The Future of Design: Live with AD China

24 Hours in Shanghai 

Tom in conversation with Beryl Hsu, Editor of Architectural Digest China, via Hologram. They discuss design, sustainability and Young Chinese Talents.



Beryl Hsu: So, about this 24 Hours in Shanghai – actually I already saw a few versions in Paris, in Stockholm and also in Milan which is very interesting. I finished all the interviews or conversations. I noticed that in Shanghai you have different guests, so you want to tell us more about this?
Tom Dixon: Er, yeah, so 24 Hours in Shanghai is, as you say, is part of a series of events. They started off as physical events where we were actually travelling to a place for 24 hours and it’s a real shame that we can’t do that in Shanghai obviously, for obvious reasons, but it was quite a good format also to transfer digitally and so, I think the idea is really that when you do Design Fairs and when you do design promotions you’re always speaking to the same people. You’re always speaking to people that are primarily interested in design and you end up preaching to the converted, so here the format really allows us to go out and speak to people in different trades, you know: Chefs or Florists or people that not necessarily, in the first instance, are design people, right? I think in Shanghai what we’re looking at is really, sort of working again - Architects, for instance with Lyndon of Neri & Hu that obviously you know really rather well; Paul who’s a friend and artist who’s gonna convert a Fat chair for us; a series of different Chinese artists and designers that are gonna work on a lamp that we’ve got – the Melt lamp, so really it’s a way of reaching out and going and doing things with other people. Musicians for instance, so Rosey Chan who’s a Chinese London-based amazing composer and pianist, but also BeiBei who’s a percussionist based in Shanghai, so Music, Art, Design, Architecture, as many things as possible.
BH: So, it’s like you are having a very pretty busy 24 Hours?
TD: Er, well it’s trying to cram the maximum into a very short timeline. It’s the very fast format of the internet and digital media right now. You know how people want lots and lots of moving content, so it’s the modern time.
BH: Mm yeah, true, yeah yeah! Actually, it’s um – Well compared - they have this kind of saying that ‘Speed of China’ like we are moving forward like three times – this compared to all the world. I don’t know, it feels like three years is like ten years. I remember last time we talked about that and it still is, so you 24 Hours might be – it seems busy, but it might be like some peoples real 24 hours.
TD: So what’s happened – because I’ve not been there for a year and a half now, so that’s almost, in European time, five years you’re saying, right? So, what’s changed in Shanghai? What’s changed about the city and what’s happened since COVID?
BH: Well I have to say during this one and half – well one – almost one and a half years, people are paying attention more to home. I think things are a little slowing down because we don’t travel, right, so you spend more time at home or you spend more time with your family, with your close friends, so it’s easier to, you know, to get attached with your home. I think this is how we notice that, for the past one and a half years, actually we’re pretty busy, like we have a lot of different readers, requests, and they are asking different questions and, you know, it seems like it’s more – it’s quiet outside, but for us and for AD it’s busier. We even built up two homes for AD China.
TD: People are investing in their spaces then?
BH: Yes.
TD: And they’re finding new ways to use them, just like they are here which is, you know, mixing up their home schooling and cooking more, and also using it as an office, right?
BH: Yeah! Actually, especially kitchen. We saw a lot of kitchen renovation and a lot of people, because you can not go out, so people are more like, you know, like cooking at home so a lot of micro-renovation, especially in kitchens.
TD: And now are people doing cupcakes, kind of like the Americans, or are they investigating traditional Chinese cooking or doing Dim Sum or?
BH: Yeah, it’s more – it’s really more now just cupcakes I would say, like really ‘real-deal’ cooking, so actually also like in local live stream it’s pretty – live streaming – like we are - even we are doing that: streaming cooking with some celebrity, going to some kitchen brands’ showroom and then we do something together and it’s super popular.
TD: Ok?
BH: Do you hear anything?
TD: There’s a terrible noise which is from the - a machine over there.
BH: Oh, okay.
TD: We’re getting feedback –
BH: So why did you decide to open three shops, not just one, you know? Three shops during this time!
TD: Well, you know, you have your schedule and, just like everybody else, we were hoping that it would be a very short – a short moment. We didn’t realise – obviously at the beginning we didn’t realise that it wouldn’t be contained in Asia like SARS was contained in Asia, and we thought we’d be able to travel, so you make your plans and this is the characteristic of this period is that it’s impossible to plan, but still if you plan something for, you know – we were planning the Shanghai opening last year when everybody thought it would be over in three months, right? So we can’t wait indefinitely to open things and the very fact that the – you’re actually shopping and eating and going out as normal over there justifies the idea of opening in Shanghai even if we can’t visit it, you know?
