Two giants of British design talk creativity, collaborations and changing the landscape of King’s Cross with Ben Spriggs, editor of ELLE Decoration.
On the global stage, they’re two of the most iconic faces of British design: Paul Smith, the constantly evolving fashion designer, known for exquisitely tailored men’s and women’s wear; and Tom Dixon, the ever-provocative creator behind numerous home products and interior design projects. With King’s Cross’ burgeoning creative scene, the area became an obvious choice for both men to base new spaces. Dixon’s expansive 1,625 square metre complex has recently opened and later this year Smith will join him with a versatile retail space in Coal Drops Yard. Earlier this month, the long-time friends met to discuss Dixon’s move from west London and to explore why they both decided to focus on N1C.
Tom Dixon has been at the forefront of the British design scene since the 1980s. He originally achieved fame for his welded salvage furniture and went on to create pieces for many major international design firms, including Italian giant Cappellini, for whom he conceived the iconic S Chair. After a stint as head of design, then creative director for UK high-street brand Habitat, he set up his own eponymous brand in 2002, which now comprises over 600 products ranging from lighting to tableware, fragrance to furniture. In 2007 Dixon launched Design Research Studio, an interior and architectural design arm to his business, which has worked on projects including Shoreditch House and the London Mondrian Hotel for Morgans Hotel Group.
Sir Paul Smith CBE RDI is arguably the most famous and successful British fashion designer alive today. Opening his first menswear shop in Nottingham in 1970, he has gone on to create a global fashion empire available in over 70 countries that has expanded into women’s and children’s wear as well as accessories. He’s also worked on numerous collaborations, including hugely successful rug designs for The Rug Company, a range of textiles with US fabric firm Maharam and most recently a collection of hand-crafted luggage with British company Globe-Trotter. He has also won plaudits for his global flagship store, No.9 Albemarle Street in London’s Mayfair, which functions as a gallery space showing changing art exhibitions and rare furniture sourced from around the world alongside his men’s and women’s fashion collections.
He was one of the first to buy some very scrappy things in metal that I was making at the time.
It stands to reason that the two men would become close, as indeed they have been for many years. Theirs is a friendship born from mutual respect and a driven desire to be at the forefront of innovation, whether that be in design or fashion. “I opened my store in Covent Garden in 1979 and I knew all about Tom then,” says Smith. “I was living in Notting Hill and Tom had his studio nearby in All Saints Road and so I bought a lot of pieces. There was quite a lot going on at that time together, both here in the UK and Japan.”
“Paul is always an early adopter,” points out Dixon, “so he was one of the first to buy some very scrappy things in metal that I was making at the time in the early 1980s. They went into the changing rooms of his stores a lot I think!”
This creative relationship, centred around mutual admiration for each other’s work, was cemented even further in 1993 when Paul became godfather to Tom’s first daughter, Florence. “She’s now 25,” says Smith, so that’s a good guide of how long we’ve known each other… ”
“I was desperate,” says Dixon of his choice to move to his new headquarters, called The Coal Office, in King’s Cross. “We’d been in Ladbroke Grove for eight or nine years with an optimum space on the canal, but west London is quite remote now… from both our customers and tradespeople. We needed to find somewhere which was half for trade — i.e. architects, specifiers, wholesalers — and half for consumers. So we looked all over the city; we looked in Brompton Cross and Clerkenwell, all over south London and at other sites in west London too… and we ended up in King’s Cross, mainly I think because of the amazing transport network; the fact that it’s now connected to Brussels, to Edinburgh. Weirdly it’s still on the same canal we were on before. There’s something about actually coming home again to the Grand Union Canal that’s rather nice, and although I tried to find a big open, modern building, we’ve ended up in exactly the same sort of Victorian building we had in Ladbroke Grove.”
Smith found himself drawn to the area for more historical reasons. “For me, there was always a connection,” he says, “because I came from Nottingham, so I was always coming into St Pancras from there and I’d use King’s Cross to go up to Leeds, which was where all the fabrics came from and where a lot of the clothes were made. I was very familiar with the history and authenticity of the architecture around here… and the coal drops with their brick and cast iron are just fantastic spaces.”
“Was the creativity of the place important to you?” Smith asks Dixon. “The key thing is that the area is anchored by Central Saint Martins,” he replies, “which means every morning there’s an amazing fashion parade as the students walk into the college in their get-ups. I think it’s unusual, because you get so many different crowds here. You get the commuters and the office workers, but you get families coming in at the weekends too… There’s a diversity about it which is kind of interesting. For us, this is more than just a shop. This is our headquarters, our home and a pleasant environment for people to work in. We’re also going to have a restaurant because it’s important that we are a destination where people can come and eat every day of the week.”
