Your first-ever show was at the original 10 Corso Como before it even became what we know today as “10 Corso Como” in Milan. How did that come about?
I had been making things in London for a while and had done a few exhibitions – one in Japan and then in Germany – and at one point a man called Giulio Cabrini came to the studio and wanted to produce my S-chair (a chair which is now in the Museum of Modern Art and all kinds of places). At the time I’d never really been exposed to the design business at all. Carla Sozzani had just split from Romeo Gigli, who she had a shop with at Corso Como, and because they’d fallen out she had this empty gallery, which is now the space in the back of 10 Corso Como. She used it to show my work, Marc Newson and Kris Ruhs’ work – three people that had never shown in Milan before. Of course, she then fell for Kris Ruhs, not me or Mark, and the rest is history!
We were right there in the epicenter before it became Corso Como. Carla has always been a super enthusiastic person who I’ve always appreciated, and I’ve remained friends with her ever since.
Out of all the many creative things that you do – furniture, lighting, home accessories, fragrances, music, cooking & restaurants (I’m sure the list goes on) – which do you enjoy most and why?
It’s always my latest fad which I enjoy the most. Something that I’ve post-rationalized is that it ends up being the next thing I’m doing, so my favorite one at the moment might be architecture. I’ve only ever done one building and I sort of started to understand how difficult it is, and yet I’m still engaged by the possibility of making a second one.
I think with everything I’ve done I prefer going in a bit naïve and learning something. By the time I’ve done it I’m bored of it and I kind of hate it and want to move on to the next. When I get quite good at something, I want to abandon it for a new challenge. Then I might re-visit it. I probably have attention deficit disorder of some sort. Not acute, but on the spectrum.
I’m authentically interested in finding out stuff. What’s been so amazing about doing this job is that it’s infinite – there’s always something else that you could possibly design that you haven’t yet. Even looking around here [gesturing to the interiors of 10 Corso Como New York], it’s like “damn, I’ve never really done a speaker [looking at Devialet speaker].”
One thing perhaps people don’t know as much about is your music career. Tell us about your band, Funkapolitan (and how you came up with the name).
I didn’t come up with it. It was a combination of a very famous funk band at the time called Funkadelic and the word Metropolitan. Having a band back them was absolutely normal in London. Now everybody’s a DJ, but at the time everybody was in a band. I was the bass player. We got famous in a tiny little way in London and had a great following. Our first gig was at the Wimpy Bar, a burger bar by Notting Hill Gate. We played at the Roller Disco, and a lot of interesting, unusual gigs.
After very quickly becoming a sensation, we got signed by a record company and got sent on tour. My first visit to New York was when we were supporting The Clash on Broadway. It’s a situation that sounds very glamorous, interesting and fabulous, but in fact, we were a disco band and Clash was a punk band and we literally got bottles thrown at us. It was a very unpleasant scenario. My introduction to New York and New Yorkers was pretty vicious.
The music business is really what made me understand that ultimately creativity can be a business. In a band you probably learn your own instrument because you don’t have classical training, you probably make up your own tunes, you definitely create your own first gigs, you do your own posters and you invent what’s effectively a small business that is funding you. Then you get bought by a record company and it all falls apart. The corporate influence is actually quite poisonous.
It all lasted a couple of years and then I had a motorbike crash and broke my arm. I was riding along in Maida Vale and I saw a girl walking down the street. I looked over my shoulder to see her which caused me to crash into a car, fly over it and land in front of her. She was so shocked and I was so embarrassed that I didn’t take advantage of the situation. She rushed over to me and I insisted that I was fine, but I’d actually broken my arm. That ended my career in music because we were supposed to go on tour the next week.
I’m happy to play music again without the pressure of being on the road or sharing your creativity with eight sweaty lads. It was really fun when we weren’t doing it professionally but as soon as it became a business it sucked a lot of the joy out of it and the independence. All those were amazing lessons.
Tell us about how you came up with the idea of opening the Manzoni Restaurant in Milan this past Salone?
The worst possible retail business you can be in is the furniture business because people buy a table once every 30 years, a lamp once every 10 years, a sofa once in a lifetime. A furniture shop isn’t going to be a really vibrant retail environment so, in London, we started off with a restaurant. I originally thought could be a staff canteen, but of course, it was too expensive for the staff and actually ended up being quite a rated restaurant (the chef used to work at the River Café).
The London restaurant made me notice that it was much better to have a restaurant than to have a pure showroom. It made me start thinking a lot about the connections between the trades and how I didn’t really want to separate them. The good thing about a restaurant is it slows people down and brings life to a place.
