A chat with well-known American designer Sean Dix


"I didn't really choose to be a designer, it chose me. Being a designer allows me to explore, learn and create new things all the time; it's the only job I can think of in which it is impossible to be bored," says Mr Dix.

American designer Sean Dix jokes that he is lucky that being a designer is a viable career option, "otherwise I'd probably be unemployable".

The 48-year-old designer, who is now based in Hong Kong, says that he didn't really set out on this career path.

"I didn't really choose to be a designer, it chose me," he shares. "Being a designer allows me to explore, learn and create new things all the time; it's the only job I can think of in which it is impossible to be bored."

Mr Dix graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and later the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and Domus Academy in Milan.

It was also in Milan that he started his firm, Dix Design + Architecture, in 2000.

After 15 years in Milan, he decided it was time for a big move. "Asia was the place to be for work-related and cultural reasons," points out Mr Dix, who first came to Asia in the 1970s, as a kid with his family. He moved to Hong Kong in 2008.

Mix of cultures

"I've always loved this part of the world. I love the international mix of cultures here, and the fast pace of work and life. There is so much to see and so much to learn. It can be exhausting but always interesting."

With his furniture being made in Guangdong, it also made sense for him to be near the furniture makers, whom he visits about twice a week.

The company has its arms in furniture and product design, as well as designing interiors for restaurants, retail outlets and private residences.

Some of the places he has designed include restaurants Yardbird and Ho Lee Fook in Hong Kong and the Moschino stores in Paris, Milan and Moscow.

Yardbird (above)

Ho Lee Fook (above)

Moschino stores in Paris (above)

In Singapore, Mr Dix's pieces are available through furniture retailer Om. Popular pieces include the Copine Dining Table (below), with its sleek and modern design that makes it easy to fit into commercial, hospitality spaces and homes.

Then there is also the Panda Series (below), which consists of various styles of seats, from stools to dining chairs. The chairs are made from a combination of veneered plywood for the back and seat, and powder-coated steel for the legs. Available in multiple veneers, the chairs can easily fit into any style of home.

For something more versatile, go for the Reverso Bench (below), which can, despite its name, be used either as a bench or a coffee table. The top of the bench can be switched from the upholstered fabric or leather padding to a timber top.

Mr Dix tends to gravitate to materials such as hardwoods, steel and cast aluminium. "I particularly love working with natural materials that age well, that develop a patina and look good with scratches or dings."

He recently had the opportunity to design a bar for a pub using cast zinc, "the kind of thing you see in an old bar in Paris. It is a beautiful, tactile material that only improves with age. It looks great now, but I can't wait to see how it improves after 50 years of heavy use," he says excitedly.

But whether it is designing a product or a space, Mr Dix adds, "interiors and furniture are like haikus and sonnets, short stories and novels. They are both a lot of fun and challenging in different ways."

Not only to prefer one type of project over the other, he says he is happiest when he has the opportunity to combine the two, by designing bespoke pieces for the restaurants, as in the case for Yardbird and Ho Lee Fook.

"Much of what I do is about interaction and connections: the connection between a seat and the legs of a chair, the interaction between that chair and the rest of the interior," he explains. "It's about seeking a balance, a sense that all the pieces fit together naturally. Great interiors, like chairs, support the most important thing - the people that are using them."

His dream project would be to design the economy class interior of a major airline. "Those guys up in business class don't need me, but back there in the back of the plane there are a million opportunities for improvements. As cramped as they are, there is still a tremendous amount of available space that is underutilised in the cabin," he says, adding that he would love to do more design that impacts difficult lives, such as low-income housing, and schools in developing countries.

"I'm less interested in how it looks than how it works - if I've done my job properly people don't spend a lot of time talking about it. I've done my job if they are enjoying instead of thinking about design," Mr Dix says, of his design philosophy.

Protecting IP

Yet, nothing gets him more upset than when his designs get copied which has happened.

"There is a special place in hell for counterfeiters," he says. He does not have a problem with replicas of vintage designs - as the designs are out of copyright and the designers have died. "But come on, stealing contemporary designs takes food from the mouths of factory workers, the children of designers, and honest distributors."

According to Mr Dix, the real problem, though, is rarely the manufacturer. Most times, it is the foreign client who asks the manufacturer to copy a particular design and sell the product cheaper.

"My designs are all registered and we aggressively protect my intellectual property," he points out.

Had he not been a designer, he would probably be the owner of a small restaurant serving very simple, very honest food. "I love cooking and see it as a more immediate kind of design. Not coincidentally, most of my friends are chefs and restaurateurs."

In today's throw-away world, where people have way too much stuff and sustainable design is the way to go, do people actually need more than one sofa?

"Of course not. We don't need new songs, books, or art either. But I'd like to think that those of us that are serious are striving towards creating legitimate things with some permanence, something that our grandkids will fight over after the reading of the will," Mr Dix concludes.

Written by Tay Suan Chiang for The Business Times