The Visionaries: inside Marc Newson’s island home
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Marc Newson is standing on the springy grass below his house on the Ionian island of Ithaca, looking back at its surprisingly traditional façade, the central door and balcony above flanked either side by a pair of windows with simple architraves and sage-coloured shutters. It is rendered in a subtle pink stucco that almost seems to glow a pale-honey shade in the afternoon sunlight. All in all it gives a very convincing impression of having been warmed and weathered by two and a half centuries or more of scorching summers and tempestuous winters on the island that Odysseus once called home. But what seems a simple, elegant architectural reminder of the days when the Ionian archipelago was part of the Venetian Empire is in fact the work of one of the greatest living designers.
“I’m surrounded with modernity,” says Newson. “I live in a world where I’m constantly designing new things. This was an opportunity for me to try something different. It is a theatrical project, because I really played on the notion that I was trying to create something that looked like it had been here forever.” It is an act of architectural legerdemain enhanced by an interior in which the walls are hung with 19th-century paintings and drawings of Greek subjects, with only occasional touches – such as a pair of midcentury Gio Ponti chandeliers and a so-kitsch-it’s-chic Aldo Tura drinks trolley in the shape of a giant pipe – betraying that this is anything other than a very conventional house belonging to very conventional people.
But Newson has made his name and his fortune challenging convention. Over a career spanning more than three decades, he has turned his remarkable gifts with equal facility to the design of clocks, shotguns, training shoes, fountain pens, watches, luggage, knives and jewellery. He has designed cars, bicycles, speedboats, washbasins, kitchen appliances, restaurants, glassware galore, numerous superyachts, saucepans, a kettle, a concept aircraft, an airport – and, if you’ve flown Qantas, the bed on which you slept and the bulbous glass tumblers from which you drank. He also designed the wheeled Louis Vuitton suitcase at your side, the RM Williams boots on your feet and the Apple Watch on your wrist. The headline to a 2012 New York Times article “Is there anything Marc Newson hasn’t designed?” was purely rhetorical.
More than that, Newson’s work transcends the boundaries usually circumscribing design: he exhibits surfboards, samurai swords and cloisonné-enamel couches at Gagosian. His most famous work, the Lockheed Lounge, has sold for more than $3.5m, making him the most expensive living designer. It’s a price that places him, rightly, in the front rank of living contemporary artists. Moreover, the same piece of furniture made him a totem of popular culture when it appeared in the puppet action movie Team America.
But if you really want to understand the essence of Newson the man and the creator, it is necessary to board a flight to Kefalonia; take a taxi across the rocky spine of the island to the sleepy port of Sami; stop for an iced cappuccino; board a jalopy of a boat that reeks of diesel and is decorated in a manner that recalls a retirement home for distressed mariners; make the 30-minute crossing to Homer’s cloud-capped Ithaca; get collected by a vehicle that is part saloon car, part pick-up and totally foreign to the concept of an MOT; be driven past tranquil bays and along dramatic mountain roads where scraggy, nimble goats outnumber cars; take a sharp hairpin onto a single-width lane that turns into a rutted track that leads to a rusty gate, more rutted track and . . . finally . . . the sort of poignantly beautiful location that makes one question Odysseus’ sanity in leaving in the first place, let alone staying away so long.
It’s an odyssey, I should add, that I undertook many months before coronavirus forced Greece into lockdown. But Ithaca has experienced extreme trauma in the past. In 1953, a series of catastrophic earthquakes levelled almost every house on the island. It is a place that has already once risen from the rubble. The majority of the Venetian-style structures that were destroyed were built again, mirroring the original style; and, since 1978, in the capital Vathy there has been a law that says new buildings must be in keeping with the island’s historical idiom. Indeed, making a home here is a kind of homecoming for Newson himself. His grandfather emigrated from Ithaca to Australia in 1923, aged 16, and the cottage in which he was born still stands today on another part of the island.