With Milan, I got so sick of doing pop-ups after pop-ups. Every year we had to come up with something more extraordinary and more flamboyant and more jazz hands and it was just becoming untenable. Milan had gone from being a furniture fair to being a big playground for Google and Airbnb dropping one or two million dollars on just a conceptual temporary exhibition. Now you’re wandering around Milan and you’ve got like 5,000 exhibitions.
We had done a good job of being wild and doing crazy stuff – we took over the Science Museum one year, we took over a monastery – but it was exhausting and it was expensive. This year, with Manzoni, the idea was just to flip it around and say, you know what, much better to be an investor in a restaurant longer term. We went out and tried to find partners that were prepared to be the operators and partners that were prepared to take the lease and what we did, what we always do, is provide the furnishings. We get a royalty from it and we’re investors versus doing temporary exhibitions, which are quite wasteful.
My current obsession is about trying to mix it up a bit and that’s what we’re doing at the shop in New York at the moment. Our promotion is called TOUCHYSMELLYFEELYNOISYTASTY. It’s really just saying, talk about everything apart from the furniture.
How would you describe your design philosophy?
I like to jump in. I like to be naïve actually. I like to work it out for myself. I don’t like being told what to do.
Earlier this year you collaborated with Ikea on a gardening initiative at the Chelsea Flower Show to encourage sustainability. Is promoting sustainability something important to the brand?
I think everybody’s trying to. It’s the big irritating buzz word of the moment, but it’s so current you can’t avoid it. It’s also urgent so I don’t think anybody should be ignoring it. I’m sort of semi-fortunate being in a type of industry which in itself is slightly less wasteful because it’s slightly more permanent. I’ve been working long enough to know that if you get it right people will buy it in a second cycle or third cycle so that gives me a lot of faith in what we do from a certain sustainability angle, which is longevity. The reality is that everybody should think very carefully bout their consumption.
What’s your favorite city for design inspiration?
I’m not very good at favorites. I can give you 20 or I can give you none. I do think Korea is interesting – more the youth culture and futurist vibe that they’ve got. I went to Senegal recently. It was my first time in French Africa. Dakar was inspiring with all its French colonial architecture in a very exotic setting, plunging into the Atlantic. The people there are really beautiful. They have great posture and an amazing sense of color in the way they dress. I found that inspirational.
What’s your go-to place to escape to?
I don’t actually feel a violent urge to disconnect. In a way, I’m very fortunate to do something which is effectively a hobby. If I’m going to disconnect from lighting, for example, I’m going to disconnect into something else like pottery. Yesterday I spent the day at the International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) center in upstate New York working on a series of new smells for next year. It’s an amazing building, I’d never seen the Hudson from that side. We were in a greenhouse looking at exotic plants and then we went to talk to scientists about molecules. There’s no need to get away from the world because every day you get away from it to some other application, so I just enjoy that bit of working.
I’ve never been very good at lying on the beach.
What’s your favorite thing about NYC?
I loved New York from the moment I arrived. The arrival in Manhattan still gives me a thrill every time. I think it’s the most exciting city to arrive to. Tokyo might be ultimately more interesting once you get to know it and it sort of grows on you more subtly, but Manhattan has the rush. You recognize it even if you’ve never been here because it’s so familiar from the movies. You’re sometimes not prepared for the sheer scale and loudness of it.
It really does give me a thrill every time I come. Things happen here as well. Surprises happen, encounters happen, and everything is so urban. I like a city. I’m not really a country person. And New York is the city.
What’s on your playlist at the moment?
There’s a whole new wave of British music which is vaguely rap based, quite lyrical, quite socially conscience and quite young. There’s a girl called Georgia, for instance, who’s really on it. Jazz is also experiencing a comeback at the moment. I thought it was lost forever but there’s a new scene which is performance-based going on in London. It’s a nice time for music because there’s a lot of people making it and a lot of people going to see it and people can make a good living from it.
What does 10 Corso Como mean to you?
Before I encountered Milan and Carla I felt as if I’d been doing this thing which I didn’t really know how to describe with design because it didn’t really exist in England. You might have studied it and gone on to be an industrial designer at Kodak but coming to Milan and having people really celebrate you because you were doing something that was important to them was completely different from being in London and doing it on your own.
It was almost like I had found my tribe in a way. Carla was already mixing things up at the time – she was a fashion person that had turned to design and already was introducing me to how Italians incorporate food into a business. We’d sit and have lunch with all the workers at the factory for two hours. I guess it was just understanding what I was doing. The Milanese still probably appreciate design more than in any city in the world. It’s just what they do. It’s their thing. It’s really nice to see how Mark Busen and Kris Ruhs have evolved along different paths, from all being in the same spot all those years ago.
The Tom Dixon lounge will be at 10 Corso Como through February 2020.