Conversation between designer Tom Dixon, architect David Adjaye and fashion designer Paul Smith, at Paul Smith’s office, London, 15 June 2009.
Paul Smith The first thing we wanted to talk about was the benefits and challenges of being in London. From my point of view, it’s the openness to design that is the benefit and the fact that [although] there’s not as much work as we’d like, there is [at least] the opportunity to have conversations and to start off work because we are based here in London. I’m not sure about [you] David, but Tom and I have been going to Japan for many years and, especially 10-15 years ago, there was all this work available for every form of design, whereas here we were good at it but we weren’t getting so much work necessarily.
David Adjaye There are lots of people thinking about ideas here [in London] but the entrepreneurial class or the industrial class is not synced up to the creative arts in the way that it is in Japan. People there seem to make connections much more easily among industries – they work more seamlessly across the disciplines and make things happen. Also the culture is very different: they have a city which is fiscal – from an architectural point of view, it needs to be rebuilt all the time because the land’s value is always increasing so it always needs to be renewed. So, there’s an implicit idea that you have to keep remaking the city just to keep up with the value. I’m not saying that’s a model but it means that with architecture there’s constantly something being done.
Tom Dixon If you go to any town in the world you’ll get the people there complaining that it’s better somewhere else. Japanese architects are particularly good at complaining about how terrible it is in Tokyo. I spoke to Shigeru Ban and he’d go outside his own experience to be good at home. Jimi Hendrix had to come here to be good in the United States and so on. But I think when we started, London was a breeding ground for creativity because it was cheap, and that’s gone, so there’s much more diversity compared with when we started. It has gone from being a very insular non-cultural place to a breeding ground for everything.
Left to right Tom Dixon, David Adjaye, Paul Smith (image: Lawrence Watson)
PS Well, certainly the world’s a lot smaller than it was when we started. People travel more and more so they see that design can turn into jobs and wealth and exports, but I agree with what you say about it being very hard to find a businessman who’s good at handling the designer. That is a problem, and in France, Italy, Japan and the United States, there seems to be a better balance. I don’t know whether that’s just in my head, but it seems to be true.
TD It’s funny because whenever I talk to my friends from Europe, they’re always jealous of London because it has this incredible reputation of being this design centre, but there are two camps. London is full of these nerdy specialists who are really good designers, really good thinkers, really good creative people, and then there’s the general public, who are completely – although it’s much better now – clueless about [design and architecture]. I mean if you take a Parisian round their city, they can talk to you about everything in the city. Take most Londoners around London, you ask them to describe their city and most of them wouldn’t have a clue. However, I couldn’t exist without London because I tune my thinking not through reading books and coming up with a thesis but by actually just existing through the rub that London makes for you. We experienced the industrial revolution before everybody else, we’re more … I wouldn’t say more mature in that sense but … the movement happened so early that it’s all now beyond our grasp. A couple of places still actually make in London, but it’s not like Milan …
PS In my industry, we hardly make anything in Britain any more, not in just London.
TD But the point is the people in Milan are interested in the furniture business because it’s their life, it’s what they make money from even if they’re factory workers or designers or industrialists or money people. Same with fashion, it’s not so far away, whereas here, nothing is really made anymore.
David Adjaye’s bus shelter for Super Contemporary
PS Also here design is treated as being a bit weird, but you if you hear a French or Italian newscaster reporting on the fashion week, they will take it very seriously because it’s a creator of jobs and exports and everything. Over here they’ll say “Oh you’ll never catch the number 52 bus in those heels”, or they’ll make a slightly snide remark, you know, “these fashion designers are sweethearts, but who wants blue hair”, that kind of thing.
TD I think the number 52 bus would probably be the best place to wear high heels.
PS But what about the Super Contemporary projects? Mine was probably the most simple and least intellectual of the lot but it was easy to explain. I don’t like rubbish, there’s a rubbish bin. But I thought most of your pieces for the exhibition were right on the button: electric cars that look cool, fantastic, and a very flexible shelter for public transport. Mine was trying to attract young people to put their rubbish in the bin by making the bin more fun. I’m not suggesting that we have five-foot green rabbits everywhere but I wanted to do something that says “and could you please put your rubbish in the bin?” That was all the project was about.
TD My piece started off about transport in general, looking at how miserable the investment into transport systems is. You might get Gordon Brown talking about making London the electric city or Boris Johnson putting a couple of electrical points in the city, but it’s actually not doing anything. This discount you’re supposed to get for electrical cars isn’t available. You can’t actually buy an electrical car that qualifies for the scheme for another two years, so it’s all political golf really. First I looked at canals because I thought canals are so underused … And they linked industry to the city centre and the rest of it … and then I thought about the Routemaster and how miserable it was that they were getting rid of an antique vehicle like that when they could probably modify it. Ultimately, if I had £20,000 and did the Routemaster, it wouldn’t fit into the door of the Design Museum. I was thinking of the classic vehicle and whether you can do electric in style rather than miserable plastic. I currently drive a G-Wiz with a fibreglass quadricycle. It was made in Bangalore and has a two-year battery life and it’s too small for me. But you could easily convert an existing Routemaster rather than buying a German bendy-bus. I can’t get an electric car that I like so I will do it myself. It’s also a reaction against the title of the exhibition and if anybody says to me “Be Super Contemporary”, I’d say fuck off, just because, which is a London attitude, right?