BH: I’m really very, very impressed about how you are turning space: for example, those pop-up space into different experiences, especially in Milan. Like every time, every year in Milan you have the Cinema, you have the, sort of, restaurant, a sort of – you know, a lot of different experiences. I’m quite curious that how – I think of all of the – when was the first time you had this kind of idea and how did you – you know, how did you get this kind of inspiration? I believe that there wasn’t this kind of thing at that time, right? I don’t know if I’m right.
TD: Yeah well, you know, people have always done events and shows. I think, for me, I’ve – my history goes back a long time before Design, right? So, I was involved in the Music business and then I was involved in the Club business and I’ve often thought of even Retail turning much more into entertainment now and you see that much more in Fashion companies and Food companies and you see it a lot less in Interior Design, right? So, I think what’s interesting to me is that everything has become entertainment now and so it becomes more and more important to – you know, to make sure that people get an experience rather than just visit a furniture shop. I think, you know, the nature of our business is really extremely slow in terms of consumption. It’s much less likely to be an exciting retail experience which is why in the UK, in this building here, we have a restaurant for instance, and so, when we do shows, particularly in places like Milan Salone where you’re up against thousands and thousands of international companies you’ve got to work a bit harder to be interesting and relevant really.
BH: When was the first time you did this kind of ‘experience-oriented’ thing?
TD: Um, I think we – when we did the – maybe, I guess, you know, probably from the beginning of doing this brand really. You know, we’ve always -
BH: Right
TD: – also with other people, you know – whether that was a telephone company like Blackberry or whether it was with Ikea and we kind of bring that idea of ‘something you have to visit’ because otherwise you’re in a position of competing on an equal basis with all of the other brands that are just coming, showing, turning up with their furniture. And then we’re taking it to a bigger extreme at the moment, like with our Beijing Shop – is also a Bottle Shop there, a drinking bar, you know, and we try and incorporate F&B because I think, you know, people are interested in Design, but Design is not the subject. The subject is how you live, right? And so if you can get people into your space, if you can get them to sit down, you can get them to relax and enjoy the furniture, the lighting – it’s a very different experience from just shopping right? So this idea that you can have more going on in a world where people’s attention spans are so small and so miniature; we found that having, you know, other things going on really slows people down which is, you know, I think really difficult to do in the modern age.
BH: Were you a party-goer or some sort of like event-goer when you were – well I think you are always, but I want to confirm that if you are super like into events, into different kind of, you know, happenings, gatherings because actually I have to say, like from what you did in Milan – all this kind of experience, creating spaces, is really giving me a lot of like inspiration. We even did a café, we did - even turning to one year that was still working for another magazine. I turned the show – Design Shanghai – into a cinema.
TD: Really? Okay!
BH: because of you, yes. Yeah! That was really – that’s already four years ago, I think, and we have this long hall and we just put like three big – super big – screen because we were making design movies at that time and then I was imitating you, so I borrow a lot of designer chairs, putting in front of the big screen and then it was really – and then we were selling popcorn at that time during the design show. I think this was from you, I mean really like – it’s not really, how do you say like ‘kissing your ass’ saying. It’s true.
TD: Okay, how much money did you make from the popcorn, Beryl?
BH: That – well, it’s a giveaway. We are not allowed to sell popcorn at that time. I should have that time.
TD: Yeah, well I mean yes and no. ‘Party Animal’? I wasn’t the biggest party animal, but I always liked creating, you know, and hosting events and seeing what happened. I mean often I was the first person to leave, but I think if you’re involved in restaurant business or, you know, nightclub business which I was, sometimes it stops you from being so keen on staying for hours at the party, do you know what I mean? So, I look on it as something that is very interesting experiments and certainly it makes things like Milan Furniture Fair, which can be just a business thing, much more exciting for us, you know?
BH: How is the – I want to ask something about – like how is the business really like getting good because of what you – because I believe you are investing a lot on this kind of creating these – I don’t know, how is the number? I’m just curious, like… yeah.
