were for a number of years.
C F: You might have sold one or two in the audience tonight actually, yeah, yeah. What about your Nike Cosmonaut Trainers?
M N: Oh there’s a fun…oops…
So in about 2000 I was approached by Nike to design some, well to collaborate really. People only ever contact me when they want to collaborate, they’re never very specific about what they want to do, but in the case of Nike it seemed kind of obvious. And I was going, …I’d been invited to Russia by the Russian Space Agency a number of times, I was absolutely obsessed with sort of Russian technology and I designed these shoes for the cosmonauts that were going up in the international, that were about to go up in the international space station. And the idea is that they’re kind of convertible shoes. Basically you wear the booty when you’re inside of the international space station in a sort of a zero gravity environment, where you’re just sort of bouncing around, cause I’d witnessed sort of, I’d met cosmonauts and they basically said that they just wear socks which didn’t seem very cool but they also have to exercise a lot, well obviously you exercise, in fact well exercising in space is much more important than exercising on earth because otherwise your legs kind of drop off and then…you know I sort of sold this idea to Nike that we should design shoes for the Russian cosmonauts, hence the name Spencedogka, which is the name of one of the dogs that went into space and hence this kind of convertible shoe. There’s no glue used in the production of this shoe the inner sole is held into this outer casing, just by the sort of the studs that sort of depress through the outer skin.
C F: Are these still available?
M N: They’ve just re-launched them actually in a sort of series of different colours. But they were never sort of widely, you know they didn’t make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them, I think they were sort of produced in their tens of thousands and unfortunately they never went into space because it was at the time when the Russians started taking space tourists up and then you know a little bit of a rift developed between NASA and the Russian Space Agency and Nike being an American company were forbidden by NASA to sort of you know endorsing any products that went into space. But they may yet go up.
C F: Let’s whiz through mobile phone, cult object now.
M N: Yeah, I’m still actually working on a number of mobile phones for, only for the Japanese market…and, well…it’s here somewhere…
C F: …yeah, where was it, yeah.
M N: There it is. So this phone was launched in 2003 in a series of different colours and at that time, or this is before the iphone so, long before the iphone actually…and it was the first mobile phone that I’d developed and it was only available in Japan, it only utilised Japanese technology, unfortunately and it’s still being used by people in Japan. It’s become a bit of a cult object actually, people still use these and I was also sort of able to have fun with the graphic user interface…
C F: Animals…
M N: Yeah, you could chose this little sort of animal menu instead of you know the sort of stupid kind of icon that’s supposed to describe something mechanical… you know or the mail icon that is…
C F: …yeah, what was the…what does the kangaroo represent?
M N: …well that’s the thing, you had to kind of read Japanese or either or memorise the animal. But I could navigate my way through not reading Kanji very well. Just by remembering what the kangaroo did. So when you touched each one of these icons they kind of do a 360 and spin, but that was, that was kind of fun. You can do that in Japan.
C F: Mundane object… coat hanger?
M N: I’ve done lots of mundane objects but…
C F: Just to represent all of them really.
M N: A coat hanger designed for an Italian company. I’ve worked with a lot of Italian companies, Italian manufacturers as most designers like me have.
C F: Yep, yep, and finally before I go, your necklace, because at last you’re designing jewellery, which you trained for all those years before, and perhaps keep this on the screen while we, yep, yep.
M N: Yeah, this was a sort of an unusual project. I was approached by Boucheron whose a fairly well know jeweller in Paris to design something. Again they wanted to collaborate but weren’t specific about what they wanted it to be and I think they were expecting me to do some kind of a Faberge kind of you know object. But I thought well I think I’ll just try and tackle jewellery head on and design a piece of jewellery and I’ve always been inspired like a lot of designers by fractal theory and this is very literally inspired by a particular subset of, of the Mandelbrot set and as you can see it’s a pretty complex piece. I think it’s made, it’s made from diamonds and sapphires, there’s one thousand, over one thousand four hundred diamonds and sapphires and it took them about four or five months to make.
C F: Why Julia?
M N: Well the Julia is the name of the subset. It’s called the Julia set and it was a…Julia is the surname of a French mathematician.
C F: You’re very good at these titles you know, I must say, they always carry several meanings.
M N: Julia’s not quite as exotic as Mandelbrot but… no…
C F: The Mandelbrot necklace.That would have been quite something.
M N: …But no yeah, I know.
