Marcus Fairs reviews the Marc Newson exhibition at the Design Museum in this month’s Icon magazine:

“Few designers change the visual language of everyday life – Marc Newson is one,” blathers the first of the wall texts in this mid-career retrospective. “He has transformed the design of the objects and spaces around us through his own work and his influence on other designers.”

[N]othing in this exhibition substantiates the bold statement at the entrance. It does not investigate Newson’s influence or place his work in a cultural movement. There is no critical perspective.

The show feels like a concession at Selfridges. At the entrance is a huge bas relief of Newson’s autograph.

About 6 months ago, sensing it would prove useful, I took this photo on a concession stand in Debenhams (just round the corner from Selfridges), it’s Newson’s Embryo chair.

embryo chair

The first time I saw a chair by Marc Newson was at the ‘100% Design’ exhibition about 4 years ago. I think it was called the Orgone chair. I sketched it somewhere, I’ll try and dig it out and post it. I’d seen it in the press a lot over the preceding months and it was proving very popular. I dashed over to the stand to try it out and discovered to my horror that it was deeply uncomfortable.

So, when I saw the chair in the department store I had everything crossed in the hope that it would stand up to that rarely used test of designer chairs – actually sitting on it. I dashed over to the stand to try it out and discovered to my horror, again, that it was deeply uncomfortable.

Perhaps the fact that I’ve never seen a single picture of either chair with anybody’s arse anywhere near them, should have been a warning to me.

This isn’t an entry intended solely to lambast Newson. I’ve whined about chair design on this web site before and I don’t want it to become a habit. I mention it because the review in Icon magazine was useful to help me reflect upon the way I felt last week when I saw the Falb chair by Austrian designers BKM.

You need to look at it, click on the link…Done? Good. Beautiful, isn’t it? A chair you can hang your bag on with confidence. I spent the tram journey to work, the day after I’d first seen it, thinking about how it posessed undeniable character and wondering why that seemed such an attractive quality. It seemed like a good word to push around a little and see where we might end up. Later that day I realised that it had been planted there by the designers when I’d scanned the text describing the chair.

In order to take weight its right chair-leg makes a side-step. It show its individual character.

No matter. It had obviously left an impression on me for good reason. A thirty five minute tram journey later, the reason seemed to be this…

For the character of an object or person to be apparent it must be, or have been, dynamic in some form. Some action must take place in order for the qualitative assessment of its state in either past, present or future to take place (revisit what I said in a previous entry about dogs and Frisbees if you’re not sure what I mean about how the past and the future might also be visible). You can’t attach the word character to something that is static.

A quick define:character on Google provided, amongst other things, this: …the inherent complex of attributes that determine a persons moral and ethical actions and reactions. Or in reverse, a person’s actions make visible the inherent complex of attributes known as character. Interestingly, there was also a definition concerned with typography that caught my eye when describing the act of forming an object or space; a character is often in the form of a spatial relationship of adjacent or connected strokes.

A stroke is an action.

So how does this relate to a chair with an offset leg and an exhibition about Marc Newson? The Falb chair takes an action (or reaction, if you prefer to join the vector at the point where the person is moving towards the chair with bag in hand) in order to deal with the problem of its existence. How should one deal with the problem of being a chair?

From this vantage point it seems to me that neither Newson’s Embryo or Orgone chairs tackle that problem at all, at least not until very late in the process. Rather, the first thing they tackle is the problem of being a designer object born of the pen of a guy who has his autograph in huge bas-relief at the entrance to his exhibition.

Some final thoughts. I’m reminded at this point of something that my first architectural history lecturer, Oscar Naddermier, used to say when trying to sum up the success of a particular part of a building. For example, when showing a slide of the portico on the Pantheon in Rome he would say,

Now that says door.

Take another look at that Newson chair above and try saying, now that says chair. Doesn’t work does it? Also, if Oscar was still with us now he would probably quickly point out that I’ve just wasted a lot of people’s time explaining something that Louis Henry Sullivan said a long time ago, which was, ‘The solution resides in the problem’. You’ll have heard of him before, he’s the guy who also said that form follows function.

The empiricists among you will be itching to point out that I really need to go and sit on a Falb chair to make a fair comparison. Go ahead, your absolutley right, but I take some solace from the fact that the designer’s web site actually shows people using the chair to sit on.