For many people who grew up during a certain time, the future looks like “The Jetsons.” The 60s-era cartoon chronicled a lovable eccentric family, complete with plenty of wisecracks and a dog named Astro. It was standard sitcom fare, but placed in a future where the family station wagon was replaced by the family spaceship, everyone lived in glass pods in the sky and housemaid robots co-existed peacefully with humans.
Australian industrial designer Marc Newson was entranced by the Jetsons as a kid. With his artistic proclivities, he loved the cartoon’s vision of the future: clean, swooping modernist lines and proportions married with the modern romance of space-age travel, materials and technology.
As Newson grew to adulthood — and became of one of the design world’s top stars along the way — he grew increasingly disappointed as the future he eagerly awaited never happened. The Jetsonian blend of seamless form and function — elegant, modern and even Zenlike — never became mainstream, disappointing Newson. “The future isn’t futuristic anymore,” he told the New York Times in 2012.
But Apple comes closest to creating that Jetsonian sense of the future, with its sleek iPhones, iPads and iGadgets. Apple and Newson have been mutual admirers over many years — Newson enjoys a close friendship with Apple’s own Jony Ive, head of industrial design and human interfaces. But this fall, they’re made their partnership official: Newson is joining the Apple fold, to work on “unspecified projects” with the Cupertino company.
Many in tech asked how Apple will raise the London-based designer’s profile and broaden his influence, speculating Newson was brought on to consult with the company over its recent Apple Watch. But those in the design community know it’s Apple who’s “marrying up” in the deal. In Newson, Apple works with a world-class industrial design talent at the top of his craft and field, widely respected for both the depth and breadth of his talent — and who can help the company make the leap from a tech company to a true lifestyle brand for the masses.
Apple makes phones, tablets, DVRs, mp3 players and other portable gadgets. Newson, however, has designed almost everything that can possibly be designed: planes, sunglasses, doorstops, cookware, airport lounges, storefronts, chairs, necklaces, sneakers, mirrors, clothing, cars, bars, record shops, spaceships, cameras and more.
Many say it’s easier to mention what Newson hasn’t yet designed — according to his press secretary, the only things he hasn’t applied his eye towards yet are washing machines and bras. In a field where many industrial designers work from corporate briefs and specialize in particular industries or materials, Newson’s range is astonishing, even for an experienced, well-seasoned talent.
In addition to the dizzying array of objects he’s created, Newson also works with an astonishing range of materials, spanning steel, plastic, neoprene, aluminum, marble and everything else in between. He works with traditional materials in unexpected ways — upholstering chairs in surf material neoprene, for example — or uses strange and unorthodox components in place of what’s expected. He once rendered a marble shelf in a lacelike filagreed honeycomb pattern, making the normally massive, bulky material unexpectedly delicate and fragile-looking.
Nearly all his work demonstrates a commitment to modernist elegance and streamlined, seamless proportions. In his best work, parts flow seamlessly into other parts — a tabletop seems to melt into table legs, for instance, or the back of a chair eases into a seat. Newson’s work looks both harmonious yet distinctive, and is often inspired by nature — chairs and tables look like cells in mid-evolution, and athletic shoes vaguely resemble mitochondria, for instance. An object may be humble and ordinary — a fork or spoon, or a simple child’s toy — but Newson’s work takes the opportunity to make it beautiful, even magical.
His unconventional approach to materials, as well as the broad range of his objects, points to a kind of protean curiosity, an artist’s approach to transforming ordinary, mass-produced objects into something extraordinary. This artist’s approach built Newson a reputation for genius and innovation.
And it’s paid off in acclaim and renown not normally seen for industrial designers: his work is featured in museums like the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he also published a massive 600-page volume of his collected works with renowned fine arts publisher Taschen. Amusingly, many of his designs betray the continued influence of “The Jetsons” in his imagination, including one of his most iconic furniture designs, the Lockheed Lounge.
But the cartoon wasn’t the only early influence on Newson, who early on showed creative and artistic promise as a child. The young Newson was born on October 20, 1963, in Sydney, Australia. His parents — Carol, a 19-year-old, and Paul, an electrician who was a year and a half older — were young and inexperienced. Soon after his birth, Marc’s father left his wife and young son to fend for themselves. Newson’s father did not stay in contact with his son during his life.
Newson has rarely addressed the personal impact his father’s absence made in his life, not even with his own mother, according to the New York Times. But Newson seemed to thrive nevertheless. Newson’s mother was creative herself: she attended art school and loved fashion, and worked at an architectural firm where she absorbed the latest news and trends in design. She once took Newson out of school for a year to travel the world when he was 11, fanning his sense of curiosity and wanderlust.
Her taste also inspired the young Newson, giving him the idea he could be a designer. One of his seminal memories, according to the New York Times, centers around a nutmeg mill made by American housewares company William Bounds in his mother’s kitchen. Looking it over as a child, Newson discovered a tag line, “Made on the Third Planet From the Sun,” engraved on the object.
