One of the advantages of being a journalist is that you can be nosy and ask people all kinds of questions about their life because, essentially, that’s your job. But with Jennifer Newman, the tables were turned. Before I could even sit down in her glorious riverside work/live space in Bath, she was already interviewing me. She asked me where I was from and soon concluded I was a “free spirit” – a description that depicts Newman perfectly. The artist-turned-furniture-designer calls herself a “Polish gypsy”. She says she never stays anywhere longer than two years, is drawn to north-east European culture (ie the interesting mix of Danish and Slavic) and that her office has always been on wheels.
Her spontaneous, free-flowing approach to life finds an unexpected audience in the recent rise of the mobile worker. Linda MoreySmith, who is known for softening the workplace, was the first to specify Newman’s Groove Table, for the boardroom in Nokia’s new London HQ, and with a table for Arup’s office to follow this month, Newman has found a fresh market. This is a development that seems to genuinely surprise her. “It started when I made a table for our barn and friends came and said, ‘I love it’. So I gave it to them, made a new one and the same would happen again.” Eventually Max Fraser, the design connoisseur, suggested she should exhibit her work at Design UK in 2005. With Newman’s bold colours and simple minimalist lines, the industry’s interest soon followed.
Newman admits she had no furniture-making experience or training. “As a [studied] artist, I would come to a point where I had out-minimalised my own art,” she says. International art procurers Art for Offices used her work extensively and architects who bought her paintings included Ken Shuttleworth, Michael Aukett and Geoffrey Reid. Ronnie Wood was also a fan of her work, and they dated for a while.
The shift in Newman’s network and career was more accidental than planned. When fitting out Gibbs Barn, where she lived with her partner Bernhard, she realised there wasn’t any furniture on the market that she really liked. Ergo Newman started making her own. She describes her client base as a “fan club”, saying: “People like my designs, which is so rewarding, so I just keep on making them.”
Newman moved into her work/live space in Bath only this year, but already seems to feel
an itch. “It’s great to see London clothes,” she exclaimed when we enter. “I miss London. You just don’t see that here. I’m a London person. I miss the grime. I love the dirt, the big scale. I have always loved getting dirty. I am only so cleaned up today because you guys were coming.”
Newman adds: “Bernhard is the sensible one and always points out that all my contractors and suppliers are based in the hills of Bath, so London wouldn’t make sense right now.” Indeed, all her products are fabricated by local craftsmen, and Newman likes to visit the workshops and get involved.
“I guess that interior designers are specifying these tables because they are crafted in a unique way – you don’t see any nuts and bolts, for example.” The market has been experiencing a return to craftwork as a response to the rise in computer-generated design (onoffice 08). But essentially what makes Newman’s products a must-have is her use of bold and bright colours. I’m a sucker for pink, so when I saw Newman’s Gap desk in pink, I was in love. It’s fun and pop, with a personalised design. Not that I’d dare have a pink desk in the office, but come on girls, when has a desk ever looked so appealing? The clever cable-management design, which consists of a simple line and a perfect round circle at the tip, is an obvious quote from Newman’s former abstract art paintings. And it comes in blue, if that’s more your bag. “We can do any colour,” says Newman. “We powder-coat in all variations. So if you want a lime-green storage unit, you’ll get one. And the best thing for me is that I get my colour fix.”
Colour is a fundamental element in Newman’s style, and an evident reminder of her former life as a minimalist artist. But colour isn’t colour – oh no! It’s all about the weight of colour and what she calls “aesthetic rightness”. When I ask her to define that, she says without hesitation: “I can’t. I just know when it’s right. You know words, I know colour.” In her old flat, it took her five colour mixes before she found the “right” white – one with which she could live. “I couldn’t bare the white. I know, it’s a level of sadness I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it’s in my nature.”
The other factor that defines Newman’s furniture designs is proportion. Again, the link to her minimalist paintings is evident. “It is all about proportion,” she says. “See this table [she points at an Angle Table prototype]? It was a mock-up and I hate the scale, how the tabletop is too thick for the leg etc.” So how does she design products, never having learned how to do it? Does she start with a blank canvas? “First of all, I go for a run, to clear my head – and that’s when the ideas happen,” says Newman. “Also, I have changed the way I work. I now design from the floor up. I used to get going with the top and work my way down, only to find I could not find a base that was right. So now I work in reverse. But in reality, I’m a frustrated sculptor!”
Newman likes to work the material into a shape, create the right proportions, like a sculptor. “I’m not interested in developing new materials or new techniques,” she says. “I like to work the given and bring it to life. I remember once seeing a sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly. It was so beautiful that tears overcame me. I’ll never forget that impact.”
Today, Newman feels disillusioned by art. She doesn’t go to galleries any more. Her inspiration comes from trips to Denmark, watching ducks on the river from her studio window, French hardware stores and hospitals. “What I have grown to love about furniture design is that it is so functional – it’s needed! Ideas are born from necessity.
“My office has always been on wheels, initially metaphorically, then literally [she had a van for 18 months, which was her mobile workplace].” It is no surprise then that all Newman’s office products, such as tables and storage units, have wheels (all of the materials she uses are from England, except for the castors, as the best ones are from Germany). “How else are you going to move them around or out of the way?” she asks.
Other products in the pipeline are a new shelving system and a table with graphics on the top. “I think up about five designs a day, but that can’t be realised,” says Newman.
True to her nomadic lifestyle (her dad was Polish and fled to England after the war), Newman talks about how different the same room can feel when you move the furniture around. “Sitting here, the space is completely different,” she says.
Newman is also refreshingly unfazed by other designers. She sits on a chair she found in Copenhagen and says she has “no idea who designed it”. On the other hand, she was one of the first to buy the Paper-clip lamp (onoffice issue 13 news) by Gaël Horsfall. “If I see new design talents emerging, I will promote them,” says Newman. Her latest protégés are Pandarosa, a graphic artist couple from Australia who live and work in Berlin. Newman saw their work at the Fox boutique hotel in Copenhagen and contacted them to see whether they would like to draw some graphics on her studio walls. “I didn’t give them a brief,” she says. “They did ask me to specify the colour, as they felt it was my territory, but the rest is their artwork. Isn’t it amazing? They knew exactly where to stop.”
Newman has that modernist touch – her thoughts flow like a stream of consciousness and if you immerse yourself in the flow, she will take you on an amazing journey. “I did life drawing for six years,” she explains. “Mentally, I am always drawing. Even now, looking at you sitting there writing on your notepad, I am drawing you.” Such an intense approach, more common in the world of arts, might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Newman is certainly not the kind of person to swim on the surface. She needs to touch, feel, look closely, shape, mould and bring colour into being.
But I think every work environment can do with a crazy colour fix – be it just a blotch of colour on an otherwise white canvas.