Celebrated Australian designer Marc Newson meets Anandhi Gopinath in Geneva to talk about timekeeping, his collaboration with the revered Swiss watchmaker Jaeger- LeCoultre and his elements of style.
SINGAPORE (March 27): Ever since he was a teenager, the celebrated Australian designer Marc Newson had loved Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Atmos clock. So, it was a dream come true when he collaborated with the horological maison on the clock’s new design in 2008.
Invented in 1928, Swiss watchmaker Jae ger- LeCoultre’s Atmos clock is famous for its ingenious construction and is an indisputable icon in the world of haute horlogerie. The Atmos runs independently of any human intervention, thanks to a gaseous mixture in a hermetically sealed capsule that expands when the temperature rises and contracts when it falls.
The capsule is connected to the clock’s drive spring and as it swells like the bellows of an accordion, it constantly winds the clock movement. A temperature fluctuation of a single degree is enough to provide the clock with an operating autonomy of about two days. The gear trains are so perfectly designed that they require no oil, which would interfere with the optimum running of the clock.
This clock was one of the many objects that captured the imagination of Newson. He would cut out images of the Atmos from magazines — alongside other things that interested him — as his interest in design grew. As the Atmos approached its 80th anniversary, Newson translated his lifelong interest into an innovative design idea and submitted it to the maison.
Jaeger-LeCoultre accepted his offer and 2008 saw the unveiling of Newson’s first collaboration with the revered watchmaker — the Atmos 561. Newson— who by that time had gained worldwide recognition for inventing the famous Orgone Stretch Lounge chair — had managed to capture, in the staggering innovative power of his interpretation, the very essence of the Atmos that, for 80 years, had symbolised the dream of quasi perpetual motion.
This year marks the third such collaboration, and the Atmos 568 was unveiled at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in January to much fanfare. “The Atmos clocks are my most personal project by far,” Newson says proudly. “I’ve been aware of the object for ages and, today, I’m working with them. So, it’s really quite an amazing experience.”
It is at SIHH that I get the chance to chat with Newson, who I find to be relaxed and easy-going. Long hair in graduating shades of mahogany and silver frame his slender face — is long hair a standard issue for all designers, one wonders — and graceful fingers trace the seam on the plush sofa he is sitting on. Paired with his roomy beige suit are black shoes with a colourful patch on the toe — I saw it as a rebellious streak of informality against the sombre, business-like setting of the fair.
Described as one of the most influential designers of his generation, Newson is famous for his unique approach to design — each new project is an experimental exercise in extreme structure and advanced technologies, combining a highly tactile and exacting exploration of materials, processes and skills. Throughout his nearly 40-year career, Newson has managed to establish his reach across several product categories from concept jets and cars to watches, footwear, luggage and aircraft interiors. In 2014, he also helped his friend, Jonathan Ive, design the Apple Watch — an experience he termed simply “fascinating”.
The luxury industry turned out to be one he would engage with often; aside from his work with artisans at Jaeger-LeCoultre, he has also collaborated with Louis Vuitton for bags and Montblanc for the M pen, created the design for a decanter in which to present the 2015 James Hennessy cognac and worked with the Ferretti Group for an iteration of its ultra-luxurious Aquariva speedboat.
I personally like his work in restaurant design: He designed the Milanese-inspired Lever House Restaurant & Bar in 2002 and Canteen Restaurant in 1999. Both eateries are in New York. In 2005, he worked on the reception and meeting rooms and the sixth floor of the Hotel Puerta America in Madrid where each floor is designed by a world renowned architect or designer.
“To be honest, it’s not my favourite thing to do. I much prefer working with objects,” he says, laughter lines charmingly appearing on his face as he breaks into a grin. “The problem with these kinds of jobs is you only get one chance to get it right. With an object, I can fiddle with a prototype. You don’t have that luxury with interior design — your prototype is often your end product.”
Indeed, his love for designing objects is best expressed in his range of beautifully crafted, limited-edition furniture, including the now-iconic Lockheed Lounge (1986) and the Event Horizon Table (1992). In a world where the line between art and design is increasingly blurred, Newson has pursued parallel activities in both exclusive and mass production, establishing a broad and diverse body of work.
Seeing that his design for the Atmos came after these highly successful projects, how much of it did he draw on for his work on the iconic timepiece? “It is more the case of my time in the industry that has informed my ability to work on the Atmos,” he observes. “This is my third collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre, but even before that, I’ve had a healthy interest in the Atmos. I was very familiar with it, but obviously I didn’t understand how it worked. So, I was always interested to learn, and really quite thrilled at the chance to work on it.”
Conversely, Newson says it was working on the Atmos that changed him. “While I can’t say it has changed the specific way I think about design, it has changed me philosophically,” he shares. “The object itself is 90 years old and hasn’t fundamentally changed in that time — and yet, it’s such a contemporary object and increasingly relevant today. As a designer, it reminds me that it’s quite possible to be inspired by things that don’t change.
“Vintage cars are also one of the things I appreciate, and I love the way things were once made with a different approach — time was cheaper, people were cheaper and yet, in general terms, things were built to last much longer. The idea was that if it broke, you’d fix it. Nowadays, because of the disposability of things, it’s all very different,” he adds.
This perspective seems a little at odds with his work at Apple: Mobile phones are the very definition of fast-moving materialism in this day and age as mobile technology moves at breakneck speed and the supporting hardware tries very hard to keep up. However, Apple’s design and manufacturing principles have adhered to a strict principle of quality if not timelessness — and that is what made his stint at the California-based technology company so enjoyable.