TD: Well, you know in the modern world it’s very hard to measure specific impact. You know, particularly because most, you know, very quickly a lot of businesses shifting online and you know we do the majority of our business as wholesale, so it’s very hard to measure what happens at the end, you know, for the other retailers. I mean, we know from our business it’s almost impossible to measure over the last year because of – because of the pandemic and the shops have been closed and also the restaurants have been closed. What we do know is that it’s been less, kind of, a collapse that a lot of other businesses and certainly in interior design we’re doing better than last year which is really strange because most of our clients were in restaurants or hotels or cruise ships, you know; all these businesses that have just stopped completely, so I think we’re gonna see a quick recovery where all of the investments that we’ve made in keeping things interesting, keeping things going will pay off, but you know, it’s been a struggle for sure, just because, you know, like I was saying earlier: almost impossible to plan and then also the difficulty has been – really the manufacturing has been affected.
BH: Right.
TD: First it was China and we make things all over the world, you know, in the UK, a lot in Germany actually, some in Italy and some in China and each manufacturing place has been hit at different times and sometimes we’re combining components - just like in the car industry - from different countries, so when one country’s hit you can’t produce elsewhere, so it’s been really complicated from our logistics and then on top of that we’ve had Brexit, you know –
BH: Yeah.
TD: I’m sure you don’t talk a lot about Brexit in China, but Brexit has been quite a big impact on us.
BH: Yeah. I think I’m quite done with this business. I get bored of that, but I want to ask you more about the question is about like - because you are surprising people all the time with the – with all your designs as well, with the lifestyle that you are going to convey. Actually this can be very stressful, I don’t know, like if I were you I would be super stressed about what I’m gonna do next time, like what kind of things, so can you share with us more about like, maybe what’s gonna happen, like, in your mind? Like what kind of experience you are going to create because I believe, like, right now people don’t get surprised that easily. It’s just like Monsters Inc. The kids – kids get scared, like from the beginning, super, like, easily. They, all of a sudden, just don’t get scared, so you have to, you know, make something different – I don’t know… yeah
TD: Well you really don’t want to look too much into my mind. It’s very chaotic, you know? So – but I believe in chaos theory where, you know, you throw up a lot of chaos and different things and then a pattern will emerge, you know? I like to be interested in many, many different things and then step back a bit and try and think of how they kind of fit together which I think is, kind of, quite modern because, you know, in the modern world everything is about the network, right? So different nerves and different connections which may be unexpected, some which you don’t know and it’s a very big world and you have to identify a kind of pattern in all of that confusion because otherwise you’ll get lost, you know, but I don’t mind chaos and I don’t mind change, you know? And um – yeah, so that’s inside my mind. Obviously, I’m not gonna tell you exactly what’s happening next because that would be – you know, that would be giving the game away -
BH: It’s a surprise as well to tell me.
TD: - but I can tell you – yeah what’s interesting to me is sort of what I was talking about and what we’re saying, you know, for 24 Hours in Shanghai, what interests me is connections with other trades. Not just the interior design trade and I think, in a way, everybody lives with interiors and everybody lives with their home and their objects, but they’re not necessarily interested in Design and I think Design can come and help in lots of different ways which are slightly more intangible. So you know that we’ve been doing perfumes, for instance, so designing the smell of a space becomes kind of interesting to me, but then also designing places, particularly public spaces that are acoustically efficient, you know, that sound great. When I hang out with musicians, or I’m working in a kind of musical context, I’m thinking also thinking about Interior Design and objects as well. You know we’ve even got a table which is - absorbs sound, you know? So that, and obviously for us what’s really important: luminosity, so how light works in a space, so not just looking at an actual object and whether the object is beautiful, but also thinking about what effect it makes in a whole room is very important and I – I’ll be working more and more on those ideas of, you know, creating spaces from the intangibles as well as the tangible objects.
BH: I see. So that means actually it’s not gonna be – you are trying to downsizing the design itself.
TD: Well -
BH: Like not talking about – just like talking about design, but something else –
TD: I think, in a way, what’s interesting about our brand versus other brands is that we’re not just making the object, you know? We also – we create spaces because we’ve got an Interior Design studio, but we also operate spaces like the restaurant and so we get a better idea of what makes a complete – a complete interior and it’s not – sometimes it’s not even about, you know, the comfort or the colours. Sometimes it’s just about making things which last longer, that are more robust, or things that you can clean easily. You know, in a restaurant that becomes really important as it does in COVID, but I think I’m interested in building up a whole series of different viewpoints on interiors that are not necessarily from ‘Design objects’ perspective.