Rivington Place, London, by David Adjaye, 2007
PS Yeah, exactly. I found it hard to know quite what the exhibition was about right at the very beginning and [so] I just thought, oh well it’s something I want for London that isn’t around …
TD The thing wasn’t about having money to do something, it was just about commenting on the quality of life that could be lifted up and that’s clearly what we’re all super-interested in.
PS So we were fine when we didn’t have that much money.
TD Yeah, in a way.
DA I disagree, a billion pounds would have been nice – you know, get everybody whizzing on private canals and stuff …
TD I was fancying the possibility of creating a job-swap scheme where we just exchange [jobs] every three months.
PS You’re very welcome.
TD We’d just rotate it for three months, I could occupy your office and do one collection. I could have the beginnings of a club here and with a few more people, we’d never be bored again. We could film with a video director and do stuff on a quarterly basis, so it would have to be in a pavilion or something.
From Paul Smith’s autumn/winter 2009 menswear collection
DA Yeah, no problem.
PS Yeah, I know, it’s appealing to me already. I mean that’s why I like doing more, that’s what I do. The rabbit was good fun because suddenly it was out of my field – something you can’t just cut with scissors, which needs a completely different way of working out.
TD I thought that you’d actually get London to become too clean with your rabbits.
DA I thought you’d get kids just running and tumbling next to the rabbit [to get it to speak].
PS The problem they’ve had in Covent Garden is that it fills up too quickly, so it doesn’t fit in with when they change their bins. I spoke to a Japanese lady this morning on the phone, she’d seen it on the website and because the ears light up, she said to me it was a clever idea that the ears catch fire to burn the rubbish. I said no, that’s not quite right.
DA An incinerator, good idea!
PS Can you imagine? No hazard for children …
TD Flames leaping from his ears.
PS I said, I think there’s a misunderstanding. I don’t think it’s just London, it’s like what the world needs is a change, which the present economy might bring about. It needs a change of attitude, moving away from all the greed and over-consumption, over-distribution, too much of everything.
From Paul Smith’s autumn/winter 2009 menswear collection
DA The lowest common denominator.
PS It’s patronising to us all … I mean you’ve only got to look at so many radio or TV channels just to see how many repeats there are all the time, and the fact that no money has been spent on things. There are too many game shows … And the attitude of the financial people still …
DA … Stinks.
TD The lack of masterplanning as well … privatisation has left all kinds of massive holes, although that’s not to say that everything being public is better. But you can see it in the digging of the roads, for instance – the fact that we’re losing what was once world-class infrastructure, built in Victorian times. The sewers that have lasted 120 years are only starting to collapse now, and being replaced with a series of plastic pipes by a series of competing companies that have only got their own interests at heart. It feels to me like a long-term vision of London is missing as well.
DA There is this idea that London is just “done” so we don’t want to touch it any more, but actually it probably needs a radical rethink. We’ve now realised that our infrastructure is collapsing. If you look at any city, you know; I’d hate to point out a place like Singapore, but they will make the infrastructure of London look silly in a hundred years. We’re not set up to deal with the future in any way.
TD We used to have some superior communal thinking about it, and talking about green energy or transport or any of the big, big problems. But you just said it, you can’t do more than design the bin. What you really need is somebody to empty that bin enough for it to make sense, which means developing the infrastructure and a larger will than the individual politicians of four years in power.
DA I think this whole thing about the little piecemeal ecology has exhausted itself and has become really tiresome.
TD OK, no. I don’t mean that, necessarily. It’ll always be here.
DA It’s part of it, but it needs to be supported.
PS How do you deal with transport systems when you’ve already got a set of roads that exist … in Japan, they just keep adding, stacking roads up. You know you’ll be here with another car going by, I’m on the fourth floor and the car is zooming down.
TD They sunk a road below the embankment in Paris, for instance.
DA Richard [Rogers] tried to do that.
TD There were a few master schemes that did show the possibility … In Singapore they have greenness, and in Korea they have got the fastest broadband for everybody. It just seems that it’s more a lack of will than a lack of resources [here]. I mean, we’re the fifth richest country in the world right now?
PS Going down fast. Is it the will or is it the understanding?
TD I think it’s actually lacking a bigger vision. You can see that infrastructure projects are starting to happen in the United States, right?
DA Yeah, they are.
TD And in China they decided to go and leapfrog the Kyoto agreement.
