While the award itself may be controversial, this year's winner most certainly is not. On October 27, London-based Australian Marc Newson took receipt of this year's Lucky Strike Designer Award, worth EUR 50,000, at the ceremony in Hamburg. One could at best ask why it has taken until 2011 for him to win it, as the 21st winner in a long series of outstanding designers, fashionmakers, photographers and intermediaries. Possibly it has something to do with design that the "Lucky Strike" brand became a smuggler's dream in post-War Europe, a substitute currency, given its clear brand image. Designer Raymond Loewy created the look in 1940; it won out, because it was more striking, better and cheaper than its predecessor. In the Europe of 2011 no one really believes in the design innovativeness of the tobacco industry, although the latter continues to book superb returns worldwide. People have always smoked in times of crisis, during political and social upheaval.
In 1991, British American Tobacco launched the "Lucky Strike Designer Award" in order to reposition the "Lucky Strike" cigarette brand in the creative world. It is gratifying that despite the changed conditions today the award continues. What is sad is that little is left of the eloquence of the speeches that once shaped the prize-winning ceremonies of the Raymond Loewy Foundation. For some years, the foundation's president Welfhard Kraiker and jury chairman Michael Erlhoff have no longer been part of things and the event's profile has noticeably suffered. There's not even a speech in praise of the winner any longer. Alongside Newson, who in discussion with jury member Grit Seymour explained his work, only Nils Jockel, the design expert at Hamburg's Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, managed to captivate the audience in his short address. He evoked the words and works of Kurt Weidemann, the 1995 prize winner and later juror for the award, who died in March. Otherwise, cuts all round: The prize has moved from the Spree to the Elbe, from Berlin to Hamburg's Stilwerk. The prize for young talents went this year to Felix Krinke from Aachen and was the first time awarded along with the main prize.
A decade ago, Marc Newson's oeuvre was mainly felt to embody the zeitgeist but is in fact deeper than that. Newson is an industrial designer by profession who never studied design; he's a silver smith and graduated in Jewelry Design and Sculpting from the Sydney College of the Arts. Today, he oscillates between fast and time-consuming projects, between designing industrial products for everyday use and objects that are sold as art. He thus presented the limited edition of his specially furnished version of the "Aquariva" sports boat in New York's Gagosian gallery.
The first attempt to create an object in its own right was, he says, his uncle's watch. He was at most nine years old, took the watch apart, created a new plastic case for the clockwork using the simplest of means. He covered the lid and back with Perspex so that you could look into it. Retrospectively, Newson explains how important it was to tackle the expensive object with no respect at all, with the intention of changing it. It was a typical boy's thing: "I wanted to find out how the mechanics worked." In the Australia of his youth, design or aesthetics hardly had any cachet. Dreaming of how things should look was a relevant preoccupation for Newson.
For Newson, the moon landing was a decisive moment and to this day it is still reflected in his designs. What is important to him is the context: "I grew up in an age and place in which an optimistic view of the future held sway," he remembers. Unlike today, the future then was thought of in futuristic terms. Today, the future tends to be considered as uncertain. Or rather it is viewed pessimistically. Possibly this is the more realistic angle, he says. But it is not an insight that influences his designs. Since the creative mind is formed in childhood, it is "much easier [for designers] of my generation to develop a feel for the imagination." In the mechanical age, or so Newson is convinced, this was easier than in the digital world, the rules of which seem inviolable.
Newson views the materials with which he operates as modules, as materials to play with, to express himself. "I use them to communicate. Like an author who forms sentences from words." He believes the basis of all design work is to grasp the materials, to be interested in them. How he approaches them differs from task to task. There are projects "on the interface between sculpture and design" where there are very few restrictions. But his main task as a designer is, he says, to collaborate with industrial corporations, such as aircraft makers like Airbus and airlines such as Qantas. Briefings set narrow limits, and materials play a subordinate role. "They are closely related to the problem that has to be solved. They should never be used for their own sake."
What role does the frequent switch between working in furniture design, fashion and jewelry to the technically informed worlds of aircraft, boat and car design, i.e., between one-off and mass-produced items, play for Newson? "For me design addresses the possibility of creating all these things. I do not discern any essential difference between a mobile phone and a cup. The differences are the materials, scale and function. It'd be boring to claim to design chairs all your life long."
Fashion is different. "I'm not a fashion designer, but I found it interesting when Dutch clothing manufacturer G-Star asked me whether I wanted to design the one or other collection." There's simply no avoiding fashion. "For men like me there is little choice." A good reason to expand the range. On the evening of the awards ceremony he appears in a bright yellow suit, albeit not one he designed. "It's not rocket science," says Newson, who once designed a spaceplane for the stratosphere for EADS, "but a completely different industry." Newson loves the contrast to his other projects, which on average take three years each. "Fashion is very easy and fast." He derives vigor from working for the fashion industry. Designers and companies can, moreover, learn much from the sense of urgency that prevails in the fashion industry he suggests.
Marc Newson feels Raymond Loewy influenced him essentially at a symbolic level. "He belonged to a completely different generation," says Newson. Loewy lived in an era that considered itself visionary. "My generation viewed the future as futuristic, and that applies even more so to him and his age. Everything he did was related to the future and how we wanted to live in it." Designers are now far more focused on the present than the future, he suggests. "There is a great sense of immediacy," Newson affirms. Loewy was one of the "founders of the design industry as we know it today. And he was also a marvelously extravagant personality," he was a lifestyle designer who designed his own cars. In a certain sense he was his own ideal consumer who went through designs with a kind of checklist to establish whether they were compatible with what already existed. "He had a strong sense of the theatrical, for opulence and luxury. But he was also a very good designer."