Article by Greg Lindsay
WSJ  |  May 2011

Marc Newson on How Design Is Easy and Why You Can’t Make a Cappuccino on a Plane

Newson, whose Lockheed Lounge achieved record-breaking sums at auction, speaks about his work for Qantas and how subtle changes can alter the way we go about our day

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Marc Newson is the rare industrial designer hailed as an artist, commanding prices to match. A prototype of his earliest, most famous work, the Lockheed Lounge—a swooping, aluminum-plated chaise—sold at auction last spring for $2.1 million. He followed that in the fall with an exhibition at New York’s Gagosian Gallery, the centerpiece of which was his refresh of the Aquariva, the iconic Italian wooden speedboat.

But the low-key, casually dressed Newson, 46, is more apt to describe himself as a “gun for hire” whose clients have ranged from Italian furniture makers to Nike, Ford and EADS, the parent of Airbus. He has designed glassware, shoes, champagne magnums, restaurants, cars, jets—even a spaceship—by applying his unique style of “biomorphism” to achieve organic forms through high-tech materials.

In 2006, the Sydney-born Newson was appointed creative director of Australia’s national airline, Qantas, becoming the highest-profile designer by far to grapple with the intractable demands of modern air travel. His most recent creation is a set of luggage tags with built-in radio frequency ID (RFID) chips, allowing passengers to track their bags anywhere, anytime. Considering how much time Newson spends aloft, it’s possible he designed them for himself.

—By Greg Lindsay

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I look at myself as a troubleshooter or a gun for hire. Most of the companies I work with are large corporations, whether it’s Qantas or Ford or Nike. They all have in-house design capability; it’s not as if they can’t do this stuff with their own resources. But for one reason or another they choose to go outside their typical way of thinking, because on some level they’re not capable of doing things in a different way. They’re not only looking for answers to questions they’re having trouble with, they’re also having difficulty expressing the questions. That’s where I come in.

It’s a matter of demystifying the issues, and trying to give things a handle to grab on to. I look for simple things—the straightforward parameters of a project—and once I’ve digested that and created the framework within which to work, it’s joining the dots, really.

I have to make it rational, because I’m working with such a broad range of industries—whether it’s designing a boat for Riva, or a camera, or a mobile phone—that I’ve got to look for logic somewhere. More often than not it’s a very straightforward and methodical process, so much so I find myself scratching my head, thinking, “You know, that wasn’t that hard, was it? I wonder why you couldn’t have done it by yourselves.”

Qantas is certainly the company that I have the longest relationship with, and for a designer like me, it’s very unusual. Having come from a background of designing furniture, it would have been a natural progression to simply design more and more exquisite furniture. And at a certain point I thought, “Well, God—does the world really need that much more expensive furniture when people are sitting in these chairs for hours on these planes, especially from somewhere like Australia, where a lot of the flights are long-haul?” It just seemed like a more worthwhile way to spend one’s time. (That’s not to say I don’t still design expensive furniture.)

When I started to develop a strong interest in technology and materials and how things are made, it became very clear to me that a lot of those things really originated in the aerospace industry—in some cases, in the military. So it seemed logical that if I wanted to learn about these things, going to the source would be a great way to do that.

Working with an airline is like working with a country. The politics, the bureaucratic issues—not to mention health and safety—there are huge challenges on every level, really. Just being able to track your bag at any moment during your trip—so much about the aviation industry is lacking. In some ways, it’s inherently technologically driven, and in many others it’s retarded. Things are so slow, so expensive and so mystified. Aviation is a touchy-feely industry—the interface between the airline and the customer is still very traditional. For it to work well, it needs to be very personal.

I designed a range of luggage for Samsonite almost 10 years ago, and we thought then, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to be able to embed something in this piece of luggage that would let you know where it was at any moment?” Ten years later, with the RFID chip, the technology is mature.

So embedding that into a luggage tag seemed like a no-brainer. It offered the opportunity to redesign something as inane as a luggage tag to the point where you think, “Maybe people would actually like to have this on their bag, because it looks really, really cool.” That led us to create a physical object people were proud to have on their bag. That’s what all airlines are trying to achieve, but they’re all doing it in the same way, with their silly little cards that you hang on dopey fake leather straps. And as a designer you think, “This is just crying out to be done!”

People have tried over the years to automate the baggage process, and given the amount of technology that exists in the world, it should be possible. And it seems crazy not to be able to apply some of it to a worthwhile kind of vehicle like that industry. I’m amazed how unautomated it is on so many levels. A lot of that’s obviously driven by security. But there are huge opportunities.

They still can’t make cappuccinos on an airplane. A little machine that you could buy for a couple hundred dollars at Wal-Mart on an airplane costs $20,000, because it has to get certified to go above a certain altitude. It’s just one of those things that no one has kind of managed to do for some stupid reason.

I’m not a big fan of short, hour- or two-hour-long flights. From a very early age, Australians learn to fly. You have to travel long distances to get from one place to another, and I remember my first flight and being very excited.

There is something very interesting about altitude; I find that it provides a really unique environment in which to reflect on things. It’s wonderful to sensorially deprive yourself and be forced to really focus.

There are a number of people who do things the way I do. We attack a problem, we solve it, and more often than not, that’s it. The collaboration comes to end—not because we don’t enjoy each other’s company, but it’s just the way that I work. One of the downsides is that it’s difficult to build momentum with people. Every time I start work with a new company, I have to develop new relationships with people, and after you’ve built all of that goodwill the job is finished and you move on to the next client.

I look at the work of a great friend of mine, Jonathan Ive at Apple, and it’s taken at least a decade to get to where they are, honing their methodology. That’s something I really envy, in a way, but it’s not compatible with how I do things. I’m quite proud of the fact that I control my own destiny. I don’t have to attend board meetings, as I’m sure my poor friend Jony does very often.

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About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow at NewCities and the director of strategy of its offshoot LA CoMotion — an annual urban mobility festival in the Arts District of Los Angeles. He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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Articles by Greg Lindsay

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