BH: I understand.
TD: I think most brands of interior products only think about their little sector. Maybe it’s upholstery or maybe it’s tableware, but our brand is different because it does Furniture, Lighting and Accessories and then we have an Interior Design studio, and then we have some spaces that you can come and visit, so we’re kind of – we’re interested in how we live and we’re very conscious that not everybody has to be an expert in design, but still they still want to create an amazing space for them to live in.
BH: I think context is getting more and more important nowadays.
TD: Yeah, indeed.
BH: Because it’s more about what are you trying to say instead of what are you are going to make. What you say is about all objects are supporting what you - your messages which is quite exhausting to refine that. It can be like just one, like, very solid idea, but everything around it -
TD: Yeah, you know, I think also that your job is very much about, kind of, I wouldn’t say Education, but demonstrating how – how you can put things together and what really works to make and amazing space, right, and so for me, maybe in the near future will be slighting more education like that because I think for a lot of people it’s mysterious, you know, particularly things like lights. It’s very hard to understand how you create a great atmosphere in the space using light.
BH: Are you teaching now? You say you –
TD: No, I’ve done a lot of teaching and I think, you know, maybe when I’m much older I’ll do it more because it just requires a – it requires a – your full attention, you know what I mean? I think – I don’t think you can teach in a small way. You have to teach in a big way.
BH: But I think if you are going about teaching it’s more about – it’s not about the way of design or the way of creating. Maube it’s more about dipping inside the authentic or something like that – I don’t know. Even turning you – yourself or Tom Dixon Studio into a test – something quite, something quite difficult –
TD: Well maybe turning the shop into a school? Yeah!
BH: Yeah! Oh, that’s a good idea actually.
TD: Oh, okay – we’ll do it together.
BH: So, we can do it together, yeah. Right! Because the thing is about this whole masterclass thing or what – I think this kind of thing is very famous or very popular. It’s because people still have this kind of – how do you say – willingness to learn something.
TD: Well, just like you were saying with cooking –
TD: Oh, that’s better!
BH: And also, I have a last question for you. It’s that actually about what I was reading – not reading – I was watching a video that you were having with GQ UK which is two years ago. It’s about Braun which I think is quite weird that we – you are with Braun which is something… Anyway, I love the video. I love the interview. What my question is: You are talking about how you turned into designer – it’s totally very coincidental – you said this word? Like all of a sudden you were making things and all of a sudden people are calling you ‘Designer’ so then you are a designer. So my question is: If this – because right now, like right at this point, this time, nowadays anyone can be a designer, or any designer can be different occupation, but still they are doing something like Design or whatever, so if you are at that age now would you still choose to be a designer or would you choose a set – this whole thing – or you have different – or artist, or I don’t know, like –
TD: You mean, if I knew what I know now or -?
BH: If you are in your twenties now.
TD: Oh, okay. Yeah, I think the beauty of being a designer is really that it’s – it’s such a big word that, you know, it covers so many activities that really it allows you to have a new and different adventure, you know, almost every week, you know, because design can be applied almost to any other profession, right? So, I think I probably would. I think, you know, where it’s everybody’s a designer, I think it’s much easier now to have the tools to be a designer or a manufacturer. It’s easier to publicise your work than ever it was before. You know, the internet is an amazing medium now for visual jobs because, you know, it’s driven a lot by imagery right now and the only downside is that there’s so many people that are interested in it that it’s more competitive, right? I think from the perspective of having a career in design: it’s actually easier now that it ever was before. Whether it’s as special or unique or not – I think everything has become more popular because it’s more accessible now. So yeah, I think Design’s been a great trade, but it wouldn’t stop me wanting to be a sculptor or a musician. I mean my initial thing was more music, right, and yeah, I think being in the art business would have been really interesting as well, but again I can’t – it’s an impossible question I think because I never – well mainly because I didn’t have a plan, right? So, because I never had a plan in the first place I think, probably, if I was twenty now I wouldn’t have a plan even now.
BH: Just go – you just choose that path you wanna choose.
TD: Well the path chose me, right?
BH: Possibly, yeah. Yeah, but I think I kind of disagree with you about this whole – how do you say it – this whole that being a designer is much easier now.
TD: You disagree?
