On his recent tour of New Zealand, we caught up with Sean Dix on the aspects of contemporary design that continue to influence his inimitable practice.
When Sean Dix ventured over to New Zealand from Hong Kong for the very first time this month, a particularly vibrant, active and altogether unique design community welcomed him with open arms. Touring the country with Zenith with an itinerary of intimate gatherings in Zenith’s showrooms, Dix shared his latest insights on design in the region. And we thought the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on New Zealand’s thriving design industry was just too good to miss!
It has recently been demonstrated that New Zealand’s design industry contributes roughly 4.2% of the country’s GDP. But I wonder what your take on this is. I’m interested to hear your opinion on the design scene in New Zealand – how and where it is thriving – now that you’ve been able to visit the country for the first time with Zenith.
Sean Dix: Do you know what, I’m surprised to hear that we contribute “only” 4.2%! As you say, this was only my first trip to New Zealand (of many to come, I hope) so I can’t speak with any authority and detail about the design scene here. But I can say that there is a clear appreciation for contemporary and original design, especially evident in many cool restaurants and bars that I saw on my brief tour of Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland with Zenith.
Zenith Auckland Showroom
Speaking of restaurants and bars – for which, in New Zealand, you’re to think that we’re spoiled for choice! – I know that your portfolio is very heavily influenced by the hospitality sector across the world. Is there something about Asia Pacific’s rich hospitality landscape that speaks to you as a designer?
Sean Dix: I look at that beyond the realm of the hospitality sector – it has always been a much broader, bigger influence in my case. After all, I moved to this part of the world because there are huge creative opportunities for architects and designers in a very broad sense. Where the USA and Europe feel pretty sleepy, Asia Pacific is at the forefront of the design sector, full of energy and drive. And I noticed this incredible energy in New Zealand during the tour.
On this tour you showcased a selection of your portfolio with Zenith. I understand that quite a few of these pieces have very interesting backstories. Some, for instance, were developed for a particular project at one point – like your Yardbird range. What is that process of designing furniture as part of a larger brief like?
Sean Dix: My interior projects are always very concept-driven, meaning that I develop ideas to help my clients reinforce their design identity. So the furniture I develop, design and manufacture for these projects always begins with that goal in mind.
The Street collection, for example, was originally designed for a restaurant that specialized in Vietnamese street food. The furniture was designed as a reference to the colourful little stacking tables and chairs that one finds scattered on every sidewalk in Vietnam.
And one of the inspirations for the interior of Yardbird restaurant in Hong Kong, which you just mentioned, was the factory canteen of Bauhaus-era Germany. It was a kind of no-nonsense place where factory workers would eat their lunch. So the furniture designed for that project and now supplied by Zenith in New Zealand and Australia needed to reflect that kind of no-nonsense, practical, sturdy, anonymous design.
Zenith Christchurch Showroom
But even though such pieces were developed for a particular project, they have also been selected across the world to be included in many others as well – both similar to the original iteration, and very different in some cases. Is this something that you are always aware of during the design process? Or, more directly, what is it about your portfolio that you think allows it to be translated so beautifully from one project to the next?
Sean Dix: You’re right in the sense that the original designs that I create for specific interiors projects are often well suited to fit into the interior design of others applications and settings. I suppose that is because my design has character, but does not shout for attention. This makes my pieces easy for other architects and designers to work with. It is always hard when one designs a complete, cohesive interior and then has to source appropriate furniture that complements that design. I try to design furniture that works well with the rest of the interior.
And that process has seen your brand really establish itself on the international stage. I understand that you actually have quite a number of international projects on the go at the moment, is that right?
Sean Dix: Yes, in addition to a bunch of new furniture designs we are launching in September, my office currently has projects in Hong Kong, Paris, Saigon, Wuxi, and Los Angeles. These include everything from restaurants and bars (of Sri Lankan, Japanese, Greek, Cantonese cuisine) to furniture showrooms and public restrooms for a luxury shopping mall. What I think makes this job so fun is the sheer extent of different types of projects we undertake.
How on earth are you finding the time to complete all of those projects while still launching new products in September?
Sean Dix: [Laughs] As I said, it really is the diversity that makes this vocation so enjoyable. Currently, we’re launching a suite of new pieces next month, all springing from different points of inspiration. For instance, Chopsticks is a moulded plywood chair with a really unique crossed-leg structure like chopsticks. Another design, Flow, goes the opposite route and takes a timber stacking chair and bar stool but re-imagines it with a really sculptural, shaped, flowing back. But I am also inspired by different cultural influences as well. Another new piece, Abrazo, takes inspiration from the Spanish word for ‘embrace’, and is a very comfortable moulded plywood armchair that looks as if the back is wrapping around and cradling (or embracing) the seat and arms. And an old 1930s British school chair inspired Floyd: a friendly, sturdy and lightweight chair with or without arms that can still be stacked. Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall inspired the name and concept for this piece.
Zenith Wellington Showroom
It sounds like you’re exploring some new and interesting influences from quite a broad spectrum. Since we’re just ahead of Orgatec in the coming months, what do you expect we will see a lot of coming from the fair this year, and where, like yourself, do you think designers are now looking to change up the commercial landscape?
Sean Dix: My designs often straddle the fence between commercial and residential, and I’ve been fortunate that there is an appreciation for that type of product in the commercial sector. After all, designs that are warmer and more comfortable, using more sustainably sourced timber, for example, are very much still important in the world of office design. I think that this demand will only continue.
Well I guess we’ll just have to wait for that little bit longer to see what Germany has in store for us.
Sean Dix: Yes, I think so. I am looking forward to seeing how others have been approaching how to re-imagine design in the commercial sector. It has been a real pleasure learning more about how New Zealand is approaching this while touring. I can’t wait to see what Orgatec will bring.