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Midlife Crisis on an Unlimited Budget: Marc Newson’s Furniture for the 1%

Has the great designer lost sight of what it means to make things that matter?

This is what a midlife crisis looks like on an unlimited budget. That was my first thought on seeing Marc Newson’s new show at Gagosian on West 21st Street. Then I realized I was exactly wrong. What Newson needs more than anything is a crisis. Maybe then he could get back to making design that matters.

As most people with even a passing interest will be well aware, Newson has stood at the very apex of design for about thirty years, dating back to 1988 – his annus mirabilis – when he completed a remarkable trio of works: the Embryo Chair, made of polyurethane foam covered with wetsuit fabric; the Wood Chair, 24 slats of timber steam-bent into a curvaceous interlocking form; and most famously, the Lockheed Lounge, also carved from foam and sheathed in a carapace of riveted aluminium.

Portrait of Marc Newson, 2018. Courtesy: Gagosian; photograph: Jorn Tomter

Portrait of Marc Newson, 2018. Courtesy: Gagosian; photograph: Jorn Tomter

These early Newson projects anticipated a general movement in design, away from superficial imagery and toward craft-intensive material innovation. This was particularly true of the Lockheed, which eventually became the prime exemplar of the limited-edition market. Meanwhile, Newson did what designers do, often to brilliant effect. He worked with a range of clients across many industries, often in the luxury sector, but also for mass-market brands such as Nike, Sunbeam and Samsonite. He took on the role of creative director for Qantas Airlines and collaborated with Jonathan Ive on the Apple Watch. In 2013, together with Ive and the rock star Bono, he launched RED, a charity auction at Sotheby’s to fight AIDS in Africa. It raised nearly US$13 million, matched dollar for dollar by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Somewhere along the line, though, Newson’s position at the forefront began to turn him into a human hood ornament. His association with Gagosian, a blue-chip gallery otherwise unconcerned with design, has had a lot to do with this. His first exhibition there, in 2007, was disappointing by his high standards, populated by ‘extruded’ tables and chairs in marble, laboriously hand-carved but curiously inert. The next show, ‘Transport’, in 2010, had some drop-dead gorgeous things in it, including a bicycle for Biomega and a mirrored surfboard. But Newson flirted with the ridiculous in its two centrepieces – a custom-built luxury speedboat and a two-seater jet plane (described on his website as a ‘very personal object’). Given the show’s timing – in the depths of a recession – there was a worrying sense of a man drunk on his own Dom Pérignon. Asked by the New York Times in 2012 what his pet peeves were, Newson replied: ‘Ninety-nine percent of all cars […] Ninety-nine percent of all sneakers. Ninety-nine percent of all cellphones. Ninety-nine percent of all door handles,’ which sounded an awful lot like a designer for the 1% talking.

Marc Newson,  Murrina Low Table Yellow, 2017, Murrina glass, 0.3 x 1.20 x 0.7 m. Courtesy: © Marc Newson and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Jaroslav Kvíz

Marc Newson, Murrina Low Table Yellow, 2017, Murrina glass, 0.3 x 1.20 x 0.7 m. Courtesy: © Marc Newson and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Jaroslav Kvíz

Now, almost a decade on, Newson is back at Gagosian. I seem to be in the minority here, as critical reception for the show has been fawning, but I found the show aggressively complacent, as if its sole purpose were to demonstrate just how capitalized it is possible to be in this inequitable day and age. The works on view, all made at fabulous expense, fall into five categories. The first is a group of glass tables featuring the Murrine technique, in which cross-sections of multicoloured glass cane are fused into a pattern. This process is associated with Murano (the island off Venice) but the pieces were made in the Czech Republic, as were a group of chairs in monolithic cast glass. These are duotone and require lamination of two large glass elements. They are enlivened by lightly faceted exterior surfaces, but otherwise have little aesthetic affect and could easily be mistaken for plastic by the casual observer. Newson has claimed that his fabricator is ‘the only factory in the world that can cast a piece like this’. This may be so, but there is a rich tradition of monumental Czech glass, going back to the work of Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová. Newson’s pieces are technically extraordinary, but they are by no means unique.

Marc Newson, Cloisonné Black Blossom Lounge, 2017, Cloisonne enamel, copper, 0.8 x 1.8 x 0.8 m. Courtesy: © Marc Newson and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Xiangzhe Kong

Marc Newson, Cloisonné Black Blossom Lounge, 2017, Cloisonne enamel, copper, 0.8 x 1.8 x 0.8 m. Courtesy: © Marc Newson and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Xiangzhe Kong

A third group of objects is the most convincing in the show, because they so matter-of-factly telegraph their own status as hyper-commodities. These are pieces of furniture executed in China in cloisonné enamel. Some are flowered, referring to the history of the medium, while others feature a biomorphic ‘orgone’ pattern that Newson considers a signature of sorts. The shapes aren’t much more interesting than those of the glass pieces, though there is seductive beauty in the way the enamel parts at the seams, revealing the copper beneath. Newson has let it be known that Gagosian paid for the construction of an oversized kiln at the factory, outside of Beijing, to fire them and says, ‘there are maybe one or two factories in China that can still do it at this level.’ If they’re so good, maybe they should be credited? Neither their name nor that of the glass factory has been made public.

‘Marc Newson’, 2019, installation view, Gagosian, New York. Courtesy: © Marc Newson and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Rob McKeever

‘Marc Newson’, 2019, installation view, Gagosian, New York. Courtesy: © Marc Newson and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Rob McKeever

At least the sword-maker gets some praise. Hokke Saburo Nobufusa has been designated a ‘Living National Treasure’ in Japan and the fourth section of the show, Newson’s collaboration with him, is presented with great formality in a series of presentation cases. There is worthy intention behind this project, as it was carried out in Tōhoku in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami which devastated that area in 2011. Newson says he aimed to draw attention to the region’s traditional crafts. Unfortunately, in the Gagosian show that message is totally absent. Instead there is a sort of late Tarantino vibe: that of a grown man indulging in adolescent tastes. This is enhanced by the presence of more Newson surfboards, with an accompanying X Games-ish video showing Garrett McNamara surfing a wave in Portugal that is ‘huge, huge, huge,’ according to Newson. ‘I mean enormous, like a skyscraper building.’

We get it: this is a show of superlatives. And that’s a smart strategy, given how willingly the design press repeats unchecked hyperbole. But great design isn’t about the biggest or the best or the most. It’s about problem-solving – and problems are exactly what Newson doesn’t have these days. The magic of the Lockheed Lounge was in Newson’s transformation of everyday materials into something sublime. Even the Apple Watch is an artful compromise between a thousand competing variables. For his next round at Gagosian, perhaps Newson should stop conspicuously consuming other people’s elite skills and instead show that he can still be ingenious on the cheap. It’s a humble suggestion – but at this point in the great designer’s career, a little humility would go a long way.

Main image: ‘Marc Newson’, 2018, installation view, Gagosian, New York. Courtesy: Gagosian; photograph: Rob McKeever

Glenn Adamson is Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, and the author of books including The Invention of Craft (2013).

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