A Meeting of Masters

Speaking to fashion stalwarts Paul Smith and Tom Dixon

Posted: Friday 19th October 2018

Two of the UK design scene’s famous faces, Paul Smith and Tom Dixon, discuss modern retail, moving to KX and their love of London with Ben Spriggs, editor of ELLE Decoration.

It’s hard to find two men who represent enterprising British creativity more than designers Paul Smith and Tom Dixon. Smith, has calmly and confidently led the UK’s fashion industry for almost 50 years. He opened his first shop in Nottingham in 1970 and his designs are now available in over 70 countries across the world.

Dixon, on the other hand, is considered to be this country’s leading industrial product designer. He set up his eponymous brand in 2002, which now incorporates a diverse range of items from lighting to tableware, fragrance to furniture. Friendship, family and a ferocious work ethic have joined the men together for years. Now, with Paul Smith launching a versatile retail space at Coal Drops Yard, close to Dixon’s Coal Office headquarters on Granary Square, the two find themselves King’s Cross neighbours.

“I’ve known Tom for many years,’ says Smith, “I was an early admirer of his work and we’ve gone on to become close friends and I’m even Godfather to his daughter, Florence.”

“Paul’s an early adopter,” continues Dixon, “he was one of the first to buy my pieces at the start of the 1980s. They were scrappy, but he got what I was trying to achieve.”

As well as their close rapport, there’s also a strong creative bond. “There’s a certain irreverence that I think our work shares,” explains Smith. “I’ve always loved that Tom could make something utterly beautiful out of something ordinary — for instance, a perfectly-proportioned sculpture of a horse head made entirely from floorboard nails. When I first discovered his work, I was becoming known for softening tailoring and challenging formal dress codes by doing things like taking a pinstriped suit and pairing it with tennis shoes. This sense of breaking down boundaries is a link between what we both do.” Dixon agrees: “We both started in a similar way. Just setting off and doing it. This get-up-and-get-on-with-it attitude defines how we both work.”

Smith is thrilled to be joining Dixon (who opened his business’s UK headquarters in Granary Square earlier this year) as an integral part of Thomas Heatherwick’s regeneration of Coal Drops Yard. “As someone who’s travelled in and out of King’s Cross for years and seen it change from a run-down area to a vibrant and beautifully restored part of the city, it’s with great excitement that I’m opening a new shop there,” he says.

Smith has long held the belief that each of his shops should be different, each designed by an in-house team of architects to reflect and react to its specific surroundings. The new store at Coal Drops Yard is no exception, with a series of invigorating spaces that respect and contrast with Coal Drops Yard’s listed architecture and include elements that engage with its context as a central point within the King’s Cross estate. In fact, Smith loved the location so much that he chose it as the venue for his Spring/Summer ‘17 catwalk show prior to the site’s redevelopment back in September 2016.

“I was lucky with King’s Cross because I inherited a very large, very beautiful skeleton,” Smith says. “Within the space I’ve created a series of almost surreal, smaller areas, which is something I’ve done in some of my shops previously. Take my Los Angeles shop as an example, from the outside it’s this vast pink cube, but inside I’ve created little rooms, almost like individual film sets. The Tokyo store is similar. There I’ve taken a traditional Japanese house and all of the rooms contain different elements of the Paul Smith world, one houses accessories, another men’s clothes, and another all of the collaborations I’ve done with everyone from Anglepoise lamps to Caran D’Ache pens.”

Central to the shop’s design will be a juxtaposition of modern features with the listed architecture, where the vaulted brick ceiling and walls will be retained. “I’ve tried to add modern elements to this old but great-looking shell,” says Smith. “There’s a bright blue corridor with a rubberised floor in the middle, a changing room in the men’s suiting area covered in one Yen coins to highlight my links to Japan and all sorts of other surprises, but I don’t want to give it all away!”

Alongside these visual treats, the rear of the store will reflect Smith’s history as a shopkeeper in Nottingham when he would change his stock regularly, bringing back unusual objects such as toys and other items from his travels around the world to present something new to the local customers. This space will feature a rotation of concepts, from the coveted Japanese Red Ear collection to product launches linked to events in the city such as Design Week and Frieze, creating a contemporary version of a local shop.

Dixon has taken an equally modern and directional approach to contemporary retail and brand projection. His Granary Square headquarters, dubbed ‘The Coal Office’, opened earlier this year. Dixon describes it as “a new epicentre of design”, rather than the conventional, corporate head office you might expect, the space is instead a multidisciplinary platform for creative innovation, functioning as a live studio space, combining a shop, workshop and office all under one roof.

