“The holding is made up of a number of blocks: some were only as big as a tennis court, others were much bigger,” he explains. “Each one of those blocks was owned by four to 10 people. We probably dealt with 100 people, the majority of whom live outside of Greece in places like Australia, South Africa, America, Russia – all over. It was a nightmare; it’s not easy to buy land here. But it’s done now.”
As Newson reflects on what the task demanded, his wife, acclaimed British stylist and business entrepreneur Charlotte Stockdale, breezes into the room. “Marc brought me to this very spot the first summer we ever spent together, in 2005,” she explains in a crisp British accent.
“We drove here from Paris in his Aston Martin. It was just a wild hill, and we skidded on our bums all the way down to the beach, and he said he really wanted to buy land here. I said ‘yeah, good luck’.”
United in creativity
Newson and Stockdale married in 2008 in Hampshire, England, and now have two daughters in their early teens. Alongside a hectic family life, the pair continue to build their independent businesses: he, Marc Newson Ltd; she, accessories and fashion label Chaos, which she co-owns with a friend. The creation of Chaos followed her long association with Fendi, where she worked closely with Karl Lagerfeld for nine years.
The temptation to finally collaborate on a work project got the better of them this year; last month, they produced a series of “Marc Newson for Chaos” phone cases based on patterns designed for the cloisonne pieces in his 2019 Gagosian show. And yet, alongside children (and now product joint-ventures), it must be added, a great strength of the Newson-Stockdale union is creating beautiful homes.
“I feel like I’ve been renovating houses the last 20 years,” Newson muses. “These were not projects I’d set out to do. They just happened – you inflict them on yourself. The problem is that ultimately, there are only so many hours in a day.” Adds Stockdale: “We’ve been doing stuff up since the day we got together.”
It has reinforced the feeling he’d never want to be an architect: “With architecture, every job is effectively a prototype. You get one shot at it and if you don’t get it right, you suffer the consequences.” A Greek architect with a British master’s degree got Newson’s ideas into brick-and-mortar form. Even with a crack team, the biggest issue for Newson remains the time it drains from his day job.
“I’ve never had a set routine,” he continues. “I design when I can. Sometimes I think I’m good in the mornings, other times I’m not. It changes as you get older – at least it does for me. I used to never be able to get up early; now I’m up at 5 or 6am for the kids. At least the older you get, the less sleep you need.” October next year marks his 60th.
Before tying the knot, Newson overhauled his bachelor pad in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, which he’s since sold. After they married, the couple renovated a roomy apartment in central London with six-metre ceilings, which they still use during the week. “London is really all Marc,” muses Stockdale, “all bright colours – with just a bit of me in the one small library room.“
They embarked on the Ithaca house in 2014, and it is this home that Stockdale anoints as a true combination of their aesthetics. “My safe place is classic design, his safe place is modern,” she says. “He’s fundamentally driven and obsessive; I’m extremely easy-going. How it works is I tend to let him roll, and then I start to nudge. But if I really don’t like something he wants to do with a house, I’ll just tell him.”
Hot on the heels of wrapping Greece in early 2019, the pair signed up for an even bigger project: the restoration of a Grade 1 heritage-listed Jacobean mansion built in the late 16th century in the Cotswolds. Last month, the family moved into the finished section of the house. This home is now their main base given the girls go to school in the area; Newson drives them each morning.
Newson is vowing the Cotswolds will be the last big family reno. He’s also resolved to do less overseas travel for work as the world finally jags out of the worst of the pandemic. And yet, it would seem he and Stockdale just can’t help themselves.
In his characteristic offhand way, Newson then reveals there actually could be another project in the wings – all the way back in Sydney’s eastern beaches, where he has acquired a property. It’s the city in which he grew up, after all; he still has extended family there, and his small clan loves to visit as often as they can. In the meantime, Newson points out that it’s a much shorter hop to Greece for British school holidays.
Treasure trove of antiquity
Walking into the Newson-Stockdale Ithaca dream one morning in April, winter is well on the way out, and nature’s stage is being set for summer.
Mauve wisteria and fragrant jasmine are busy colonising everything, from the iron handrailings on the crumbling steps and stone fences to the vast patio. Bell-collared goats roam through the olive and arbutus trees.
The family are in situ for a week during the Easter break. Between an industrial designer and a stylist, the house ticks over like clockwork.
A small steamer is being fired up in the main bedroom to smooth out the white linen bed covers for Fin Magazine’s photo shoot – the first time the couple has been photographed in the new house – and the cantilevered sand-wave marble staircase is gleaming under the housekeeper’s mop.
