The Genius Of Spacesuit Design

Renowned industrial designer Marc Newson explains why he believes the astronaut's spacesuit ranks as the pinnacle of design

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A spacesuit really is the greatest example of a piece of design. It’s the ultimate expression of what designers do, and of single-mindedness and obsession. Because no one designing a spacesuit has any interest in the way it looks. It validates its reason for being, and that in turn can contribute to why an object can look so good. It’s also why so many things that have a dubious functionality often look terrible.

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There’s nothing on a spacesuit that’s superfluous – everything is absolutely mandatory. If they look busy, that’s because they need to be. They’re like a piece of hard-core industrial design. They’re a machine for living within: they need to withstand temperature extremes, radiation and the vacuum of space. So it’s an object that contains its own environment and its own atmosphere. Like a lot of high-tech designs, there isn’t any room for failure because the results would be catastrophic.

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That could also be said about an aircraft or a larger mechanical object, but when you think in terms of garments, not really. It’s quite extraordinary when you consider the consequences of this thing and what it’s supposed to do. They’re miraculous.

It’s hard to know quite why they’re so appealing to look at. I think it’s a cocktail of many things but one of them is that they’re about the era we grew up in. Like every other kid who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, I thought all things to do with space seemed possible. So for me, space is about childhood.

I think you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a 15-year-old kid now that has anywhere near the interest in space that I did when I was growing up because I don’t think it’s something that interests people anymore, particularly children. And when we haven’t been back to the Moon, who can blame them?

In the Seventies, we thought we’d be living in the future now: but to some extent we’ve regressed. Everything that Nasa seems to do these days gets scuppered at some point. If you want to go into space tomorrow, you won’t be going on a Space Shuttle. You’ll be going on a Russian Soyuz rocket. Even back then, everything the Americans were doing, the Russians were doing in parallel or better. The fact is, Russians have had people existing in space for far longer than Americans. It’s something they particularly excelled at.

I’m interested in Russian technology and Russian spacesuits, and I did manage to get my hands on one once. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to various space-related sites in Russia. That includes three launches in Kazakhstan, in a place called Baikonur, which is where the Russian Agency do all their launches. It’s where Yuri Gagarin took off from. And it’s where I set myself the task of procuring a spacesuit on behalf of the Design Museum.

It wasn’t easy to come by. I’ve never seen one for sale. They are, technically speaking, government property. You’ll certainly never find an American one on sale – Nasa wouldn’t have that. So it was a tremendous day when I got my hands on it, not least because it had been used. It had been into space a number of times. So its provenance was pretty fantastic.

When you get this object in your hands and you’re looking at it, you really get the sense of how unlike a normal garment it really is, because they’re so difficult to wear. And I mean: really, really hard to get on and off. As a consequence, it’s a very difficult object to imagine somebody inside. All you can think of is that some poor bastard had to spend really prolonged amounts of time in this thing.

I still don’t know who my suit belonged to. Whoever it was, his name was removed from the outside. He’s probably still furious because I got the impression it was taken from his locker – or something like that.

That was 12 years ago, and until recently it stayed in Sir Terence Conran’s collection at the Design Museum. Last year, Apple’s Jony Ive and I were able to prise it out of his collection in the name of charity, for a Red auction at Sotheby’s we collaborated on. The reserve price was $75,000, and it went for $305,000.

These days, space is moving more and more into the civilian world. Not just in terms of punters like you and me, but in terms of the people that operate vehicles that may go into space – commercial enterprises.

In 20 years’ time, Nasa will be fairly minor players and most of it will be managed by private enterprise. And where you have private enterprise, there will be appetite to involve people like me. I’ve already had a little bit of exposure in this area. I designed a suborbital spacecraft for Astrium, the aviation arm of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company. It’s a concept, so it’s not been realised yet. But at some point, I’d really like to get my teeth into doing something that really will travel into space and exist in a non-terrestrial environment.

I’d love to go up there myself. If I’d have had $20m to spare, I’d have done it. I think it’s probably double now and I can’t afford that. But when I started going to Russia in 2000, that was the goal: to figure out a way to do it.

I’m not that keen on going up in a rocket Richard Branson has been involved with. I’d rather do it in one that I designed, to be honest. It seems a bit safer. I’m not sure I love the idea of free-falling back to Earth. His thing is going to be completely unpowered when it comes back. That’s a bit scary.

Marc Newson is one of the world’s foremost industrial designers working in aircraft, furniture and fashion. His space-inspired collection for G-Star Raw is out now.

Taken from Esquire's Spring/ Summer 2014 Big Black Book: The Style Manual For Successful Men. Buy it here.

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