There aren't many things Marc Newson hasn't designed. The 46-year-old Australian, now based in London, made his name in the late eighties with curvaceous, futuristic furniture, much of which has since found its way into the collections of major museums around the world. As his career progressed, his work grew increasingly eclectic while retaining its signature organic quality. He's gone on to do shoes, lamps, perfume bottles, watches and clocks, appliances, ovens, cooktops, dish racks, mobile phones, and restaurant and store interiors.
Newson has also proved particularly adept at tackling transportation projects, something he's focused on since becoming creative director of Qantas in 2006. "Transport," his new exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York City, collects these endeavors, which range from a nickel-plated surfboard and a space-age carbon-fiber bicycle to a concept car for Ford and a space-plane prototype for the European aerospace company EADS. The pièce de résistance is a new watercraft: a modern reinterpretation of the Aquariva, the classic speedboat manufactured by Italian boat-maker Riva, which Gagosian is selling in an edition of 22.
Details: What prompted you to try your hand at a speedboat?
Marc Newson: Riva and I were put together by a yacht broker, which is kind of like a glorified luxury-car salesman. There was no plan on the table, but it was clear from the moment that we met that there was a huge amount of mutual interest and respect. And, of course, I have known of Riva since I was a kid, and they knew who I was, which certainly helped.
Details: How did you sort out which elements needed updating and what had to be preserved?
Marc Newson: I work with a lot of luxury brands—Dom Pérignon, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Boucheron—with a very succinct and defined DNA. So I come along, and what do I do? It's sort of about design, but it's more about a process of selection. I had a lot of freedom, but foremost in my mind was the fact that this is a brand with huge recognition. It is to the boating world what Ferrari is to cars. In Europe, if you mention luxury boats, Riva is the first thing that comes into people's minds. Everybody has images of Brigitte Bardot driving her Riva, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Saint-Tropez. It's glamorous and iconic, which is dangerous to mess with. So I wanted to reinvigorate and redesign and reinterpret, but I also wanted to enhance what is so good about the brand.
Details: How did you do that?
Marc Newson: What makes the classic Riva so recognizable and iconic is the very, very distinctive shape of the boat. The way it sits in the water, you can recognize it from a hundred yards away. I streamlined it, but you can see that the shape of the transom—the ass end of the boat—is very, very typically Riva in the way it gets narrower. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Details: You work with luxury brands often, but did you have any concerns about designing a $1.5 million boat at this particular moment in time?
Marc Newson: To be honest, no. This is one of the worlds in which I live. I just designed a piece of jewelry for Boucheron inspired by fractal theory that sold for about 1.2 million euros. At a certain end of the market, things are still moving.
Details: You've said that you're influenced by mid-century Italian design, which of course includes Riva. How does it show up in your work?
Marc Newson: Well, pretty much any designer who knows anything about the history of design will cite that period as an influence. But I do think Italian design culture was able to illustrate how everything needs to be designed. You can touch people's lives on so many levels. And its greatest influence on me is that it made me comfortable working in so many different areas. It's the responsibility of a good designer to address all these problems. That's what I do—I'm a problem solver.
Details: And that problem-solving impulse is what led you to transportation?
Marc Newson: I'd always designed furniture before I started working in the aviation sector, and when I flew it just struck me how abysmal the level of design was. It's all very well designing luxury furniture, but people don't have a choice when they're flying—you've got to sit on those seats for extended periods of time.