Nick Dine, 1997


Designer Nick Dine’s objects have been popping up around town for a couple of years: chunky ceramic ashtrays at Embassy bar — stolen almost as quickly as they’re set out — and spare wooden desks on industrial casters at a new Chelsea art gallery.  But just as his furniture is catching on, the restless 32 year-old turns his attention to architecture.  His first job is no less than the complete renovation of a landmark West Village townhouse.  A visit with Dine at his apartment, a typical SoHo loft previously occupied by his father, the artist Jim Dine, also reveals a substantial collection of ’50s furniture.  Here, Dine’s own tables, vases, and shelves effortlessly blend in with classics by Eames and Nelson. 

MI:  You’ve come back from London after going to school and working there for a number of years.  Is New York the place for design now?
ND:  Actually, totally the opposite.  It was kind of stupid for me to move back here.  I had just started to make contacts with different companies in London and I had good connections with a lot of designers.  But then again, opportunities for ex-pats are limited there because it’s still an old boy network.  It’s not like New York, where its much more democratic. 

MI:  Even in your age group?
ND:  Definitely.  And London was not my speed.  It was very competitive.  And I was playing catch up.  I had four years of art school, while they had already had three years of design school. 

MI:  And where was that?
ND:  I went to Rhode Island School of Design, for sculpture.  Then I took two years off and started working — making closets and stuff.  I always knew I wanted to make things.  I have always been a decorator and maker of space.  As a kid my room was a major deal. 

MI:  You were always working on the room?
ND:  Yeah [laughs] always working on it. 

MI:  Did you have bunk beds and siblings?  Bunk beds are a major decorating obstacle. 
ND:  I have two brothers, but we had separate rooms.  I would borrow things from the rest of the house and I would style up my room.  The first time I started thinking about it, I was ten years old. 

MI:  Where you borrowing vases and so on?
ND:  It wasn’t like “decorating.”  I was always moving my bed and trying to find the best place for it, and then I would take the prettiest blankets from the guest rooms.

MI:  I’m sure your parents loved that!
ND:  Oh, yeah!  And then when I was 14 or 15, I would see a Mondrian painting and I would paint my whole room in Mondrian colors, or I would find National Geographic magazines and put 10,000 of them on the walls. 

MI:  When you were in the pilfering-the-blankets stage, were you looking at decorating magazines?
ND:  Oh, no!  It was totally just to find order in space, as I am here.  I was constantly moving things around.  This is the last time you will see my house as it is now. 

MI:  I see there are a lot of things here, so potentially you could fidget with this stuff every day. 
ND:  I change it radically once a month.  This seating area will probably stay though, because the TV is here. 

MI:  The great unifying element ...
ND:  But what I actually do for other people is the opposite.  I provide a stable space for them to do the exact same thing. 

MI:  So you don’t crawl into their house at night and change all their stuff around?
ND:  No, I don’t mind how they use it.  And if they decide to put up wallpaper, that’s fine. 

MI:  Do you move things around because you’re looking for that one ideal solution, or just because you like it to change?
ND:  Well, it’s like an exercise.  Actually I didn’t make about 70% of what’s in this room, but I feel a connection to it, and I like the way it interacts with my stuff.  Some has sentimental value, some is purely aesthetic.  I used to be very into ’50s furniture collecting.  And I used to deal in it.  I was really obsessed with Eames, Nelson, Saarinen, and Mollino, Zanuso and Prouve.  But now it’s out of my range. 

MI:  In the course of looking, do you see interesting things that aren’t by name people?
ND:  In general, the people that history remembers in this field are people who worked in industry.  Industry really did attract the best and the brightest.  Eames had incredible vision.  He didn’t invent fiberglass, but he was the first person to make a mass produced product with it.  And when I first saw his stuff it was a revelation to me, too.  I think it was a very weird moment in design that just clicked perfectly. 

MI:  Do the English buy a lot of furniture?
ND:  No, English people don’t buy.  But that’s where I first started getting into Eames, oddly enough.  And now they are totally into it. 

MI:  Are you still a big fan of the ’50s?
ND:  Obviously, it doesn’t blow me away anymore. 

MI:  Why is that obvious?
ND:  Well, I know every series and type of material ... And it does hold up.  I have a tough eye, and it still looks good.  But the discovery was the most exciting part. 

MI:  Are you going to move into another decade, then?
ND:  I have been through such a big collecting period, like with cars, toys.  I don’t know, I vacillate.  Now I’m not into stuff. 

MI:  Is that a Zen thing?
ND:  It’s not that style of “not having any stuff.”  But I had so many things, I couldn’t even think.  Now I have a storage space full of stuff. Furniture is funny, it doesn’t really get me off the way it used to. 

MI:  Are you already moving out of furniture?
ND:  No, I feel like I’m good at it, and I have more to contribute.  But it’s a financial drain.  And it’s like an old man’s profession, there are a few young people who are hot and work for companies, but basically it takes a lifetime to learn to do it well.  So I have to wait around and get to a point where a company might get interested. 

