In June 1986, having recently graduated in sculpture, jewellery and furniture design from Sydney College of the Arts, Marc Newson accepted the opportunity to exhibit new furniture designs at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. As a child growing up in Australia, Newson had benefitted from a cosmopolitan education that included regular exposure to museum collections, art galleries, and of course to cinema, particularly the modernist space-age Ken Adam-designed interiors for the James Bond franchise, and the quasi-Utopian futurism of Kubrick’s ‘2001’.
The prototype work, the LC1, that Newson created for this show, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, proved a uniquely dynamic and energetic form that delineated a stylistic breakthrough from the high-tech constructivism that characterized mainstream 1980s design. Conceived as an art object for this exhibition and never intended for production, the LC1 invoked a vision that although anchored in the Antique remained elegantly futuristic, fastened by 1930s streamlining, invested with a sense of mobility and embracing a sensation of science fiction fantasy, to inaugurate a new icon in the narrative of contemporary design. Most unusual, however, was Newson’s decision to model his seat as a chaise-longue, a relatively outmoded form by the late-twentieth century, and a decision that was loosely stimulated by Jacques-Louis David’s 1800 ‘Portrait of Madame Récamier’. In this celebrated painting the slender wooden chaise serves merely to elevate the subject to inertia and immortality, recalling the memorial sculptures of Antonio Canova. By contrast, Newson’s design investigated mobility and movement, the ebb and pull of the ocean’s tides, echoing his experience as a surfer on Sydney’s northern beaches. With the distant resonance of classicism invested in the form’s conception, Newson strove to further assure the design’s modernity and to invoke a sensation of shimmering transience by cladding the entire surface with a seamless cloak of polished aluminium. Proving technically impossible, Newson defaulted to his training as a jeweller to meticulously cut, hammer and then assemble a mosaic of thin aluminium panels that were blind-riveted to the hand-sculpted under-structure. The resulting patchwork surface acknowledged the artisanal, improvised quality of the chaise whilst delivering a metallic hourglass vision that inspired, in the words of one contemporary commentator, the intuitive motion of ‘a giant blob of mercury’.
Images of the prototype swiftly circulated to international praise. Newson reworked certain aspects, most notably the neo-classical backrest of the original LC1 prototype to subsequently execute the Lockheed as a limited edition from 1988 onwards. Newson’s technique was rudimentary, but effective – the outline of the chaise was drawn on a large block of foam, which was then fashioned with a saw to delineate the basic profile, followed by hand-sanding to refine and release the shape. This artisanal and intuitive process was delivered entirely by intuition and by eye, and after a day’s worth of carving Newson was satisfied with his first attempt. From this prototypic form a mould was created in which to lay the fibreglass under-structure of the chaise, now anointed ‘Lockheed Lounge’ in deference to the Machine-Age aesthetic of the American aircraft manufacturer.
An early and enthusiastic supporter was Philippe Starck, who in 1990 acquired an example for use in the lobby of Ian Schrager’s Paramount Hotel, New York. During the same period, an example of the Lockheed, and of the accompanying Pod cabinet, was exhibited at London’s Liberty & Co. department store. In 1993 the Lockheed was brought to a wider audience when featured as the centrepiece in Madonna’s video for her single, ‘Rain’. Two years later Vitra Design Museum included the Lockheed in their highly influential travelling exhibition of ‘100 Masterpieces’, and in 2000 the chaise was the focus of the Carnegie Art Museum’s aluminium retrospective, occupying both front and back covers of the exhibition catalogue. The innovative status of this landmark design was now assured, and swiftly the few remaining examples that had not already been secured by museums became the focus of pioneering collectors, many drawn from the fields of contemporary art, transcending the traditional boundaries that were perceived to exist within the fields of the fine and the decorative arts.
During the mid-late 1990s, and as popular appreciation for design began to broaden, certain key works, Newson’s Lockheed included, were correctly reappraised by pioneers within the contemporary art market as exhibiting cultural and progressive criteria that paralleled the explorative personality of contemporary art. Another example, number ‘10’ from the edition, was selected to be included in the pioneering Evening Sale of Contemporary Art, Christie’s New York, 16 May 2000, marking the first occasion that both the fine arts and selected examples of design could be interpreted as sharing a parallel, progressive ethos. Establishing a then-record price in the process, the destiny of the appeal of the Lockheed was now secured. The instinct of specialist expertise, gallerists, critics and curators was clear – the Lockheed was a work that was uniquely and consistently able to transcend traditional boundaries, to establish universal appeal irrespective of notions of categorization.
That the Lockheed should have been swiftly embraced by such positive cultural and academic acclaim, and integrated into curatorial spheres at the highest level, underlines the visionary aesthetic and meticulous craft of the chaise. Reflected against the monochromatic linear geometry of corporate 1980s design, and the contemporary computer-assisted design that the form helped to inaugurate, the Lockheed persists as a solitary premonitionary example of crafted organic design, a shimmering bolide form that invokes the sensual biomorphism of Moore, Archipenko and Noguchi, fastened to the Pop aesthetics of Rosenquist and Johns, whilst slyly acknowledging the elegant fantasy-Modernism of Ken Adam. Now reviewed some thirty years after the exhibition of the 1985 prototype, the iconic Lockheed Lounge can be confirmed as having inaugurated a new aesthetic language for the twenty-first century, and Newson as a universal creator whose sensitivity, diversity and sense of innovation remains unparalleled.