BH: I think it’s more – I disagree with you because like making stuff - I agree that making objects is getting easier, especially in China. We have all kinds of manufacturing; you know like all kinds of ways – I want to – I want to make a chair. I probably can make it in two weeks. I just go into a bar and then, you know, just – totally easy. I can make one, but I think this is more the definition of Designer right now is not just making, designing a piece, but just like you say that it’s about like a whole idea. What’s surrounding that and also like why is the design should be here? Why should the design be here? It’s again going to the question about like – because we have so many objects. Why do we have that? Why do we need that? Why do we need new pieces? So, I think for designers right now it’s getting more and more difficult. They don’t ask themselves these kinds of questions. Then it’s just like – it’s useless. I mean even – you design good chair and it’s so beautiful for what? I mean it doesn’t – it’s not like you are saving the world by this chair.
TD: Okay, well If we’re gonna start saving the world then that’s a whole other Zoom conference that we’ve got to do, right? So, this-
BH: That’s true. Yeah, well it’s also about saving the world – the definition of ‘Saving the world’ – sometimes I’m thinking about what I’m doing is really – only talking about beautiful lifestyle? No. I think I’m trying to share something that is making people happy or content in a way. I hope!
TD: Yeah! I mean, you know, the sustainability thing is obviously the most important conversation. It’s also the first question. I don’t think that’s the reason it’s difficult to be a designer now, I mean in a way those problems are design problems as well. It’s like, you know, designing for circular economies or designing to make things out of sustainable materials is also a great challenge, you know, and it’s when – are you drinking Bubble Tea, Beryl?
BH: I’m drinking a juice which is – you know, I chose this juice because of all – everything’s green so –
TD: Oh yeah!
BH: It’s a whole experience as well.
TD: Ok, yeah so, I think designers – young designers – now, you know, that are answering that question is super important. All I was saying that, you know, to build a brand or to communicate what you’re doing to an international audience and get customers is much easier than it was when I started because there were no means of having international communication for free back then, you know? There’s much less travel, there’s much – so it’s just the mechanics is easier. Obviously when something gets more popular it becomes more competitive, so it becomes difficult from a different angle to what it was like when I was doing it.
BH: Do you have a – I don’t know if you have kids or not – I mean, would you tell your young – you know, your young - how do you say – those who are the younger generation to be a designer. If they say they want to be a designer would you say “Oh yeah, go ahead”?
TD: Yeah, I would definitely “yes, go ahead”. Like I say the design adventure has almost just started for me, you know? The more I learn, the more possibilities there are and I think that there’s – design is really about solving problems or improving things, right? So, you know, right now there’s so many things that need to be solved and so many things that need to be improved that there’s lots of stuff for designers to do and maybe you’re right, designing another chair probably isn’t the thing that you’d be designing, but design can be, you know, a system. It can be, you know, it can be teaching. It can be making things more efficient, or it can be inventing completely new technology. I mean, I think there’s lots of room for design to become more important and more useful.
BH: True. I want to ask you one more question then I think I will let you go because I was – I don’t think I’ve seen any public media about your home. Did you –
TD: No, I stopped doing my home because I, you know, really I do – you know, although I talk a lot about my work and I talk a lot about Design, I think your home is personal, right and I’d like to keep it that way, you know?
BH: Still?
TD: Well there’s a, you know, there’s a professional Tom Dixon and there’s a private Tom Dixon and I like to keep it that way, right?
BH: Really, I think there’s not such a – there’s a fine line, but it’s not like super obvious line.
TD: No!
BH: That’s just that way.
TD: Well if you’re asking me if you can photograph my home: Uh uh!
BH: No, this is not my question. I just want to ask – because about what you say that – because I really liking shooting people, not just because showing the privacy, but we find it very interesting. I think the Chinese say ‘The home is like the person itself’.
TD: Really?
BH: It says more than – yeah, it says more than the person wants to say, so make the whole person or the person’s work more – how do you say – 3D dimensional. We want more context, so, like for Tom Dixon that was since ten years I know you, your works and everything that I feel – yes, Tom Dixon is something that I know, but it’s not 3D dimensional enough. I don’t know, this is just – I’m not trying to complain you, you know?
TD: Yeah – no, but I think it’s – you know, it’s much more interesting that somethings are hidden, you know? You don’t want to know everything about everybody. You want some secrets to remain, okay? So that’s my little secret.
BH: I wouldn’t take that as a no. I would – well we can talk next time in person.
TD: Okay! Alright, Beryl.
BH: Okay!
TD: Well we – thank you very much for seeing me in Shanghai.