- by: John Arlidge From: The Australian May 16, 2015
Everyone knows Jonathan Ive, the man behind the clean lines of the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. He’s the Brit feted as design’s answer to Steve Jobs, the solitary genius who changed the world from his secret Silicon Valley studio. It’s a good story — except, of course, it isn’t true. No single stylist is that good. Ive is part of a team of… well, nobody knows. His co-conspirators are hardly ever seen in public. But times are changing.
It’s 10.30am in a converted women’s prison in central London and Australian industrial designer Marc Newson walks into his 185sqm living room that is part loft, part 1970s ski chalet; one wall is made of large rocks arranged around a fireplace. It’s fun and playful, just like the most sought-after product in the world right now — the Apple Watch that Ive and Newson and a 1000-strong team of techies developed.
Apple announced that Newson had joined its design team last September, when the watch and the iPhone 6 were unveiled at the firm’s headquarters in Cupertino, California. But he had already been working with Ive on watches. “It started long before the launch of the Apple Watch,” Newson says. A couple of years ago, he and Ive collaborated to create a customised Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox watch for an auction of their favourite objects to raise funds for RED, the charity set up by U2’s Bono to fight AIDS. It was Ive’s first watch but one of many for Newson. In the 1990s, he founded a company called Ikepod that made a few thousand watches. Ikepod and the Jaeger-LeCoultre collaboration “led Jony to the conclusion that it might be a good thing to get me involved on the Apple Watch,” says Newson.
Given this is his first print interview since he formally started his new role, let’s start with the formalities. What’s your job title? “I don’t really have one but I work on special projects.” Is it full-time? “It’s about 60 per cent of my time.” How long will you do it? “Indefinitely, I hope.” Did you work with Steve Jobs before he died? “No, but I met him.” Who earns more, you or Jonathan? “I think you can guess that.” Ive is equal 637th on the latest Sunday Times Rich List, worth £150 million ($286 million).
Newson, 51, was born in Sydney and brought up by a single mother after his father left when he was two. He studied jewellery and sculpture at Sydney College of the Arts and moved to Melbourne, Japan and then, two decades ago, to London where his star continued to rise. He is now one of the world’s top industrial designers and has designed for some of the biggest names on the planet. He holds the record for the most valuable piece of furniture sold at auction by a living designer — one of his Lockheed Lounge chairs went under the hammer at Phillips in London for $4.7 million last month. The chair, one of his earliest pieces, is so chic Madonna has one.
He could work for anyone, anywhere. So why did he choose Apple, based half the world away from his British wife Charlotte Stockdale, a renowned stylist who works closely with Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi, and their two children?
The key is his friendship with Ive. The two men met 20 years ago in London and have been professionally and personally inseparable ever since. They share a design philosophy. They dislike the vast majority of consumer products, so they design radically new ones that we could not have imagined before. “It’s very easy for us to work together,” says Newson. Ive, 48, has banished complex, beige, boxy PCs from our desks and plasticky phones from our pockets and replaced them with intuitive, elegant simplicity. Newson’s trademark bold colours and sensuous curves, which can be seen on Qantas jets, Nike shoes and Cappellini furniture, have influenced a generation of designers.
But it’s a corporate bromance, too. “Apple is exceptional,” says Newson. “It does things exactly the way they need to be done, or not at all. The way a product is made is as important as its design. Everything has to be correct.” Since he’s so close to the design boss, there’s none of the politics you usually find in big firms. “I’ve had clients where there have been six senior management changes on a project,” Newson frowns. “Apple is the opposite.”
Working in the mass market is also new and exciting for a man whose projects are perfectly formed but often produced in small numbers. Only 15 aluminium-and-fibreglass Lockheed Lounge chairs were ever made. By contrast, more than a million Apple watches were pre-ordered in the US alone on their first day of sale last month.
At first sight, Newson is not a typical fit with the company. Most of Cupertino’s finest personify the pared-down focus of Apple’s products. Ive himself looks like a human iPod — face all smooth lines, hair shaven, eyes like polished glass. Newson is shaggy, with a salt-and-mahogany mane. There’s no hint of a Steve Jobs-size ego. He’s too Aussie for that. He describes himself as “techie in an analogue sense”.