“I hadn’t considered there could be an emotional entity responsible for an object,” Newson told The New York Times. “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.” Newson realized he make a similar imprint upon the world as a designer, too.
His grandparents and uncle, too, were strong influences upon the young artist. Newson’s grandfather, for example, encouraged the boy to learn how to make things from scratch. Under his guidance, Newson spent hours taking apart and putting together watches, radios, bicycles and airplanes in his garage.
Newson’s formal design training began in college, where he studied jewelry design at University of Sydney. Newson originally wanted to make furniture, but the school didn’t have a specialized department for the discipline, so he chose jewelry making for its practicality.
“I ended up concentrating in the jewelry department and graduating in jewelry design. Not because I had any interest in making jewelry — it was simply the only department in the art school that actually taught you how to do something,” Newson told Interview magazine. “All of the other departments, like sculpture or painting, really weren’t at all interested in teaching specific skills. It was very esoteric. In the jewelry department, there were tools, workshops, people to teach you how to build things. That’s really all I wanted to know — how to make stuff.”
Studying jewelry, Newson learned solid skills like soldering, brazing, welding and stone-setting. He also gained an up-close appreciation of materials, studying their innate natures and experimenting with their manipulation. He also learned that designs aren’t complete until they interact with human bodies and movements, as well as how to work on a small scale — a rarity, he says, for most industrial designers, who often are trained to think and approach problems on a larger scale.
After graduating from school in 1984, Newson won a grant that allowed him to design chairs for a professional exhibition, exploring the line between furniture and art. “I set about making a handful of furniture pieces, which were really verging on sculpture,” he told Interview.
Most of his designs didn’t sell or snag much interest, except for one — a curvy, streamlined lounge clad in aluminum that looked straight out of “The Jetsons,” but whose sinuous lines recalled French classicism. Dissatisfied with the execution of the design, however, Newson redid the lounge before the sale, taking six months to shape the block of polyurethane that formed the structure of the piece, which he then re-covered in riveted aluminum.
Newson knew it was a fresh, original design, but the chair was simply too expensive to make unless he was commissioned. Over a decade, he managed to make less than 20 models of his lounge, which he christened the Lockheed Lounge, after the plane.
But one of those models found its way to design guru Philippe Starck, who tipped off superstar hotelier Ian Schrager about the lounge. Schrager bought one for his glamorous Paramount Hotel; the Lockheed Lounge even found its way as a star prop in Madonna’s “Rain” video.
But more importantly, it began to sell as the art market heated up and the chair’s rarity worked to its advantage. In 2006, a Lockheed Lounge sold for $968,000 at Sotheby’s in New York. Four years later auction house Phillips de Pury in New York sold one for $2.1 million — the highest price ever paid for the work of a living designer.
Newson’s reputation at the intersection of fine art and design began to soar, and soon the designer found himself landing commission after commission. He also began to wander the globe, relocating from Australia to Tokyo to Paris and then to London, with time in between spent traveling and studying — he once spent time in Bangkok, for example, learning to work with wicker, according to the New York Times.
“I can’t deny that I love traveling. It’s a very healthy thing to be able to appreciate other cultures–or at least witness them firsthand,” he told Interview. “And all of that goes into helping someone be a good designer, because it’s an international business.”
As Newson rose in prominence, he worked with a variety of clients and projects, and became the creative director of Quantas Airlines, for which he designs interiors, uniforms and other details. But even before their official partnership, one of Newson’s most prominent collaborations was Apple-related. He teamed up with the company’s Jony Ive to work on a few objects for U2 vocalist Bono’s (RED) charity initiative in 2013, to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa. Their collaboration included designing 8k-carat set of solid rose gold Apple EarPods, a red Mac Pro and a beautifully retro yet futuristic Leica camera. They also designed a one-off desk whose surface featured 185 interlocking pieces of aluminum melded together seamlessly.
The two, who were friends previously, found they enjoyed working together, with similar tastes and pet peeves. “We didn’t even have to vocalize our pet hates, we were so in tune,” Newson told Vogue. “We only have to look at the object and look at each other and our eyes roll.”
Ive was an admirer of Newson for years, long before they met in the late 1990s in Tokyo, a city they both love and admire for its blend of ancient traditions with futuristic modernity. “I think Marc is fairly peerless now,” Ive told the New York Times. “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.”
Certainly, both designers have an almost traditional reverence for materials and the hands-on processes of making objects themselves. Both also aren’t “design evangelists,” who take one approach and philosophy about design in the world. Instead, both designers focus on each object or project as an education in and of themselves, bringing a Zen-like “beginner’s mind” to each new initiative.
