THE CONNOISSEUR: Marc Newson, King of Design Art

Marc Newson's limited edition Felt chair in steel and fiberglass realized £10,625 ($17,000) at Christie's London in December 2009
(Christie's)

If you had to engineer a design star, you might come up with someone like Marc Newson, possibly the world’s best-known living designer. With his rock-musician looks (he’s modeled for Comme des Garçons), his racing-car habit (he drives in Italy’s Mille Miglia), and a résumé of products from dish racks to private jets for clients such as Nike, Ford, and Fondation Cartier, the Australian-born Newson is design nobility. The Queen of England even made him a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire last year (though he’s not Sir Marc just yet).

By auction standards Newson is also the world’s most collectible living designer. He holds the record for a piece by an active practitioner, established when one of his prototype Lockheed lounges—the alum­inum chaise designed at the beginning of his career, in 1986—took $2.1 million at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York in 2010. It was the second time one of 15 known examples crossed the million-dollar mark.

 

Karl Lagerfeld, the couturier and collector, sold off his French Art Deco to buy Newson in 2003. Gagosian Gallery commissioned work from Newson for a solo show in New York in 2007, the first of three, and the first time the global contemporary art gallery exhibited design. In 2012, Jonathan I’ve, Apple’s resident design guru, told the New York Times Newson was “fairly peerless” as a designer.

What to do, then, about Newson if you’re a contemporary design collector? You could buy a Lockheed lounge, but most are safely tucked into collections, and specialists say the next one  to come up will again sell for millions.

For those with modest goals and budgets, experts point out that Newson, unusually  for an industrial designer, has produced a satisfying variety of pieces over nearly 30 years. Some of it has been offered in limited editions, such as the Gagosian commissions, or limited by happen-stance, like the Lockheed lounge. Some was mass-produced or is still in production.

If the lounge is the high end of Newson’s market, along with other early aluminum pieces like Pod of Drawers, then signed and numbered commissions for Galerie Kreo in Paris and Gagosian are the middle of the market, where material is readily available. And there is an especially pleasing low end: the wide range of wristwatches, bicycles, tables, and chairs that come up for sale frequently are an affordable delight for aficionados.

It’s a good moment to look at Newson. His market is mature enough that you won’t pay too much for something that hasn’t been seen before (as was true in 2003), and the economic downturn of 2008 has knocked the wind out of speculation in the design market generally. Moreover, comprehensive information about Newson’s output is now at hand. Alison Castle’s monograph Marc Newson: Works was published last year by Taschen, and a catalogue raisonné is being developed by Didier Krzentowski of Galerie Kreo.

Further clarifying Newson’s middle market is his decision to refocus on his day job as an innovative industrial designer. With limited-edition design having become ubiquitous in the art world, Newson appears to have dropped out of the genre he once commanded. The latest gallery commission—a $1.28 million speedboat that debuted at Gagosian in 2010 in an edition of 22—could be his last.

THE HIGH END

Newson’s early aluminum pieces are limited in number because they were labor intensive—it took the designer six months to craft the first Lockheed and build it himself entirely by hand. They established his futuristic vocabulary of forms and dedication to exploring materials and technology, and all do well in the market. A Pod of Drawers, 1987 (an aluminum chest from an edition of 10, with two artist’s proofs), sold at Christie’s New York in an evening contemporary art sale in May 2007 for $1,048,000 (est. $700–900,000). Newson is one of a handful of designers, living or dead, ever to appear in an evening sale. Continuing the trend, an Orgone Stretch lounge, 1993 (one of two artist’s proofs from an edition of six), sold at Sotheby’s London in October 2008  for £421, 250 ($730,000), within its estimate of £400–600,000 ($690,000–1 million) despite the newly arrived recession.

Krzentowski of Galerie Kreo advises collectors with deep pockets to snap up the pieces in aluminum—“there are fewer than 200 pieces in the world,  and 20 percent of them are in museums.”

THE MIDDLE RANGE

The top of Newson’s middle range includes editions for Kreo and Gagosian, which, like much editioned design, has experienced severe rises and dips in the secondary market. But Alexander Payne, worldwide director of design for Phillips, thinks it’s ready for serious reassessment. “Newson is a true designer—concepts, furniture, products—a real Renaissance figure in contemporary design,” Payne says. “This has seen him through the ups and downs of the art market and world recession. The time could not be better to start looking at the midrange holdings.”