Most Apple folk guard their secrets. Newson likes to talk — in language that is delightfully uncorporate. “Believe in your f..king self. Stay up all f..king night” is his motto, proudly displayed on the wall in his home.
He won’t be making many shareholder presentations, but shareholders will learn to love him because he has a crucial role to play in the next chapter of the Apple story. The firm is transforming itself from a pure technology company into a luxury lifestyle firm. The Apple Watch, the 18-carat gold versions of which cost upwards of $14,000, is the first step. It is marketed as a luxury product and the models are sold in a different way from the rest of Apple’s kit by specialist teams under the gimlet eye of another new hire, Paul Deneve, former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent. Newson has experience in tech — as well as Ikepod watches, he and Ive designed a Leica camera from scratch for the RED auction — but he trained as a silversmith, studied jewellery design and has worked with Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Azzedine Alaïa and Dom Pérignon. If anyone can add lustre to Apple’s cool, pared-down aesthetic, it’s Newson.
The Apple Watch has had mixed reviews so far. Most people like the design, but many say it’s a bit fiddly to use. Former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, a friend of Newson’s, complains: “The problem with wearable technology is it’s a bit cold.” Newson laughs. “She probably made the comment before wearing the Apple Watch. She’ll do a complete about-face once she really starts using it.” Traditional Swiss luxury watch manufacturers have dismissed Apple’s timepiece as too common and cheap to be luxury. When it was launched, then TAG Heuer boss Stéphane Linder sniffed: “Luxury is about being unique and rare. At $350, it looks more mass market.” Newson retorts: “There are a lot of Louis Vuitton bags out there. I think at one point every 1.5 Japanese women had a Louis Vuitton bag. But it still qualifies as a luxury object. It’s about the quality and integrity of the product.”
What about the suggestion that an object you replace after a year or two because it’s outdated cannot be a premium product because true luxury stands the test of time? Long silence. “The way I see it, it’s evolution, progress,” Newson recovers. “And we are doing wonderful things. In one of the versions of the watch, the box it comes in acts as a charging device that you can use for other models. So it becomes a useful object and not something that will just sit in the top drawer of your cupboard for the rest of eternity.” I notice he is not wearing his Apple Watch. Does he prefer one of his many analogue watches? “I’ve got some classic mechanical timepieces. I don’t see how they and the Apple Watch cannibalise one another or compete.”
What is Newson’s next move? He’s not allowed to say, of course. But the clue is in his job title. Don’t expect a Newson iPhone or iPad: stand by for something more. He’s particularly interested in what technology can bring to fashion. “We will start to see more technology embedded in garments — magic woven in. Some incredible things are going to happen.”
Another big leap would be a car. Both he and Ive are petrolheads. Each owns several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of mainly classic Aston Martins, Lamborghinis and Bentleys. Newson has designed a concept car for Ford. Car firms are racing to make their new models so hi-tech they create the automotive answer to the iPhone. BMW has even set up its own hi-tech division that makes electric cars with the prefix “i”. Why not accelerate ahead of the pack with an iCar? Newson does little to damp down speculation: “There is certainly vast opportunity in that area to be more intelligent.”
But for now, he has other things to focus on. His first store for German publishing giant Taschen has just opened in Milan. He hopes to open more like it. “I’ve designed a modular storage system, which is exactly what you need for books. It could be rolled out anywhere in the world. You could set up a bunch of these things in a department store or even an airport. The business model of books seems so anachronistic. But it goes from strength to strength. There are still a lot of people who buy books — and thank God.” Newson and Benedikt Taschen, the firm’s founder, have collaborated for many years on projects including Newson’s monograph Marc Newson: Works and a book stand for Annie Leibovitz’s Art Edition. “Benedikt is really funny, naughty and irreverent, but he’s also got this wonderfully encyclopaedic knowledge of so many things.”
Work is about to start on the new home that Newson and Stockdale are building on the Greek island of Ithaca. They spend summers there, immersed in an ancient craft that’ll provide a fitting antidote to the cutting-edge world of Apple. They make olive oil from their own crop.
Smart watches, a new bookshop, a bespoke villa on a Greek island, summer parties, $4.7m chairs — not to mention the coolest new job in the world. You could hate Marc Newson, if he wasn’t so bloody nice, mate.
First published in ES magazine, May 7, 2015