A decade ago, when Newson and his wife Charlotte Stockdale – stylist and proprietress of fashion-and-accessories brand Chaos – decided to build a house on the steep slope that falls away from the single-lane roadway to the gin-clear waters of the Strait of Ithaca, the only inhabitants were semi-feral goats foraging in the dense undergrowth beneath the gnarled oaks and centuries-old olive trees. Unlike so many people building a house who fall in love with a landscape only to destroy it during construction, Newson wanted to preserve as much as possible, inserting the building into the hillside with a neurosurgeon’s skill without removing one stone or plant more than absolutely necessary. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that he considered every blade of grass and every leaf before making a decision.
The local flora is a vital part of Newson’s Ithacan experience. As its emblem, the house has a stylised, kamon-like cross section of the fruit of what is colloquially known as the “strawberry tree”. It is to be seen everywhere: embroidered on linen, carved into wood and stone, etched into brass doorknobs and even printed in various colours on the T-shirts and shorts worn by the builders and the house’s staff.
“One of the joys of being here is the vegetation. I was obsessive, absolutely obsessive, that when we did any excavation, it was done with a surgical degree of precision.” He points to the edge of the broad terrace where an anonymous-looking shrub, of the sort that ends up in the local garden-centre clearance sale, spills untidily onto the broad flagstones. “It’s an indigenous shrub, called Pistacia lentiscus, and I guess it’s sort of 80 per cent of the greenery you see on this island. It’s a dense evergreen shrub and it’s incredibly hardy. You can train it into a tree, it can be a bush – it’s the most incredible plant. But they treat it as a weed here. And they pull it out and get rid of it. I love it and that bush has always been there. Right under that bush there was an excavation that went down 10m. It was like a sheer cliff that went straight down, all reinforced with concrete. And that was purely during the construction phase, to protect the plants and keep everything from falling in. It wasn’t something that ever, ever, ever would have been done in this context. Normally, you’d define the footprint of your house, and then you’d just excavate a bloody big hole and destroy everything – for every square metre of construction you literally would destroy 3m of beautiful landscape. It takes a lot more effort at the beginning, and you may end up changing it anyway, but at least you’ve not destroyed it.” He smiles wryly. “That was an obsessive realisation.”
Indeed, obsession has characterised the entire project. He is forever grateful to his wife, not just for the practical help and advice she has given but also for her understanding. “She’s been intrinsically involved in the project over the past 10 years, and as well as her input, her tolerance of my various neuroses has been extraordinary.”
His wife aside, his concerns were shared with one other person. “I couldn’t have done the project without my architect and project manager Avraam Vairaktaris, who essentially put five years of his life on hold to make the project happen. It was an extraordinary learning curve for him, but his dedication and obsession were hard for even me to comprehend” – which is saying something.
If he lost sleep over the fate of a single shrub, it can only be imagined what agonies he endured while deciding the height of the house. “I didn’t want the house to be submerged within this massive excavation. I didn’t want it to feel too low in relation to the landscape behind, or to be so high that it stuck out like a sore thumb.”
It is safe to say that detail matters to Newson – usually he finds that clients (or, more exactly, their “people”) do not share his perfectionist traits. But in becoming his own client, he has ripped the top off a massive Pandora’s box of details. It is almost as if within the easygoing, floppy-haired, loosely T-shirted, wide-trousered and yard-booted corporeal form of Marc Newson there are in fact two people: Newson the client makes almost impossible demands of Newson the designer, who pushes the limits of ingenuity, technology and materials to exceed those demands. I can only imagine that it is a bit like Garry Kasparov engaging himself in a decade-long multidimensional chess game.
When asked if he is not taking things a bit far, he shrugs. “I’ve come to the realisation that if I don’t do it well now, it’ll bug the hell out of me for the rest of my life. In the past, I’ve sometimes not done things as well as I could have and it has irritated me forever. It comes back to my Ithacan grand-father. He said to me, ‘If you want to do something properly, do it yourself.’ He had another adage to the effect that you should spend as much time as you need to do it properly the first time, so you don’t have to suffer a lifetime of failure.” Detail, obsession, self-reliance, fear of a lifetime of failure and an Ithacan grandfather… Newson’s decision to build his dream house in antique style on the island of his ancestors could keep a good psychoanalyst busy for years.
