Sean DixRebecca Lo • October 11, 2017
Sean Dix has lived abroad most of his life. With a father in the Peace Corps, the Kansas City-born designer grew up in Fiji, Micronesia, and the Philippines before settling in California. Leaving home at the age of 17, he made ends meet waiting tables by day to pursue his love for furniture making at night. That led to more formal studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, a stint as an exchange student at Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and post-graduate studies at Domus Academy in Milan.
Since then, Dix has embarked on a career as an interior and furniture designer first in Milan, then in Hong Kong. Currently, he is the go-to guy for chefs-turned-restaurateurs Matt Abergel of award-winning Yardbird, Max Levy of Okra, and Chris Mark of Black Sheep Restaurants.
How do you balance being a furniture maker and a designer?
My first love will always be furniture. When I get stressed out on interiors, I set the project aside and spend the day working on a chair instead. To me, designing furniture is like writing a haiku. Interiors are more like writing epic novels—there are a lot of moving parts with thousands of pieces that need to fit together to make it work. Some projects, like the small Punjab Club we just finished for Black Sheep, are more like novellas.
What’s the difference between working in the U.S. and abroad?
Design is very different in the States compared to Europe—it’s more engineering driven. It’s kind of a reverse approach. In Europe, engineers work around the designer’s intent; in the States, engineers dictate where functional components go and designers deal [with it], except for Apple.
How did you end up moving your studio to Hong Kong?
In 2008, I was doing a lot of high-end retail for clients such as [local fashion brand] I.T and had nice contacts in Hong Kong. It is also two hours from the Chinese factory where my furniture is manufactured. The owner is a good friend, and he produces everything in-house: solid wood, plywood, bent wood, cast aluminum, even upholstery. The only thing he does not make is outdoor furniture.
Why segue into restaurant design?
I got a message one day that a chef wanted to buy my chair. Since we were both based in Hong Kong, we met up. It turned out to be Matt from Yardbird, and that was the beginning. Matt wanted a place that felt like a cool Japanese restaurant in Tokyo without any of the typical clichés. The building is Bauhaus style, and I imagined 1930s German drill press workers sitting in a canteen. Yardbird became a massive success, and Matt introduced me to Max of Okra.
What constitutes a successful restaurant design?
Design is like a carburetor. It has to be there to make the space work, but it should not be noticeable. The last thing you want in a restaurant is to focus on the design: It should be more about the food, the service, the atmosphere. I get nervous around flashy design. But of course there are exceptions. The gold cats for Ho Lee Fook are wacky and funny, but concentrated on one wall. There, it’s about the open kitchen and all the steaming, braising, sautéing, and plating going on.
You are now putting the final touches on a 6,000-square-foot space opening later this year to house a bigger and better Yardbird.
The original Yardbird was always too small. Before it opens every night, chefs use the dining areas to prep, and its continued popularity means it can be claustrophobic. We’ve improved a lot of things: There is a big walk-in fridge behind the bar to store sake and other supplies that were previously off site. We’ve introduced cool new booths and developed a new table to go with the chair. We’ve improved the acoustics, but the last thing we want to do is lose the vibe. Sitting a little too close together keeps the energy level up.