20 years is a long time in design. When Marc Newson was commissioned to create a chair for a Powerhouse exhibition in 1988 there was no ‘brand Newson’, no headline-making sales records, no globally-renowned manufacturers beating a path to his door.
That chair, the Embryo, has now of course become part of 20th century design history – a signature piece in which Newson says he found his voice as a designer. 20 years on in 2008 the Italian domestic appliances giant Smeg launched prototypes of its new range of Newson-designed ovens and cooktops in Milan. The colour and curves that defined the Embryo are still in evidence to some extent, but the indulgent, free-wheeling days of designing an object with no real constraining brief are long gone.
It is something of a paradox that expanded reputation and status bring with it the kind of restrictive controls that a high-end manufacturer has to exercise. For Newson, easily bored with reiteration, they are neither restrictive nor burdensome: constraints create challenges and the opportunity to problem-solve and it is on these that he thrives. Much has been made of Newson’s wide-ranging portfolio – the New York Times recently published a long article headed ‘Is there anything Marc Newson hasn’t designed?’ – but the challenge of having to start from first principles every time he approaches a new project, be it a camera for Pentax, a washbasin for Caroma or indeed Sydney’s New Years Eve big event, is just too appealing.
Newson wasn’t the first big-name designer to be approached by Smeg, but it was the company’s previous successful collaboration with architect Renzo Piano that motivated the decision to expand their designer partnerships. Marc was, however, the first non-Italian to design for the company. He was a well-considered choice.
Founded in the late 1940s when Italy was reinventing itself as a global design leader, Smeg has been run by the same family near Reggio Emilia ever since. For Newson, these days never short of a project, Smeg appealed not only because of its long history and global reputation, but because ‘it was one of my ideal kinds of collaboration. Smeg is big enough to manage manufacturing on a truly industrial scale, in a technologically sophisticated way, but small enough that one or two people are the ones making the decisions. It’s the perfect size company to work with and has a fantastic distribution network all over the world. One couldn’t hope to have a better partner in the sector.’ Most importantly Smeg offered the kind of ‘mental calisthenics’ that Newson says he looks forward to in each new project.
For Smeg, Newson’s broad experience, his reputation for effective collaboration and that colourful, curvy aesthetic were a good fit with the company’s unique brand of technical innovation coupled with leading edge design – ‘technology and style’ as the company logo proclaims. A case in point is Smeg’s now classic FAB fridge which, with its cartoony curves and unconventional colours, was the antithesis of the angular stainless steel fridges then on the market. Its retro appeal was, however, a smart marketing strategy that repositioned Smeg in a highly competitive consumer arena.
Newson’s oven and cooktop for Smeg, released in Europe in 2009 and in Australia in 2011, are a more subtle and elegant essay on a retro theme that is both typically Newson and characteristically Smeg. The appliances have the softly rounded styling you would expect from the designer, and what the marketing blurbs describe as ‘intuitive’ display panels and ignition knobs, the result of Newson’s insistence on logical and user-friendly ease of operation. But it is the coloured enamel finishes that really distinguish these appliances from the rest of the pack.
While Smeg began in the post-war years as a metal enamelling factory, the Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalla for which its current name is an acronym, it was, ironically, Newson who came up with the idea of using coloured enamelled steel for the cookware appliances. The choice of colours that followed – rich yellow, pistachio green and peacock blue – were unorthodox and distinctive in a traditionally conservative market, but also have a kind of pleasing familiarity that is hard to pin down. For Smeg, the introduction of coloured enamels has no doubt proven to be a clever branding initiative, but it has also had the unexpected spin-off of creating a nice symmetry with the company’s early history.
Both Newson and Smeg have said they enjoyed collaborating and want to continue the relationship. While the ingredients for an effective association between designer and manufacturer are complex and of necessity variable, the baseline must always be that each side is on the ‘same page’ in terms of process and outcome. The seemingly natural ‘sync’ between Newson and Smeg, designer and manufacturer, has in its turn created product that is both subtly groundbreaking and gently nostalgic. Perhaps it is this paradox – the seamless synthesis of new and old – that is the secret of the timeless appeal of the best of Newson’s work. Who could blame a manufacturer for wanting to tap into that!