“Whether it’s a camera, a cellphone or a toilet, every project is like getting a university degree,” Newson told the New York Times. “It was long after art school that my design education really began, because a huge part of what I do is engineering. I am completely self-taught. Sometimes I laugh because even now people ask what my qualifications are.”
But the men diverge in significant ways when it comes to the roadmaps of their careers, developing different strengths as designers. Ive — who enjoys a close relationship with his father, who fostered his early interest in design — spent most of his career with Apple, where he’s made his most significant work. Apple is renowned for its focus and appreciation of design — Ive’s design studio is run like a self-sufficient oasis from the rest of the company, with access to the sanctum guaranteed only to a select few.
But as Apple looks to expand its reach beyond phones and mp3 players, it needs to bring in voices and talents that diversify its thinking beyond mobile technology. It needs experienced talents that reference a wider range of experience — designers who can think and conceptualize at different scales, bringing in new insights into how actual human bodies use, interact with and experience objects.
Designing a phone or a laptop requires a different approach from designing a television, for instance — you need not only to think about how the TV works as a piece of technology and an entertainment experience, but a significant piece of furniture in a living space where families and friends commune around. The aesthetic consideration, often shunted off to the side as an afterthought by more corporate companies, is where Apple makes it mark apart from its rivals. Who else but the world’s most lauded, peerless industrial designer would be better for that job?
Newson comes onboard at a time of transition for the company, whether or not it admits to it. Not only is Apple still finding its way and carving out a reputation after the death of iconic CEO Steve Jobs, but it finds itself as a crossroads moment in the mobile technology market in general. It’s not enough anymore to be a phone or tablet maker, especially in a saturated market where nearly everyone has a phone. Connected technology is finding its way into all pockets of life, whether it’s the so-called “smart home” movement or wearable tech.
Right now these ideas are still fledgling geek ideas, dazzling in theory but wonky in execution. Early adopters cottoned onto the Nest home thermometer, for example, but other ideas — like the so-called “smart TVs” that many hoped would catch on — failed or remained niche.
Apple, despite its reputation for innovation, has never been a company to be first out of the gate with a new idea or concept. Instead, its modus operandi is to wait, see and perfect: to look at the mistakes and assumptions other companies have made about mobile phones, for instance, and then improve upon the design and look-and-feel in some way, infusing it with an imitable ease and elegance. Apple remains mum on what forays it will attempt in emerging markets, but it likely has its eye on these trends and will attempt its own take on them once consumers jump onboard.
Apple likely won’t be the first company to make a smart TV, or a connected refrigerator — but it will try to make the most modern, elegant, beautiful smart-TV on the market if it does. And by bringing on a top design talent like Newson onboard — a designer whose imagination and skill is protean, surprising and modern — it attempts to guarantee its degree pedigree is second to none.
In fact, Newson is just the latest jewel in a string of hires that amps up Apple’s retail and design cachet: the company has also hired Nike’s Ben Shaffer, former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts and Paul Deneve, the former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent. These creative-conscious choices show Apple is still banking on intuitive, modern, ineffably elegant design to be the difference maker in the market in years to come.
Indeed, both Ive and Newson are fervent in the belief that distinctive design creates its own market.
“I think now more than ever it’s important to be clear, to be singular,” Ive told Vogue, “and to have a perspective, one you didn’t generate as the result of doing a lot of focus groups.” That singular vision requires equally singular talents, and with Newson on board, Apple is betting big on design to keep it at the top.
While famously tight-lipped, Apple’s first consultation with Newson likely involved the new Apple Watch. Apple certainly wasn’t the first company to make a smart watch, but it’s a natural first start for Newson, taking him back to his smaller-scale early training in jewelry. Apple is working hard to turn Apple Watch into a fashionable cause celebre with Newson’s help, trotting out the product at exclusive fetes during Paris Fashion Week.
In order to do that, the Apple Watch — and other forays into connected tech beyond the typical phone and tablet — must not only be a solid gadget, but a beautiful object in and of itself. Many are intrigued by the watch’s ability to pack a lot of software onto a simple watch — with everything ranging from mobile payments to health care monitoring.
But Apple also wants you to focus on the tactile, ineffable quality of it: the way it feels both solid and light on the wrist, the soft but solid way it snaps onto the wrist. This luxury-like level of attention only comes from putting the world’s top designers on an equal footing as engineers.
Newson’s collaboration with Apple — defined by both as part-time — won’t likely stop at watches. With a designer as versatile as Newson, the sky is the limit when it comes to this collaboration. But as Apple ventures into more lifestyle objects infused with technology, Newson’s input will be invaluable in helping Apple retain its cachet and edge.
No matter what Ive and Newson get up to, it’s sure to be meticulously elegant, startling and with an air of premium quality. And it will certainly expand the influence of one of design’s great minds and talents. With Apple’s reach and leverage, it looks like the futuristic gleam of “The Jetsons” so beloved by Newson will get one stop closer to material reality. ♦