“At Apple, things don’t necessarily break. The technology moves so quickly that the products become obsolete. Fundamentally, the items themselves are sturdy,” Newson points out. “With the Atmos, the problem of technology as such doesn’t come up because it’s mechanical. It’s already existed for 90 years and very little is going to change. These days, it’s utterly impossible for a mobile phone to last 10 years, or even five; so, even if a phone could physically withstand 100 years, it doesn’t need to. This is why I love the idea of the Atmos — a really sophisticated, high-cost item that you keep forever and that will certainly outlive the person who bought it.”
Most mechanical timepieces are built to survive several generations, the micro- mechanics that is the soul remaining active even if the exterior design may one day seem dated. The new Atmos 568 subscribes to an overwhelmingly modern design, but one that is likely to remain relevant for some time to come. The soft edges of the lead-crystal cube it is placed in is also a little feminine, a nod to a major trend seen at this year’s fair.
“We simply had to work with glass for an object like this, as the whole concept of the Atmos relies on transparency. Plus, the Atmos is so amazing and beautiful that I believe you’d be crazy not to want to expose all of it. Creating a new design for the Atmos wasn’t difficult, but working with a material like glass in such a mass and shape is unbelievably complex, and that took quite a few years to perfect,” says Newson.
Lead crystal lends itself to these kinds of shapes quite well, even if it is difficult to work with, and the search for a manufacturer with the prerequisite skills led them to Baccarat’s doors. “Crystal is a very difficult material to tame, so I’d say the craftsmanship process was very organic. This was also not an exceptionally limited series, so we needed to find a manufacturer who could cope. Baccarat was our best bet,” he says.
Newson’s accent is only faintly Australian today — this comes from years of living in major cities outside of home right from the time he was a child. Over the course of his career, he was based in Tokyo, Paris and London. He is now back in Australia as adjunct professor in design at the Sydney College of the Arts (where he first studied sculpture and jewellery) and creative director for the national carrier Qantas.
Living in so many cities is what he says has informed and influenced his design most of all. “As a designer, I think travelling is important — design has become such an international business today. Just look at the iPhone and how it’s really the same object whether you’re in Paris or Patagonia. Other expressions of art, such as music, art or film, are not like that,” he says.
“People like me rely on working in many countries and it’s important to travel and be immersed in various cultures. Different cultures solve problems very differently; if you compare the subways in Paris and Tokyo, you’d see that the two cultures do things so differently they would never be the same, but they still work.”
Tokyo remains a personal favourite of his — as an Australian, that part of the world never feels too foreign — and is also where he designed the Embryo Chair (1988), the point at which he realised that he had hit upon a discernible style. That style has of course evolved over time, but one thing that has not changed is the profound sensitivity in all of Newson’s creations. That quality is timeless, and is best suited for the design of a clock that is equally as enduring.
Lightness, transparency and simplicity
At first glance, what draws the eye to Marc Newson’s Atmos 568 is its timekeeping mechanism, which appears to float freely in the air while actually being held in place by the rear part of the movement. The simple dial is optimised for easy legibility, and the light that passes through the clear glass face illuminates the blue transferred Arabic numerals. Enhancing the simplicity of the dial, the marker for the month has been designed to form part of the transparent dial. The counterweights are painstakingly designed to melt from sight while perfectly balancing the hands picked out in a harmonious echo of Newson’s chosen shade of blue. Uniquely for an Atmos, the entire cycle of the moon phase is shown — with a white moon and a blue sky — on a very smoothly finished disc embellished with concentric striations.
On the movement’s reverse, the mechanism is visibly held in place at four points, rather than the three on traditional Atmos clocks, for symmetry. The membrane bridge, redesigned in a crossshape and with a brushed finish, showcases the membrane’s bellows to great effect. It bears the clock’s name along with the designer’s discreet signature in his trademark orange.
Closer inspection reveals a continuous play of light on the movement, which was devised by artisans at the manufacture, with some components redesigned by Newson. It is worked in a very contemporary-looking matte satin-brushed finish, with a number of shiny areas that are thrown into brilliant relief by the light streaming through the crystal.
A new design for the balance wheel features grooves with matte tooth surfaces and shiny hollows, so that as it rotates back and forth, it creates a beautiful pattern of remarkable subtlety reflecting the sun’s rays. Another mobile part of the movement, the membrane, is adorned with the same play of contrasting finishes — shiny depths set off by a matte exterior.
As soon as you manage to tear your eyes away from the movement, you will be struck by the sophisticated elegance and sheer immateriality of the cabinet that houses it. Newson chose crystal — loved for its aesthetic qualities and unique finish — as the material for the casing, which resembles a rounded cube. Only a glasswork operating at the cutting edge of crystal manufacturing, such as Baccarat, possesses the necessary technical expertise, and lengthy research was needed to reduce the crystal thickness to a minimum — a mere 13mm in some places.
The crystal cabinet allows light to stream over the clock it encases, while also creating its own subtle play of reflections in a real visual treat. Although not easy to smooth and even, this crystal has a remarkably beautiful finish. The fine contours of the casing, along with its thicker base, have been perfectly crafted by Baccarat artisans to give a fluid and harmonious effect, like a cushion of light. The casing is made up of two pieces of glass: a larger one comprising the sides and back, and a front panel that can be removed to give access to the movement. The clock is magnified inside its crystal cabinet, a bit like a ship in a bottle.
Anandhi Gopinath is an assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia
This article appeared in Issue 771 (March 20) of The Edge Singapore.