Perhaps the most interesting panel discussion of the day was moderated by Julie Iovine of The Wall Street Journal, and included Kati Curtis, Ally Coulter, and Dakota Jackson. The conversation focused on the state of the luxury design industry post the 2008 financial collapse. Mr. Jackson in particular made some
controversial thought-provoking comments that intrigued me, so in the interest of getting more insight, I contacted him to see if we might meet.
He’s a busy man so it took some time to organize, but we finally sat down last week in his Flagship Showroom for a spirited conversation. I’d like to share some of what I learned from this American design legend.
We started our chat discussing the differences between traditional media and new media, and the ways each bring information to the marketplace in different ways. Our focus then shifted to economics.
Over the last 24 months I’ve spoken to a large number of design professionals about the state of the industry post
the great recession, but have never had the chance to talk to a major furniture manufacturer. I asked him if he felt confident the worst was behind us. Here’s what he had to say;
It’s puzzling. The important point is to not ask the question, but to just keep moving. Today you need to pay very close attention to resource allocation. You can no longer ‘play the spread’ as it were, you need to focus specifically on proven concepts. There was a time when you could throw 100% of the money, and if only 20% of the investment saw a return you could absorb the loses. That is no longer the case. Since I started designing in the 70’s I’d never concerned myself with the question ‘will they buy it’? I believed if it was well designed there would be a market. That has also changed.
These times demand that you are at least correct 90% of the time. In my observation the market is still flat, and the companies that are succeeding are those that don’t look back. The keys to survival are keeping an open mind to any and every new idea, and paying very close attention to changes, which is of supreme importance as dips and spikes in the market take place. More often than not these days I’m concerned with the sales numbers and the bottom line more than any other data.
I asked what his namesake firm has done to adjust to the current economy;
Our first step, after 43 year of doing my own manufacturing in my own facility, was to break up the factory into smaller employee owned businesses. I realized the business model needed to shift – it was no longer feasible to have 150 workers in one company. Navigating market fluctuations with that many employees isn’t realistic. Ultimately to be able to continue to design products that generate a viable market – without the concerns of a large organization – required me to rethink our business model. In essence the changes created a handful of small ‘incubator’ businesses run by reliable employees. The change has created an invigorated group of personally invested individuals, with new smaller companies, poised to meet the challenges of our new economy.
And finally I asked what’s next in his career;
Well, we’re going back into a design phase at my studio. What we’re looking at is the segments of the market that are rebounding – and the kinds of products they’re after. Having unburdened myself of the day-to-day chore of running a factory I’m able to go back to my first love, designing furniture. I’ve also diversified by aligning myself with the cruise ship industry, with gaming hotels in Singapore, and with the hospitality community. Those projects helped me keep the showrooms and factory going through the recession. I’ve also entered into a strategic alliance with Steinway to produce the ‘Jackson’ piano. It’s all very exciting.
And I decided to invest in new talent by becoming a professor at the Savannah College Of Art & Design. Among other classes I’ll be teaching a Master Class in the fall of this year, and will be bringing students to my design studio here in New York to see our process first hand. It seems the logical progression in my career, and I look forward to fostering new designers.
Prototype of the new GUI Table currently in development
Dakota also shared that SCAD is mounting a retrospective of his work, and producing a companion book, which we can all look forward to seeing. I wanted to say a special word of thanks to him for taking the time to meet with me, and for sharing his insights. His nimble adjustments to today’s morphing economic climate are a testament to his business acumen, and compliment his prolific and legendary design work. We here on the blog wish him nothing but continued success.
Written by CJ Dellatore