How Marc Newson extended his shelf life
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“I wouldn’t consider myself a collector but, you know, I’m 57, been around for a while. I have a lot of things, ”says famous Australian industrial designer Marc Newson. “There are many, many decades of books and objects. Things that are precious, things that are not but that mean something to me. They were all just put away in boxes, hidden away, and I finally wanted to free them all.
This is how Quobus, Newson’s latest design, was born. The creator, one of the most influential of his generation, is also one of the most prolific. He designed futuristic planes and Apple watches; lent his eye and his hand to aluminum surfboards and otherworldly lounge chairs; and brought everything from bottle openers to luxury suitcases to life. Now he is committing an act of liberation – for all of our business.
Call Quobus a shelf, call it a storage system, call it a room divider or a sculpture, or call it what it does: “a landscape you can populate with whatever you want”. The modular design of the enamelled steel cabins of different sizes, interconnected by gold rivets, is as practical as it is scrupulously refined. “It’s storage at a mundane level, but I considered it more than that,” he says. “Each cabin becomes a kind of dedicated environment. Each is almost a small sanctuary.
The concept began with an order from German art book publisher Taschen, for which Newson was designing displays and shelves for a Milan store in 2015. from his home office, an outbuilding converted to his Cotswold home where he spent most of the pandemic period with his wife, stylist and fashion consultant Charlotte Stockdale, and their two children. “I thought to myself that if I could get one step closer to solving this problem, maybe I would have come part of the way to a system that could work in other environments – home, for example.”
Newson had never met a shelf he jellied with. “I have purchased many versions of Dieter Rams’ Vitsoe over the years because it is great for a variety of uses, but generally not playful. I wanted something fun, ”he says. “I liked the idea of adding a sculptural element. It’s primarily functional, with the ability to look interesting in itself.
Basically, it’s a design that Newson could use himself. “This is always the case with the way I work. I’m the yardstick for what I think people might like, ”he says. “At the end of the day, I am also a consumer. I’m spending money on these things and guess I’m looking for something that I can’t find, that I would like to spend some money on. Sitting on the floor, wearing a green hoodie, he swivels his computer screen to show me his Quobus prototype in action. “This office was a former saddlery and the garage adjoining the stables. The shelves are full of auto accessories: car books, trophies, little awards that I won with my classic cars. It’s a little cheesy, ”he laughs, downplaying the impressive collection of vintage engines in the garage, which includes a rare Bugatti Type 59 from 1939.
There is simplicity at Quobus, exhibited this year in Paris and London by Kréo Gallery, which at first glance seems at odds with the flowing futuristic forms for which Newson is known – those stemming from his training in jewelry and goldsmithing and moving, almost immediately, into larger furniture that blurs the line between art and industrial design. He remains the only industrial designer represented by Gagosian.
But there are synergies with his most iconic designs: the way he exhibits interior elements that are usually hidden, as in his Orgone chair (1993) and Event Horizon Table (1992); exposed rivets and gently curved corners that recall the details of the LC1 Lockheed Lounge 1986 (which at $ 3.7 million broke the record for the most valuable work sold at auction by a living designer); and the simple, intuitive functionality that made the Apple Watch, which Newson discussed with his friend Jonathan Ive as part of the software company’s design team from 2014 to 2019. Straight lines and naturally rounded, ”explains Didier Krzentowski, co-founder of Galerie Kreo.
It would have been relatively easy, Newson said, to make the shelves out of plastic, composite or non-ferrous metal, but the ease is not in the designer’s playbook. “I like the idea of challenging myself and challenging other people to do things that might be considered almost impossible,” he says. He also likes the “anachronistic, a bit old-school feeling” of enamel, created by a process he describes as “a dark art”. It reminds him of Paris, where he lived for ten years. “All the road and metro signs are enamelled. There are still companies, mostly in Europe, that specialize in this area, but it’s fair to say that it’s a dying process. It’s expensive and it requires a certain level of expertise and skill.
In his 2019 exhibition in Gagosian, Newson took his love of enameling to new heights using the old cloisonne process. One of the most delicate forms of art, often used on jewelry or small decorative pieces, he applied it on a spectacular scale to armchairs, desks and living rooms. Even in China, where the craft is traditionally practiced, there were doubts about its ability to do so as there were no ovens large enough to accommodate large-scale pieces. In the end, they had to be built.
What causes Newson to constantly question what is possible? “I guess I want to push the boundaries and satisfy my own curiosity and ego. I have to prove that these things are still possible and that there are still people who can do them – or can be trained to do them, ”he says. “Most of all, I love the learning process and if along the way I learn processes and techniques that have been lost or are being lost, it is all worth it. ”