Newson’s studio website lists 33 editioned pieces, which constitutes a fairly com­prehensive guide to the work. Kreo’s Chop Top table, 2006 (from an edition of 12, with one prototype), sold for £91,250 ($148,000) on an estimate of £80,000 to £120,000 ($129,000–194,000)   at Phillips in London this past  September. At the same sale Gagosian’s Micarta chair, estimated at £45,000  to £55,000 ($73,000–89,000), failed to find a buyer, probably because  of an unrealistic esti­mate gauged to earlier gallery pricing.

“Gallery prices are very different from auction prices,” says Carina Villinger, the head of 20th-century decorative arts and design at Christie’s New York. “The market for really contemporary design is cooling. The feeding frenzy has gone out of it.”Also included in Newson’s midrange is his earliest non-aluminum work, produced in small runs for companies like Idee in Tokyo. It includes some of the designer’s most iconic pieces—the Embryo chair, 1988, upholstered in neoprene, and the hand­woven Wicker chair, 1990—and is now more sensibly priced than it was a decade ago. An Embryo prototype sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2004 for $24,000 (est. $20–30,000);  James Zemaitis, senior vice president of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s New York, says  a typical Embryo today would likely be estimated at $7,000 to $9,000—for a pair.

Embryo is an instructive example of collecting Newson, or any living practitioner, whose designs may reap­pear in various scales of production. Com­m­issioned for a design exhibition in Australia, Embryo was also offered in unlimited produc­tion by Idee (although Newson made the first 100 him­self). Idee’s Embryo maintains Newson’s original intention: It is upholstered in wet­suit neoprene, a nod to surfing culture. Italian furniture company Cappellini picked up the design, but replaced the neoprene with fabric for mass pro­duction. Idee and  Cappellini both continue to sell the piece, as does Kreo, Newson’s Paris dealer, on a custom-order basis.  For collectors, the Embryo to covet is one from the original Idee run. Similar to collecting Eames pieces, both production and design dates must be established  to determine value. As a rule, earlier dates are better unless the piece has taken a reverse route, from production to limited edition, as Newson’s have.

THE LOW END

Some of Newson’s designs have traded up: The polyethylene Nimrod chair, a production piece designed for Italian furniture company Magis in 1997, became the aluminum Zenith for Kreo in 2006 (in an edition of eight, with two artist’s proofs and two prototypes). Some have traded down: The aluminum Alufelt chair, 1993 (in an edition of six, with two prototypes), one of which sold at Christie’s London in October 2012 for £133,250 ($213,200), was also produced as the steel-and-fiberglass Felt chair for Cappellini. It routinely sells for under $5,000. There is also a limited-edition production Felt in special colors, examples of which generally fetch $5,000 to $10,000.

Newson’s reputation as a designer has resulted in com­missions from more than 60 companies, yielding many opportunities for collectors of modest means and those who wish to acquire a broad range of his work. Many pieces are traded at auction online as well as in salesrooms. Christie’s London sold a 1999 MN01 bicycle designed for Biomega in December 2007 for £2,000 ($4,100), its high estimate. A year earlier, Wright in Chicago sold a stain­less-steel Hemipode wristwatch designed for Ikepod, Newson’s own watch company, for $4,200 (the presale estimate was $3,500 to $4,500). Still in production, the Hemipode is available only in titanium, with prices starting at $17,500.

In the case of production work, however, “you should buy it because you think it’s great, not because you think you’re going to double your money on it,” says Zemaitis, who owns and uses a Newson cocktail shaker for Alessi. “Look at what the museums are doing,” he advises. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has seven Newson pieces in its design collection, including a 2004 cellular phone for Talby; the Design Museum in London also owns a piece.

Wright founder Richard Wright owns and uses a Newson dish rack for Magis. He believes tests of greatness are yet to come for a designer who, at age 49, has distinguished himself by stylishly closing out the last century. “Design is still coming to terms with the 21st century,” says Wright. “If Newson can unlock the next wave, that would be impactful design.”