DA Yep and they will, which is astonishing. It’s a brave move.
PS The infrastructure thing means that many people got out of the economic problems by employing people and spending money. Japan did that and they’ve got bridges that no one goes over. They employed people for years and a lot of things were built that didn’t work out, so it’s how you get the infrastructure working, not just the idea to employ people.
TD You might have been at this one … There was this design reception at Buckingham Palace, quite a while ago, this was Blair’s design meal …
PS Is that when the bus was in the courtyard?
TD Yeah, and you had a celebration of British design and you had a Routemaster bus, which had been decommissioned; you had Concorde, which had just been decommissioned the year before; you had the Gilbert Scott telephone box, which was now defunct … every one, apart from the Dyson hoover, was no longer functioning.
PS Did you see the design icon stamps that came out recently?
TD Same problem, right?
PS Exactly the same. There was an anglepoise lamp, which is obviously still going, but there was the telephone box, etcetera etcetera.
TD If you think about it, all of those, the Concorde, the telephone box and the Routemaster, are all the result of public thinking, not private industry, as far as I can tell.
DA Yeah, they were public.
TD So for us to have another Routemaster bus instead of a bendy-bus then one needs to have the bigger vision, the infrastructure and the design all working together, right?
PS The problem is that so many of the politicians, especially Blair, fooled us all into thinking that they were taking us seriously and it was all about getting votes. They were getting everybody involved in having those things at Downing Street, which were to do with young people and young designers and young musicians, but there was no follow-up to it. I think a lot of it is to do with the understanding, or rather the lack of interest, the fact that you don’t know what design can do for you.
TD There’s a terror of commissioning anything. They find it very difficult to have an opinion, they can see that it makes them a lot of money for the UK, so they measure it. The Design Council believes that £6 billion comes in from creative companies, but moving from there to actually supporting it, and getting a platform to invest in it, seems to be almost impossible.
DA But do you think there is the fear of the author within the political system?
TD A fear of failure, a fear of making mistakes and a fear of backing anything remotely new and different, I think.
PS Well you’d think the people that would have more persuasive power are people like the Design Council – you would assume, because they have the ear of government.
TD They’re all living in terror, right?
DA Funding cuts, yeah. I think the power of the design industry is very limited, we’re very much service providers, we’re at the end of the chain of decision-making and we’re implementers rather than being part of the discussion. All great periods had designers, creators or architects or whatever as part of policy-making. The two things have always gone hand in hand and now it seems …
PS It’s getting through the treacle, getting through the bureaucracy. I mean we’ve all been philosophising about what we’d like, but then if I say “OK, do it”, that is such a big step, that’s what I find. I’ve got just under a thousand people working for me now – at the beginning I used to say “let’s do …” and then we’d just do it, but now we better check with them and them before we go to the next step. Luckily it’s still fairly fast but there has to be a lot more discussion about it now, and that’s multiplied by a thousand with a government and taxpayers’ money and all that.
From Paul Smith’s autumn/winter 2009 menswear collection
DA What worries me about the position we’re in is that we’ve had this culture of spending and with that there’s this image that spending is wasteful or irresponsible. We’re producers and in the end we spend money and I’m nervous about the way [the image of spending] erodes our ability to make things because in a way we’ve not been represented by the best of our groups, I feel, and our power is being eroded more and more … so how do we convince [government]? Because as you were saying Tom, we want to do these things but actually people are becoming more and more fearful of giving us money.
PS Well that’s because, unfortunately, the people I’m talking about say, in your case, build it as high as you can, as cheap as you can, for as much profit as we can get. Whereas you’d say let’s build it the best we can and make it as elegant, well-proportioned and solid as we can. That’s the difference. But the baddies are much stronger than the goodies, as they always are.
TD But it’s not all doom. The benefit of “the collapse of the Western world” is that suddenly London may become affordable again. French people used to come over for a mini break and they stopped because they couldn’t afford a cappuccino, you know what I mean?
PS The weak pound means that London is very vibrant again in terms of commerce.
TD I started in a recession, which meant I didn’t know anything else. I had a huge studio at one point, and I’m able to do that again. It had got to the stage where the creatives were moving to Berlin because it was cheap and you could get a cheap apartment and a cheap studio. So we have to hope that the crisis will illuminate not only creativity again but also the possibility for that creativity to exist. I’m looking forward to the next challenges … we could actually start manufacturing in London again instead of buying everything from the Far East. So I think that nothing’s ever static, and London’s got enough balls and enough energy and enough critical mass to be really interesting. What’s changed is the amount of foreign influence there is here, the amount of art there is here, the amount of travel there is here, and finance, good finance sits here as well, which never existed 25 years ago. So you were asking why people don’t back the creatives, but I think there’s real potential now – at least you have to hope that London can reinvent itself again.
Super Contemporary is at the Design Museum, London, until 4 October
Smith’s bin for Super Contemporary