Opinion

The lesson of the Lockheed Lounge

London

29 April 2015

Last night, Marc Newson set a record for the world’s most valuable piece of furniture sold at auction by a living designer, breaking the record that had previously been set by Marc Newson in 2010. This in turn broke the former 2009 record, held by Marc Newson; which overtook a previous record in this line of records that was set, in 2006, by Australian designer Marc Newson. Bully for Marc Newson.

All four records were set by the Lockheed Lounge, the fibreglass-reinforced polyester and sheet aluminium daybed that Newson designed in Sydney the late 1980s. Last night one of the 15 Lockheeds in existence sold for £2,434,500 to an anonymous telephone bidder at a Philips auction in London. It beat the former Lockheed records of £1.1m and £2.1m comfortably.

“This chair is considered one of the most important works of the late 20th century, it has become synonymous with everything that is great in design,” the Telegraph’s Henrietta Thompson reports Alexander Payne, Phillips’ worldwide director of design, as having said before the auction. Whether Payne is referring to design in general or simply the rarefied world of auction-house design is less than clear, but either way the claim is worth interrogating. Is it actually true?

The first part of the claim is. The Lockheed Lounge is seminal: a work of highly sculptural, jet-age fuselage, globular design-art par excellence that set a precedent for much of the glut of design-art and organically-inspired design that followed in the 1990s and 2000s. For auction houses it doesn’t matter that the Lockheed is (to quote Newson) “utterly unusable”. It’s an irrelevancy because the Lockheed is formally exciting, highly influential and carries with it no small pinch of stardust. Indeed, it is curious that one of the most oft-repeated facts about the Lockheed is that it appears in the 1993 music video for Madonna’s Rain.

Yet to say that the Lockheed is “synonymous with everything that is great in design” seems perverse. How can an essentially functionless object (or at least an object that, through both its material construction and subsequent elevated price tag, dramatically resists easy function) be the crowning glory of a discipline that, even in its most liberal and flexible definitions, probably has at least something to do with function? That’s not to say that the Lockheed Lounge isn’t a piece of design (it clearly is), just that it’s a poor choice to be the standard-bearer and poster-boy for design that Payne would have us believe it is.

What feels most striking about the Lockheed is how it has dated. Payne argues that “when you see the Lockheed Lounge back in 1988 you see the future”; the problem is that it’s a future that very few seem to believe in any more.

The Lockheed Lounge is representative of so many things from which the gloss has faded. The international aviation evoked by its construction is no longer an exciting possibility, it’s a necessary but highly troubling driver of cataclysmic climate change. A daybed selling for £2.4m no longer seems a triumph of design’s mission (did it ever?), it’s an indictment of wealth run amok, the excesses of art-world valuation pouring into the realm of design, such that a product becomes worth whatever somebody is willing to pay for it. If the Lockheed has to be a poster-boy, it would be a better poster-boy for free-market capitalism than it would for design.

But even within its milieu – the design world – the Lockheed seems anachronistic in some respects. The utopian, futurist vision represented by the lounger's aesthetic has been chipped away at by the resurgence of more socially-engaged, substantial visions for design’s future, as embodied by the likes of Daniel Charny’s Fixperts projects; its organic curves in improbable materials no longer appear an inevitable space-age vision of the future, but rather a subsequently-pastiched styling that seems somewhat out of step with the current vogue for truth to materials.

Similarly, the world of exclusive, editioned design that it represents has been widely questioned, most recently in Hella Jongerius and Louise Schouwenberg’s recent [Beyond the New manifesto] : "Industrial processes have greater potential than low-volume productions of exclusive designs, which reach such a limited market that talk of ‘users’ can hardly be taken seriously… Design ≠ Art. Good ideas in design require further development after they are presented in museums as experimental, eye-catching gestures. Only then will they add meaning to the world of daily objects and reach a larger public.” The Lockheed may be synonymous with everything great in auction-house design, but what does that amount to: that it's frequently referenced? beautiful? provocative? sells for large amounts? The Lockheed may be highly influential within design, but it itself has always seemed more intelligible and impressive as an objet d'art than it does as a designed object.

Of course, none of this is Newson’s fault; the mitigating effects of clever PR asides, he is not responsible for the cultural and economic reception of his work. And the Lockheed has, in several ways, proved positively prescient: Newson built the series of 15 himself and made his reputation off the back of them, smartly anticipating the future rise of designer-makers, a trend that has been widely lauded. Yet the economic veneration of the Lockheed does nevertheless offer a warning, particularly when placed in the context of Newson’s most recent project, the Apple watch. If a £2.4m metal daybed is synonymous with “everything that is great in design”, what does that say about the state of design? And what does it say about the state of design that the most significant event to have happened to the industry in the past year – at least in terms of column inches generated – is the launch of the Apple watch, for which Newson was a part of the design team.

While it remains early days for the watch, the general tone of the initial reviews is consistent: while formally striking, this first iteration of the watch is functionally limited and precious little advance on the wearable technology that has come before it; the battery poor; software confusing; the price point (stretching up to £13,500) exorbitant; and the overall purpose unclear. The watch, the argument runs, is Apple (one of the great design-driven brands) stepping away from its tradition of function-driven products and into the ascendant realm of luxury and styling for styling's sake. It will no doubt prove a runaway financial success. Payne argued that you can see the “silhouettes and lines” of the Apple watch in the Lockheed. Arguably you can see a lot more.