When we arrive, the master of the house is out of sight, on back-to-back video calls, but his authoritative voice (still with an Australian accent) can be heard wafting throughout the corridors in snippets such as “… there needs to be a break between body and grille” and “just tell me what you need from me” (he’s clearly talking about or to Ferrari, with which he’s completing a big project).
Newson is also ever present in the furniture, cutlery and glassware. In the main bedroom, it’s via his 2013 Bumper Bed for Domeau & Pérès. We sip water from his 2008 glasses created for Qantas’ A380 in-flight service; sneak a peek inside the kitchen cupboards, and it could be a Qantas in-flight-service museum.
But it’s the treasure trove of Greek antiquity he’s amassed here that clearly fires up Newson the most. “We spent years collecting most of this furniture from antique markets and auctions,” he explains of the rickety old side tables, elegant solid-wood dining chairs and long table, finished with a hand-embroidered tablecloth from neighbouring Cephalonia. Sotheby’s and Bonhams catalogues attest to the expensive and excellent art on the walls by the cream of the Greek masters.
“Virtually all the art in the house is by Greek painters, except for the works by [British] Edward Lear, and those works are of Ithaca,” Newson says. The house also has a motif that flows throughout: a cross-section of the wild strawberry that grows outside, carved into timber beams, marble features and reproduced in brass door handles. “That’s a very traditional Greek house thing,” he points out, as Stockdale and the housekeeper discuss lunch.
Both have independent histories with Greece: she via her British family’s small summer home in Corfu (where she spent summers as a child); Newson through his maternal grandfather, Andreas Raftopoulos, who was born in the nearby village of Stavros in 1907. He anglicised his name to Andrew Rolfe after arriving in Australia in the 1920s.
I was sailing around … and we came to Ithaca and I had some notion of connection. I remembered how things hang together here.
— Marc Newson
Newson was close to his grandfather, and his middle name, Andrew, honours Rolfe. His mother divorced his electrician father not long after she had Newson, and moved back to her parents’ place in Gordon on Sydney’s upper north shore. Rolfe owned a milk bar in Chatswood, then bought a barbershop in the city. By the time Newson was at school, Rolfe was working part-time as a gardener at a private hospital in Killara.
“I was always interested in how things worked, and so was my grandfather,” says Newson. “He was very practical.” Rolfe taught him young the importance of getting the design and workmanship of an object right to avoid disappointment in use.
Newson later boarded at Trinity Grammar in Ashfield before completing a fine arts degree in jewellery and sculpture at the Sydney College of the Arts in the early 1980s. After graduating, he lived in Tokyo, then Paris. But it was Sydney where he first made his mark.
The prototype for his most famous piece, the Lockheed Lounge (named after the American aircraft maker), was created in the harbour city in 1985.
“I spent weeks, months driving out around factories in the western suburbs, sourcing bits, familiarising myself with small industries around the place,” Newson reminisces. In 1993, Madonna reclined on it for a music video, and by April 2015, his Lockheed Lounge sold at auction for £2.4 million, making it the most expensive object ever sold by a living designer.
Like so many Australians of his generation, Newson’s first taste of Europe came via a Eurorail trip, with his mother when he was 12 in 1975. “Mum pulled me out of school and we went travelling for a year. It included a stay in the [Raftopoulos] family’s house in Stavros, which had no running water and barely any electricity.”
In his 30s he returned to Ithaca for the first time since childhood. “I was sailing around with a French friend, an artist called Fabrice. He was a great sailor, I was not.
“We basically came to Ithaca and I had some notion of connection; I remembered how things hang together here. We camped at the beach down there,” he says, gesturing towards the bottom of the cliff. “Gradually my fortunes improved until I could do all this,” he continues, now gesturing at the house. “But I never saw myself as having an estate here, which is what this is – it’s quite big by local standards.”
He and Stockdale may well have created the most beautiful home in the Ionian islands with the most spectacular view (and a default private beach via a 350-metre stepped pathway below the house). But Newson has not forsaken his humble Ithaca roots. He looks after the original family home for his “grandfather’s youngest brother’s widow”, who lives in Athens.
“My grandfather’s youngest sibling, Uncle George, died about 10 years ago, but the house is still in the family, although not in my direct blood family as it were.
“If it was for sale, I’d buy it in a heartbeat – it really needs some TLC – but I may not have to buy it, I may inherit it,” he muses, adding: “Of course, you never know in Greece.”