“For us it was imperative not to just find a new office or shop,” says Dixon, “It was vital to find a new home. London isn’t just another city; it’s where it all started for us. We will use the 1,625 square metres of this incredible location to broadcast our latest ideas in interior design, product innovation and experiments in food, functionality and future living.”

The retail space at The Coal Office takes over the canal-side arches under the office space, with each arch featuring distinct collections of the over 600 product lines, which make up Dixon’s collection. Elements here include a lighting shop, haberdashery, furniture shop and gift area, as well as ‘The Factory’ an open workshop, where Dixon’s team make things, test ideas, create prototypes and encourage customers to get involved in the production process. Here the public can take part in hands-on sessions where they’re given the opportunity to become manufacturers, join the production line and make their own lights or other products. “Our studio has been characterised from its earliest beginnings by a fascination with manufacturing,” says Dixon, “and as we moved into our new hub, we felt an urgent desire to start making stuff.”

Finally, there’s ‘The Trade Counter’ a dedicated space for professionals — from architects and interior designers to retailers and dealers. Laid out as a three-dimensional moodboard, this is a space to host longer conversations about architecture and commerce, to browse through a multitude of design options in a series of atmospheric industrial Victorian rooms packed full of the latest innovations in furniture and lighting. It also features a rapidly evolving roster of collaborations with various architectural surface brands, such as The Rug Company (who Dixon and Smith have both created rug designs for), handmade tile company Made a Mano, and wooden flooring specialists Dinesen and Sphere8.

“For everyone in retail, the idea of a shop has become old-fashioned,” says Dixon. “It needs to be a space you’re projecting your brand from; it needs to be a place that’s active. We needed a space that could be a stage for lots of different collaborations and events. I learnt a lot from Paul, who constantly refreshes his shops. He was quite early in that whole game…” Smith was attracted to the area as King’s Cross has a direct rail link to his hometown of Nottingham, where he set up his first store Vêtements Pour Homme in 1970, selling established labels alongside pieces he’d designed himself.

“Because of the Nottingham connection I’ve been travelling in and out of King’s Cross for decades,” says Smith. “I’ve seen the area change. In a way it looked like Covent Garden, where I opened my first London shop. When I moved there in 1979 the market had closed seven years previously and so it was vast and empty, but you could tell it had the potential to be amazing. King’s Cross felt the same and I’m fascinated to see how it’s going to evolve.” And was Smith aware he was going to be in the same spot as his old acquaintance Tom Dixon? “It’s a coincidence,” says Smith, “I had no idea. There of course has been lots of speculation of people who might be moving in, but I was delighted when I found out Tom and I were going to be neighbours. I have always admired his work and his way of working.”

Both Dixon and Smith are certain the area is the right place for their businesses. “I’ve been impressed by how it has transformed” says Smith. “The actual place is well made. It has these industrial sites with a lot of heritage, but the modern elements have been added respectfully.”

Dixon isn’t the only King’s Cross creative that Smith has a relationship with: “What I’m pleased with is the choice of people who have put the whole place together,” he explains. “Thomas Heatherwick is a mate of mine and he’s respected the original space, but has given modern elements to it. Another similarity with how I do things: classic with a twist.”

“The area won’t just be a shopping mall,” he continues, “it is residential, near lots of exciting north London neighbourhoods and has amazing rail connections to Nottingham, Paris and beyond. Lots of interesting companies like Universal, Google and Louis Vuitton have already moved in, so it has a nice flow of interesting people.”

How have Smith’s opinions of the capital changed over the years? “I’ve been here for many years and my wife is a Londoner, born and bred,” he says. “What I find interesting is witnessing the city grow and grow. When I first opened my shop in Covent Garden we thought it was on the outskirts of the city, but, in the years since, the boundaries of London have expanded. We’ve got great museums, amazing universities, the best theatres, but I mostly love the fact that it is an international city, so many languages spoken and different food. It’s a city full of energy and life!”

“I love that we’ve ended up here,” says Dixon, “it’s part of an amazing network, so well connected, and with Central Saint Martins at its heart, there’s a real sense that it’s this creative crossroads, and hopefully our spaces play a part.” With this dynamic London hub as the new home to revolutionary retail concepts from two great design luminaries such as Smith and Dixon, the area looks set to go from strength to strength.

This article first appeared in the autumn 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. 

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