Collaboration and interaction with his different audiences is also a motivating factor behind the environment Dixon has created at The Coal Office. “I think for everybody involved in selling things, the idea of a shop has become a bit old-fashioned. It needs to be a place where you’re broadcasting from; it needs to be a place that’s active and for us it’s really difficult having a dusty old furniture shop. We needed a space that is a stage for lots of different collaborations and events. I learnt a lot of that stuff from Paul, who constantly refreshes his shops. He was quite early in that whole game…”
“This move to King’s Cross is a very significant investment in terms of time, effort and money,” continues Dixon, “so we wanted to make it more than the last place in west London. We’re actually making the place more open in terms of the design process, so we’ve got a space called The Factory which is 93 square metres in the arches where we want to open up a bit what we do, so we’ll do live prototyping and have more engagement with people coming in, potentially even getting members of the public to manufacture things for us! I wanted to mix it up a bit between design, food, and retail and really use the fact that there are lots of people around by trying to engage them a bit more. What I’m trying to do is to make a more open and modern place and to use this really as a hub for a number of things on top of just selling products.”
Dixon’s ambitions for his brand’s fast-expanding universe are wide-reaching, with a heavy emphasis on craft and community. Part of this is the Trade Counter, a dedicated space for professionals from architects and interior designers, to retailers and dealers. A three-dimensional mood board made of “mostly architectural materials” has seen partnerships with flooring and tile brands and The Rug Company, who also has a space there. “While we work on interior design jobs, they work on the very beginning of a project. They are in some ways the base of what we do, so it made a lot of sense to bring them here too.” Elsewhere, this multi-use of space also applies to the shop. “We’re really keen to run more temporary, occasional events and pop-ups linking with the programme of events that happens in King’s Cross, whether that’s design week or London Fashion Week. We want to be connected to the larger life of the estate.”
In spite of choosing to be based in a thriving part of the UK’s capital, both men were drawn in by the location’s global resonance and reach. “You’ve got Google’s headquarters here,” says Dixon, “and it’s become a crossroads for all kinds of European visitors; it’s so well-known.”
“We work in around 73 countries around the world,” says Smith. “We design four fashion collections a year and what’s interesting is that they get bought differently around the world. Being a global company, you’ve got to be flexible, think globally, but act local and this is the right environment to do that in.”
“I have two global lives really,” agrees Dixon. “One which is where things are produced, because I travel the world getting things made where I can find the skills I need and people that are prepared to work with me, whether that’s working with amazing craftspeople in India, engineers in Germany on a high-tech plastic, electronics in Asia or metal bashing in the Midlands. For me, the world is a place where you find things and get things made and have great relationships with the people who form the manufacturing base and are the essence of the business. Then there’s the other side, which is getting more and more interesting and exciting, which is obviously where you sell the stuff. I’ve got really great customers in places like Dakar and Tehran and Reykjavik and that fascinates me. The fact I could go to places which aren’t normally tourist destinations but I have these amazing people looking after me. I have a really rich and diverse experience, which is partly product development and partly marketing in all these different places in the world. It’s a really unique set up.”
Rather than having a hidden workshop in the back, I wanted a bigger area where there’s more activity and we all pile in.
Both Dixon and Smith take great inspiration from this global viewpoint on design, which can be seen in the way a Paul Smith fabric is developed or a piece of Tom Dixon lighting is hand-crafted. “Tom and I trained our eyes to just look and see more than first glance,” says Smith, “and we’re both blessed with travelling a lot. Tom’s just mentioned India and Germany in one sentence and how diverse are those two places? There’s always tons of influences everywhere, but you’ve got to teach yourself to observe and to absorb.”
So what does the future hold for the two designers? Smith is focusing on his next collections, to be revealed in a few months at Paris Fashion Week, as well as new store openings in Denmark, Korea and China, not to mention his new space in King’s Cross. Dixon, on the other hand, is looking to home. “In spite of everything, I feel like I’ve probably overdone the travel somewhat and I need to spend a bit more time in King’s Cross this year, actually in the workshop,” he says. “That is the objective of The Factory. Rather than having a hidden little space in the back of the place, I wanted a bigger area where there’s much more activity and we all pile in. Last week we were trying to make plates for the new restaurant, which will open shortly [scheduled for August 1], which will get fired in the Central Saint Martins kiln when the students are on holiday. So again we’re trying to keep it a bit more local. I feel I’ve been out of the studio a bit too long, so I want to spend more time here and get my hands dirty!”
“Which is exactly how you started,” points out Smith. “Just getting on and doing it… ” It’s this shared get-up-and-go attitude that defines the innovative work of both men and makes them fitting neighbours for an area built on a similarly pioneering industrial heritage.
This article first appeared in the summer 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.