From Louis Vuitton to a public toilet: Marc Newson’s acclaimed career

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For decades, London-based Australian designer Marc Newson has been acclaimed internationally for creating stylish upmarket products for famous brands.

They include luggage for Louis Vuitton, pens for Montblanc and Hermes, first-class lounges and business-class seats for Qantas, a speedboat for Riva and champagne containers for Dom Perignon. His 1986 Lockheed Lounge chair became the world’s most expensive design object when one sold at auction eight years ago for a staggering $5.3 million.

“I just thought it was a fantastic project”: Marc Newson has won the Australian Design Award for his career achievements.Credit: Gagosian

So, it is a surprise to learn that one of Newson’s most recent projects – unveiled in January – was for something decidedly less glamorous: a public toilet in Tokyo. He was one of 16 designers commissioned by a Japanese foundation to renovate toilets to make them more welcoming, comfortable and accessible to everyone regardless of gender, age or disability.

“I just thought it was a fantastic project because it was all free, and it’s the highest tech thing that you can imagine,” Newson said. “It caters to all types of people, with all types of disabilities, and it’s just incredibly well-conceived, well-maintained and well-operated in a way you just wouldn’t see anywhere else in the world.”

That joy in beautifully conceived and executed projects has led to Newson winning one of the top prizes, the Australian Design Award for his career achievements, at the Good Design Awards in Melbourne on Friday night. He was described as the country’s greatest design export.

The public toilet that Marc Newson designed is beneath an underpass in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.Credit: Getty

Newson called it a special honour given he has only rarely won awards in his home country.

“I’ve got my 60th birthday this year,” he said. “I’ve got a monograph coming out on my work [the fourth], which spans the last 40 years. So, it feels like a significant moment in my career, if not my life.”

Growing up in Sydney, Newson studied jewellery and sculpture then started making furniture and timepieces. He moved to Tokyo, Paris then London as he expanded into more types of industrial design. One of his highest-profile projects was helping design the Apple Watch with Jony Ive before the two formed their own agency four years ago.

Some of Newson’s creations are almost impossibly imaginative, such as a concept jet, a nickel surfboard, a craft for short space flights and a prototype personal flying machine. Others are more down-to-earth and practical, including a toaster and kettle for Sunbeam and a range of bathroom taps for Caroma.

Marc Newson’s 1986 Lockheed Lounge, in riveted aluminium, became the world’s most expensive design object when one sold at auction for $5.3 million.

Newson said it was just as satisfying designing an everyday product as a luxury item.

“They’re all problems that need to be solved in different ways,” he said. “The so-called luxury industries ethically maybe get a bit of a bad rap but, in many ways, I enjoy working in those places because you’re able to design things of a very, very high quality.

“You know for a fact you’re not designing landfill. It’s very unlikely that people are going to throw these things away.”

Newson said whatever he designed had to be made more sustainably now.

The Marc Newson designed Qantas First Class Lounge in Sydney. “We tried to introduce products that I felt were exciting for customers.”Credit: Brett Boardman

“Sustainability is really more about designing intelligently,” he said. “You can’t avoid using certain materials, like plastics – albeit recycled – or natural materials like wood.

“Both have their distinct disadvantages. But what you can do is use those materials in a more responsible way and design products that people want to keep and that are repairable.”

While design was a global industry with a product like the iPhone crossing geographical and cultural boundaries, Newson said that growing up in Australia gave him a unique perspective on how to solve problems.

He had benefitted from the country’s “can-do attitude, the backyard DIY mentality” and by not growing up with the historical baggage that other designers of his generation would have experienced in Italy and other parts of Europe.

“Sustainability is really more about designing intelligently”: Marc Newson’s Voronoi ShelfCredit: Larry Lamay/Gagosian

“It was a blank slate in many ways which was liberating,” he said.

Newson was creative director at Qantas from 2005 to 2015, a role that included designing the interior cabins of the A380 fleet. So, what does he think about the airline’s decline?

“When I worked with Qantas … we tried to introduce products that I felt were exciting for customers,” he said. “Which is not to say they’re not trying to do that now. But I think [where it is] is an indication of the state of the industry in general.”

While he professed to be “a little out of touch” with what had happened at Qantas, he had great faith in new chief executive Vanessa Hudson from working with her in the past. “She, then, was wonderfully capable,” he said.

An imaginative project: Marc Newson’s Kelvin40 concept jet.Credit: Daniel Adric/Fondatien Cartier

Toyko’s toilet landmarks

Tourists interested in design are following what’s called the Tokyo Toilet Trail, originally commissioned by the Nippon Foundation in the lead-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in the Shibuya ward.

Australian designer Marc Newson’s contribution is located beneath an overpass and between two roads.

Given the busy location, he wanted the public toilet to “trigger subconscious feelings of comfort, familiarity and peacefulness, and for it to become a useful and welcoming amenity for locals and tourists alike”.

“A useful and welcoming amenity for locals and tourists alike”: Marc Newson’s public toilet in Tokyo.

Influenced by Japanese architecture and craft, it has stone walls and a shrine-like copper roof. The luminescent interior in pale blue-green features men’s, women’s and multifunctional areas.

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