C F: Ok, let’s allow a chance for five or ten minutes to ask some questions from the audience. And there’s microphones wondering around. Who’d like to…yeah the very back there you are, having walked all the way down, the back there in the middle.
Audience: Alright, Nick Jewbert’s (jeubert) Nurture….( ), as a creator how much do you think you were born with and how much do you think that you learn? What’s the percentage for you?
C F: Did everyone get that…nature and nurture, how much, how much was it in the genes and how much through your environment, your design?
M N: Perhaps sixty, forty, maybe if I had to put a figure on it. Maybe sixty percent nature and forty nurture.
Audience: Could it be less, could you be born with a small amount and learn to do these types of things?
M N: You mean could it be less nurture…
Audience: Where could you learn that creativity or do you think you have to be…it has to be something innate, something inside you?
M N: Honestly, I think there’s a… yes you can certainly learn a lot, but I think there’s a limit to how much you can learn about doing certain things. You can learn about materials and you can learn about processes and you can learn about techniques, but I don’t know how easy it is to learn…you know, in some ways it’d be like asking you know how easy would it be to learn how to be a painter and I’m not sure how easy that would be.
C F: It’s in the genes isn’t it cause we’re going to talk about this a bit later we were, but your uncle and your grandfather were by your account real tinkerers, you know in the garage, you know taking cars apart, doing sort of home, as you mentioned DIY, sort of Sydney DIY set. And watching them as you were growing up it was something you did, just routinely. Taking things to pieces, working out how they worked and making materials do things. So that’s in the genes obviously.
M N: That, to a certain extent I think that’s in the genes, but you know I had not been able to witness that taking place I’m not sure if it ever would have ever been sort of nurtured.
C F: Yeah, yeah…You didn’t have a great art teacher at school?
M N: No, infact, no I didn’t. I…
C F: Usually people say, if it hadn’t been for Miss P… I …
M N: I actually had a terrible art teacher in school and I think that kind of drove me perhaps even further. I hate to think what would have happened if I’d had a good art teacher, actually.
C F: Are that’s interesting, she would have constrained you do you think?
M N: Yep, yeah I think so, yeah I think it developed a sort of healthy sort of disrespect for
C F: Yeah and you’ve said that design is very often to do with frustration…
M N: I think it’s completely…
C F: …Finding things that don’t work.
M N: It’s all about frustration, yeah, in fact I think to a large degree creativity is a lot about, you know, what you don’t like as opposed to what you like.
C F: That’s a kind of bloody mindedness in a way, as part of it.
M N: It’s a, it’s what kind of drives me to want to sort of do things, you know, I’m surrounded by things that I kind of don’t really like the look of. Objects, you know.
Mark Jones: I was wondering about how important making was for your designing, I mean you started as a maker.
M N: Yes
Mark Jones: Was that kind of optional or a matter of chance or do you think it’s really important to understand how things are made if you’re going to be a designer?
M N: I think it’s ah, I think it’s absolutely essential, now more so than ever because it’s so easy to make in a virtual world now. I think that’s a very dangerous, there’s, it’s potentially a dangerous thing. I mean computers are a wonderful thing, a wonderful tool, but they’re only a tool and I place huge importance on the ability to, you know to understand how things work and you know how to build things. I think it’s enormously important for designers to be taught how to make things.
Mark Jones : So would you say that art schools have headed off in the wrong direction? I mean you were saying that when you were at art school that you had to kind of go into it and it wasn’t really yours in order to get your hands on making and my impression is that art schools have moved since that time further away from making.
M N: Perhaps, and I think you know that perhaps there is a distinction between art schools and design schools, but, but certainly in design schools I think that you know that there’s perhaps you know more time could be spent teaching people how to make things because it’s …you know, most importantly you know you’ll discover that as a designer when you confront industry for the first time. And you know you’ll be very quickly sort of you know laughed off, you know out of the factory if you can’t, if you don’t know how something’s done. It’s very easy to be …you know just kind of palmed off.
C F: Yeah, yeah, and you seem to have this ability to find also if you can’t make it to find people who can. For example your panel beating, I mean a lot of that metal which you started off as riveting but ends-up as a single piece of metal is the Aston Martin panel beaters, yes?
M N: …Absolutely, yeah, yeah…
C F: …and you bought Pagnol and they do a lot of that metal work. And to find you know this group of people who still do panel beating in that way, that can do really high end bending of metal.
