Design: The excessive minimalist

Marc Newson creates furniture of the leanest lines and the fullest forms. If anyone can reinvent the chair...
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The Independent Culture
The high-flying fashioner of furniture and interiors, Marc Newson, has really taken off with his latest project: to design a private jet. The plushly done-up interiors of a Dassault Falcon 900B in silver, green and black leather, boast matching cabinetry finishes. He even designed the plane's low-hipped glass tumblers (made by Iitala in Finland) as a concession to gravity - a desirable feature during high-altitude manoeuvres. Both inside and out, the treatment is eye-catching. Not even BA's controversial and colourful tail-fins can match the presence on the airport apron of the graded green circles Newson has swooped all over the plane's fuselage.

Not all of Marc Newson's work is so exclusive. His client list for this year's Milan fair reads like a list of international players, with affordable tableware for Alessi, a light for Flos, chairs for Cappellini, and a dish- rack, doorstop and coat hanger for Magis. All these items, and many more that mark the Australian-born designer's evolution from student jeweller in Sydney to highly individual designer of limited edition pieces (and also mass production), can be currently found in a retrospective exhibition being held in Glasgow, marking its designation as City of Architecture and Design.

It all began for Newson in the Eighties with "Lockheed Lounge", which catapulted him to fame. Its aluminium-plated upholstery is riveted - and riveting - like plane wings. "I think of the chaise longue as one big piece of jewellery which still relates to the the body. It's tactile, even though it's metallic," says Newson. Designed in 1986, it quickly acquired a two-month waiting list, even though it cost pounds 20,000. Jean-Paul Gaultier swings his sarong over its capacious form at his home in Paris. Philippe Starck ordered one as the centrepiece for the Century Paramount hotel in New York. Next week, one of them goes under the hammer at Christie's sale of contemporary furniture in London, with a reserve price of pounds 35,000.

Newson first showed his furniture in Australia, where it was seen by Teruo Kurosaki, who launched the idiosyncratic and influential Idee collection. Kurosaki invited him to Japan to work there for a few years, which he did. Early on, the French embraced everything he did. So he then went to Paris. Here was born Pod, a diving watch shaped like a sea cucumber. Glowing in the dark at depths below 100m, it is enough to make a shark circle. There was a feeding frenzy of orders. (Since 1997, Newson's main office has been in London.)

His next chair, the "Orgone Lounge", a figure-of-eight in outline, neatly symbolised the corpulent, consumer-driven Eighties. By stretching the form and pinching it in at the waist, Newson gave it a bit of tension. Arms, which are like a pair of slingbacks in tubular aluminium, roll over the edges to give legs; it is simple, but also voluminous.

Even in the excessive Eighties, Marc Newson described himself as a minimalist. He pares down every design to stretch the line to the limit. Then he adds a few fulsome curves that are more Henry Moore than anthropomorphic, sometimes, as in the Orgone chair, corseting its aluminium-tubing torso form to the thigh-line like an Azzedine Alaia dress - more Honky Tonk Woman than supermodel skeletal.

Newson has always enjoyed experimenting with challenging materials - he once wove a cat's- cradle in wood for a chair. His fibreglass Cappellini shells are moulded like surfboards, while his Embryo chair is made from shiny wetsuit material with giant zippers running up and down the back.

No one can reinvent the chair - the human anatomy doesn't allow it - but the forms Marc Newson gives his chairs are entirely functional and, at the same time, organic. Take, for example, the extra-outsize, circular green banquettes in the Coast bar in Piccadilly, London, where he did the interiors with lots of white space, dappled with generous dollops of lime upholstery and blond-wood chairs that had dark brown upholstery.

One of the star exhibits at Glasgow is the Bucky Bail, which is created from 60 Bucky chairs stretching to a diameter of 6.5m. Newson named the series of Bucky chairs as a tribute to Buckminster Fuller, the architects' architect of the geodesic dome. His work on them began in 1995 when he was commissioned to create a temporary sculpture for the centre of the glass-walled Fondation Cartier building in Paris, which was designed by the architect, Jean Nouvel.

The completed structure had to fill the space, but it could be disassembled to form seating. Instead of taking the modular route, Marc Newson took the molecular one. A brightly coloured, felt-covered polyurethane structure was built to a three-quarter sphere to ensure maximum impact in a very bold space.

Several years later, working with industrial manufacturing technologies, Marc improved Bucky. By using stronger plastic pieces he moved Bucky from a sculptural one-off into mass production, now retailed throughout Europe. Attempting to push this design to the limit to link up 60 Bucky Bails into a sphere installation in Glasgow last weekend, he discovered that the adjoining pieces which he didn't design wouldn't allow the configuration.

So he ended up with a hemisphere. Undone, he turns his attention now to the jointing which will result in Bucky 3, and will realise his ambition to make a complete sphere. When the exhibition closes on 19 June, the CCA will sell off the 60 Bucky chairs.

Marc Newson at CCA, McKellan Galleries, 270 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow until 19 June, Mon-Sat 10-6, Thurs 10-8, Sun 11-6 (0141 332 7521). For other Marc Newson products, contact 0171-287 9388