“As a child, I made the obligatory trip to Ithaca and I remember coming to a beach not far from here. It was a very different place. There were really no houses. There are not that many now.” It would be some years before he returned, but once the Australian designer settled in Europe, the siren song of Greece drew him back year after year. At first he visited other islands such as Hydra, then he started to sail and, renting a boat with a friend in the summer of 1996, set off from Corfu. “We came to Ithaca and camped at the beach” – the same beach that is now at the end of a path that snakes through trees and shrubs from his house.
“We made three or four sailing trips, and every time we came back to the same place and camped in that little spot. The beach was the same, but the terrace above was overgrown and impenetrable, full of bushes and trees.”
He purchased his first plot of land shortly after the turn of the century and built a cottage. Ever since, he has been making a patchwork of land. “Not only to purchase enough to build a house, but to purchase enough so that no one else would build a house right on my doorstep. And my objective,” he laughs, “was always to own that little piece of land above the beach where I camped.”
The beach is well worth the meandering trek through the sage- and rosemary-scented thickets: a perfect cove in miniature, shielded at either end by giant craggy boulders and lapped by water so clear that it impoverishes the epithet “crystal”. However, it is hard to imagine that he has had that much time to sun himself on the beach. The two-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of buying land was just a warm-up for the three-dimensional jigsaw of construction.
“It’s a very simple, typical Venetian kind of layout. There is a large central corridor with rooms off either side. It’s a very rudimentary plan – the house is a rectangle, so it couldn’t really get much simpler.” But the achievement of simplicity can be incredibly complex. Take the bathroom off the master bedroom. A little like entering a huge box of incredible zebra-striped marble, with its curved corners and rounded edges, it is immediately identifiable as Marc Newson and it is properly monumental. “This bathroom was built before there were walls, and then we built the house around it. It was madness, but there was no other way we could do it.”
The cantilevered staircase that sweeps up through the centre of the house with majestic, graceful ease was an even greater trial. “That was one of the single most complicated things because I wanted to create a cantilevered stone staircase, which is a very, very deeply traditional thing. But no one can build them anymore. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they were commonplace. It’s supported by itself all the way up and you can have incredibly thin sections, which you could never do with concrete. It is supported at the landing, one huge piece of stone that extends back into the walls for another half a metre. There was no wall when that came in, so that whole piece of stone could be lowered in.”
And as the stone was being lowered in, another set of craftsmen were working on the balustrade. “And if that’s a millimetre out from here to there,” he says, indicating the top and bottom of one of the balusters that secure the handrail to each tread of the stairs, “it won’t work. Well, not a millimetre maybe,” he concedes, “but certainly three millimetres. It took years,” he says, with something almost approaching pride, “and trying to communicate the geometry of that, I understood what has been lost over the past couple of centuries.”
But just because something is 200 years old, it is not automatically better, as the corbels supporting the balcony that overlooks the sea testify. “I bought three or four antique corbels in Athens. They were close to what I wanted, but even originally they were never geometrically good enough. They would have been mathematically correct had they been carved in the Golden Age, but these were only 18th century,” he says apologetically. “So we redefined all of the spirals, where the acanthus leaf wraps around itself, remodelled those from scratch on the computer, and rebuilt them in their entirety.”
Indeed, the more one looks, the more there is to see.
At the shady side of the house is a barbecue inspired by one that Newson spotted in a Tuscan steak restaurant and had built and shipped from Italy. It prompts a 10-minute peroration on the most scientific manner of cooking a steak. On the sunny side is a sundial that, with its arcane symbols and asymmetric grid of intersecting straight and parabolic lines, transforms the simple notion of a solar gnomon into an object of Vitruvian complexity.
“The numbers are ancient Greek… obviously. And above I carved a little saying I love from Plato, something to the effect of ‘God is in the geometry’.” Personal aptness notwithstanding, what really impresses him is the numerological significance. “If you look at the number of letters in the Greek words, it’s three, one, four, one, five, nine, so 3.14159,” he observes, adding with triumph, “which is pi.” At this, Newson’s benign features crease into a cackle of pure pleasure.