M N: Yep
C F: …Which is what you’re after all along.
M N: Yep
C F: That’s, that’s a remarkable talent. You sniff’em out, you find them all over the world, people who can do these things.
M N: Well it’s really the fun part about what I do. You know it is kind of all about as I keep talking about materials and processes and techniques. I mean all of this stuff is out there, you know it’s interesting because people talk about new materials and you know I’d love to know what a new material is in a way. I mean a new material in design is, is really a material that for me that has been taken out of one context and used in another…you know that’s kind of more new than any type…
C F: …And you make things do improbable things in a way…Metal does improbable things, but you find someone who can do it.
M N: And the fact that they’ve been doing it for close to a century…
C F: Sure, making DB 4s and things.
C F: Yeah, well, you know long before that. So I mean it’s all about industry and…and a lot about craft as well.
C F: Another question, at the top there.
Audience: Ah that was a very casual aside about working with the Russian space industry. How did you happen to, to just get into that? And what was the experience like? I was originally going to ask you about the experience or possible culture clash with large companies that had their own either design ethos or design departments, but, well the Russians could be quite difficult.
M N: Well in fact I was obsessed with Russian, particularly obsessed with Russian sort of space, Russian technology in general, Russian aviation, aerospace technology and Russian space agency. And so I went and somehow, when in Moscow I was introduced to someone that worked at the Russian space agency, sort of befriended them and made contact with a number of people in the Russian space agency and they were very, very approachable. I mean you couldn’t do that with NASA, I mean I think half of, they probably thought that I was one of those people that was going to pay twenty million dollars to go into space and they were sort of humouring me. But, but I met one guy who worked for a company called Svesda. And Svesda’s the Russian company that manufacture all of the EVA you know suits and basically space suits. They make all the Russian space suits and he’s the one that I got talking to about the shoes and he said “yeah that’d be fantastic.” And the thing about the Russians is that it’s a ‘can do’ kind of attitude and of course they’re on a financial level, they’re sort of slightly less fortunate I guess than the Americans. But when I suggested that I was working with Nike and that I could design a shoe that their cosmonaughts could wear in space, I mean they thought it was an absolutely fantastic idea.
C F: In fact there’s a photo of you I’ve seen inside a chunk of the space station, not in, not in the air but down on earth…
M N: …Yep… well that…
C F: …Where you’re chatting to one of the cosmonauts.
M N: That was in star city, yeah, that’s a replica of the, well actually it’s a training module for the Mir Space Station. And I was chatting to a guy called Sergei Krikalyov, who’s the cosmonaut that has spent the most time in space. So, it’s a really it was an odd thing, I still kind of pinch myself about that, I wouldn’t call it collaboration, but…
C F: …Yes, being in the right place at the right time again.
M N: You know I was invited to three launches in, in Baikonur, ofyou know the habitation module for the space station, the first crew of the international space station. And yeah it was very interesting…
C F: …Another, time for one more. Yeah, here we go.
Audience: I wanted to ask you who are some of the artists and designers from the past that you particularly like?
C F: Who are the artists and designers from the past that Mark particularly rates?
M N: Well certainly from the present, or recent past, someone like Johnny Ive, from Apple, I’m a huge, a huge admirer of his work. Artists, slightly more difficult, I mean I have a number of artists whose work I like or movements that I like, Art Povera is a favourite period of mine, people like Piero Manzoni or Luca Fontana.
C F: Going back further in history astute historians of art would have perhaps notice that the Lockheed Lounge was distantly related to David’s painting of Madame Recamier…
M N: …Yeah, well that’s…
C F: …On her chaise-long…
M N: …Loosely inspired by that, by that, by that painting.
C F: …Well I think that that’s always nice that David ends up as the Lockheed Lounge.
M N: Well one of the good things about art school is that you have to study history and you don’t do that in design school, so.
C F: …And another one of your early pieces was a homage to a nineteenth century French cabinet maker.
M N: Absolutely…Andre Gruer.
C F: Right
M N: In a very literal homage, I mean, those two pieces were designed and built around the same time, ’86, ’87. And they were very much designed as sort of homage’s to, in one case the work of a particular person and in the case of Lockheed Lounge to a particular, a painting of David.
