That is what happened when U2 singer Bono asked industrial designer Marc Newson and Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice-president of design, to hand-pick, customise and design items for the Red charity auction taking place at Sotheby’s later this month to raise money to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.
The duo wanted more than a survey of contemporary design and put together “a wish list of all the objects we would love to have,” says Newson at his home in central London, a spacious contemporary, second-floor loft apartment renovated from an Edwardian postal sorting office.
The list is eclectic, ranging from a one-off Hermes red leather saddle and a white Steinway grand piano with a red inside lid to a red version of the cutting-edge Mac Pro tower desktop computer, unveiled by Apple in June.
Ive and Newson, who do not usually join forces with other designers, created just two pieces from scratch: the Red Desk, a razor-thin aluminium table, that, despite its name, is silver in colour and is estimated to go for between $300,000 and $500,000; and a Leica digital camera, with its trademark red-dot logo, which could fetch anything from $500,000 to $750,000.
Designing an object like a camera involves an astounding level of detail, requiring the same amount of work and engineering for a one-of-a-kind piece as for a production of 10,000, says Newson, who has designed everything from furniture and household objects to jewellery, clothes, cars and aircraft interiors.
So will the Australian-born designer bid for any of the objects he helped to select or design? Given the amount of interest in the camera and the desk, he says, he knows “there is no point to bid for them,” but there are a couple of things he would like to buy.
He has a penchant for space design and would “love to have” the thermal window from the US Nasa space shuttle, set on a custom stand, which could raise between $100,000 and $150,000. He would also consider bidding for the Zvezda cosmonaut suit, which was once worn on a Soviet space agency mission.
The apartment, where he lives with his wife, fashion stylist Charlotte Stockdale, and their two young children, is filled with objects he designed himself. They include the Dish Doctor, a durable injection-moulded polyethylene dish drainer made for the Italian design company Magis; the Voronoi Shelf, a weighty white bookshelf made from Carrara marble; and the funky Felt chair designed for the Italian company Cappellini.
Coffee is served in white cups and saucers, which Newson designed for the airline company Qantas. The cups feel good in the hand and look stable enough to withstand pockets of air turbulence.
“It is nice to have objects you like around you,” he says in his understated manner.
“We are both control freaks in our respective jobs, so I guess that extends right through to the things we like to surround ourselves with. And it is nice to get to a point [financially] where you can do that.”
Newson moved to London in 1997, buying the apartment five years ago. After it was converted to residential use, the place was just “a shell”, he says, so preparing it for family life was “a process of filling it up with things we like”.
The huge dining and sitting area flows into the kitchen – where children’s drawings decorate the wall cupboards – but the two areas can be closed off with sleek, colourful sliding panels. Today the space looks warm and lived in. Off this room is a snug dark wood-panelled library and television room – part of Stockdale’s input to the overall design.
Apart from his native Australia, Newson has lived and worked in studios in Tokyo and Paris as well as London so has “travelled with relatively little luggage”.
That has now changed. “I am 50 this year,” he says, then hastily corrects himself. “I was 50 this year,” so by his own admission has had “a few years to accumulate enough stuff”.
Newson, who works across a broad range of disciplines and materials, believes that design should have form and function. Given that more than half the work that comes out of his studio is for commercial aircraft, “the overriding priority is functionality,” he says.
It is about finding a solution to a specific design problem and putting the pieces together. But he recognises that in some cases the interplay between the two does not sit together and aesthetics can outweigh functionality or vice versa.
About 95 per cent of Newson’s work is commissioned, which means working to a brief, but he sometimes creates pieces for gallery exhibitions when he says he can feel “comfortable with not being comfortable.”
Newson shuns designing on a computer, preferring to carry a sketchbook wherever he goes. He begins with the “ideas in [his] head” then a colleague configures the designs on a computer, using 3D software.
His entire route to industrial design has been far from traditional. His interest in design was triggered at an early age when his mother managed a beach hotel, full of exciting Italian design pieces. Later, he became an art student at the Sydney College of the Arts, studying jewellery and sculpture. Starting out at art college rather than studying pure design has given him a sense of freedom in his work, he says, because he feels unfettered by traditions that he might have found suffocating.
Newson’s first big break came with the Lockheed Lounge in 1986, a fluid aluminium and fibreglass chaise longue, once criticised for being eye-catching but unusable. In 2009, however, it sold at an auction for more than £1m.
Last year Newson was made a CBE for services to design in the UK and worldwide. A show of his domestic and transport designs opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art next week, and he has recently put the finishing touches to a mass-produced beer keg for Heineken, available for use in the home.
“It is to beer what [the] espresso [maker] is to coffee,” he says.
Is there anything left to design? There is “tons of work” in the aviation sector, where Newson has designed the interiors of private jets, and also cabins and fittings for Qantas’s Airbus fleet. He plans to finish a hunting shotgun for Beretta, the Italian gun makers, is “due another show with Gagosian [art gallery in New York],” and has plenty of ideas in his head.
Now that he has teamed up with another designer, perhaps there might be further plans to collaborate? He would “gladly work with Jony [Ive] again,” as it was such a spontaneous experience but rules out doing it with someone else.
Newson heads towards the door to rush off to his next meeting at his studio in the same block, putting on a pair of black high-top trainers, with a Japanese bamboo shoehorn that is at least half his height. He loves Japanese design, “not just the design itself but the whole philosophy behind it. Like any designer, I’m fascinated by the way other cultures find a solution to problems”.
‘Jony and Marc’s (Red) Auction’ takes place at Sotheby’s New York on November 23
Newson has difficulty choosing just one object but turns to a much loved piece in the sitting room, a Japanese tanuki – an odd-looking rotund dog on its hind legs, often called the Japanese raccoon. The squat cedar figure is a good-luck talisman, and Newson regularly rubs its nose or stomach to invoke the forces of good. Newson spotted the tanuki some years ago in Japan, and a friend who lives there, bought it for him as a surprise wedding present six years ago.
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