C F: Yeah, yeah and more recently we’ve talked about Beuys and the felt chair and so on and so there’s quite a range. Ok, can I ask you Mark just a couple of finishing up questions there. You’ve moved as we’ve seen from being a one man band as we’ve seen in the mid 80s in Sydney, doing your riveted metal in a sort of garage. We haven’t talked about surfing… but never mind.
M N: Good…yeah, let’s not.
C F: To working for a major airline where as you say you’ve got an army of people working with you and an army of regulations to navigate. In what sense…do you still feel the author of your work or do you feel at one removed from it now?
M N: …Yeah no I, I do, I feel completely very much the author of my, of my work. I don’t feel that I’ve had to make to many compromises and I, and in any case compromises is sometimes a necessary part of…of what I do, so I think you know I’d like to think I embrace compromise. But no I feel quite content that I’ve, you know…
C F: No you do, I mean there’s a distinctive look that, that comes through absolutely everything that…that you do but you somehow manage to keep that individuality in the most corporate of circumstances, which is, which can’t be easy…
M N: …And…
C F: …Must be a bit of a battle …
M N: …It is, it’s a complete, a total struggle. It’s always a struggle espec(ially)… with the more corporate clients it’s, it can be sort of soul destroying, but it’s, it is really a constant struggle. I feel like I’m constantly fighting. But bizarrely they keep asking me so…
It’s funny you talk about surfboards cause I just remembered a surfboard that I designed for an exhibition that I had with Larry Gagosian a couple of years ago. I’ve never been a very good surfer but I’ve always loved surfing and I designed a surfboard for a guy called Garret McNamara and he does this thing called tow-in surfing. Have you heard of that? The biggest waves in the world, like sixty-foot waves.
C F: Madness, madness, complete madness…
M N: …And I designed this surfboard with a particular process that I’d discovered making furniture so I thought it would be quite fun. That’s the surfboard that I designed for him…. So he’s quite a nutcase this guy. But he can only surf these, these waves on this surfboard because it’s a solid, not solid, well it’s a nickel surfboard it’s made of an aerospace grade of a nickel cobalt alloy. And the reason is because any other surfboard would snap in half. So that was just quite a fun…there is music to this but….
C F: I can imagine.
M N: But that was a real life application of one of the kind of nutty sculptures, you know the materials that I’d made it from.
C F: But there is this culture in Sydney I imagine of DIY surfboard makers and people who lovingly create these sort of surfaces on their surfboards which is part of your formation.
M N: Yeah, yeah, well it is DIY by definition. I mean the surf industry, you know surf boards are not manufactured, it’s the wonderful thing they’ve just evolved and they’re still made by people in, in, no longer in garages but they’re made in you know small batches…always by hand. So I got to go and hang out with him in, I think this was in Tahiti and just sit in a boat and just watch the guys film him.
C F: Absolutely astonishing…
M N: It’s much better with the music.
C F: Well no it’s pretty good…Finally, you’ve had studios in Sydney to start with, then a small sort of garage in Herne Hill.
M N: Yes
C F: Then Tokyo,
M N: Yep
C F: Then Paris. And now Paris and London?
M N: Well, I did have a studio in Paris until last year but now I’m solely based in London.
C F: Right, so of all those environments that you’ve worked in which is your favourite?
M N: I think on a… all things considered London’s probably the best place that I’ve worked, I mean it’s just by far the most practical, I mean Paris is a great place to live and a very enjoyable place to be but working there is not that easy on a kind of bureaucratic level. Tokyo, you know is an incredible place but you know I was there a long time ago, about fifteen years ago, so…
C F: …Yep…during the boom times.
M N: Yeah, in fact that’s pretty much when I left.
C F: Well Mark, it seems to me, I mean having seen your work and talked to you and met you before that you’re operating on various frontiers of design I think. Obviously sculpture and function, exclusive and mass production, large and small, engineering and craft, art and design, very complex and very simple. And it’s a really interesting place you are, I think, you’re sort of treading this line between all those things and if you’ll forgive me I’m reminded of the lyrics of the deathly song, of the Urban Spaceman by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Some of you may remember that, ‘I wake up every morning with a smile upon my face, my natural exuberance spills out all over the place. I am the urban spaceman’.
Thank you very much Mark.
Mark Jones: Good well can I just thank you both. Thank you Christopher, thank you Mark, I think London is very lucky to have you and I hope you keep on fighting the good fight because the range of designs is simply dazzling.
Most importantly the drinks are downstairs. Thank you all.