MI:  So how do you get a job with a company?
ND:  Furniture companies may have a few in-house designers, but mostly they hire freelance.  Take Philippe Starck, who is the epitome of the successful designer ... 

MI:  How does he do it?
ND:  I don’t think I should talk about him, because I said he should go fuck himself in another interview, but I’ll make amends.  If Philippe Starck were an actor he would be a superstar, he just has that kind of personality and he’s a smart guy.  He knows how to schmooze smoothie Shrager types. 

MI:  But you could do that too, I’m sure. 
ND:  Maybe, but at the end of the day I like not being beholden to anybody.  I know that sounds like, “Oh, man, the independent guy,” but I really don’t feel comfortable being in someone’s pocket.  I like to do what I like to do. 

MI:  But as an architect you are constantly compromised. 
ND:  Sure, and that was extremely difficult at first.  Now I use it as a tool.  It’s a good way to focus and discipline.  And ultimately the client has the best suggestions because you are not a mind reader.  What should be built is what the clients need and what they can afford, and what fits into the existing space, if there is one.  Period.  Not what Nick Dine’s ego thinks should be there.  Like, “Let’s cut a giant hole in the middle of the room!” or “Glass brick everywhere!”

MI:  And to hell with the people who live there ... 
ND:  Right — “Who cares if there are no bathrooms!”  I mean, I do want to put a stamp on things, but that will come through.  I like a challenge, and a budget is a good thing.  Most contracts are based on a percentage of total construction costs, where the more the client spends, the more the architect makes, but I think that’s really bad.  I would rather work for a fixed fee, and represent the client.  That’s what I do. 

MI:  Is that not usually done?
ND:  I don’t know anyone who does that, which I think is kind of stupid. 

MI:  How did the Embassy bar commission come up?
ND:  My friend bought the building and wanted to put something on the ground floor, and I said, “Either Chinese take-out or you could build a bar.”  And we were stupid and naive, and we thought, “Cool, let’s have a bar.  There’s nothing involved with running a business like that!  It’s really easy, it won’t complicate your life!”  But it was so ridiculous ... the worst fucking business in the world. 

MI:  What was in that space before?
ND:  Nothing, it was a shell.  We put in the banquettes, the bar, everything.  The banquettes were manufactured by a place called Rollhouse. 

MI:  You designed them and they built them?
ND:  They were hardly designed.  I was so shit scared about my choices, because you can make something look really bad, so I was really careful, and I ended up being too careful, but it went well with the rest of the place. 

MI:  And the ashtrays?
ND:  We thought Embassy should have a good looking sign and a really great ashtray — like at Harry’s Bar in Venice.  So I thought to cast three different versions.  The first year I had to make 400 of them because they kept getting stolen.  I kept replacing them, but then it got tiring. 

MI:  Did you ever go to anyone’s house and see one of your stolen ashtrays?
ND:  No, but I have given them away a lot too.  I have 500 more of them in my office.  But now I’m getting hate mail from stores saying they don’t sell products that endorse smoking.  It’s as if they had swastikas on them.  But it’s only an ashtray. 

MI:  They are still very popular. 
ND:  They sell at Moss and do well.  But they aren’t the ultimate cigar asshole ashtray with the big cutaway, which I’m happy about. 

MI:  Hopefully that will be over soon, along with goatees. 
ND:  Right, I guess that is pretty much over. 

MI:  Now tell me about the chair you designed, with the slung-back seat. 
ND:  Well, I’m working on a new version of that, where you can sit sideways.  Someone suggested to me that people often sit in chairs sideways, and why not make a chair like that?  So I said, “That’s a really good idea, mind if I steal it?”

MI:  Everybody has ideas, it’s just matter of who implements them. 
ND:  Well, I didn’t steal the idea off a desk or anything.  But the chair’s not here, I don’t live with my stuff around too much anymore.  I haven’t made much since I got back from London. 

MI:  And what about the chaise, which was one of the first things that you did.  It looks vaguely like an Italian piece from the late ’50s, with an upholstered body and these futuristic looking joints. Do you have to sculpt the whole thing in wood first?
ND:  You don’t have to, but if you’re stupid and you don’t know how to do anything, yeah, you do.  To make patterns for casting, you do have to make it in wood.  But I like making things, and I’m getting better at controlling it. 

MI:  Where does the shape come from?  It looks sort of mechanical. 
ND:  These forms are about reducing the amount of material.  They are engineering solutions.  The aesthetic is a combination of engineering and hand, where someone’s worked it, but a machine cut the thing out.
MI:  It looks like it may have been an airplane part, or a machine part. 
ND:  Possibly an appropriation, but more the feeling of the thing appropriated, not the specific object. 

MI:  Right, I can’t say I recognize it per se.  And there’s the automobile thing, with the frosted colors. 
ND:  I went to auto mechanic school.  Apex. 

MI:  Apex?!
ND:  I was like, 21. 

MI:  That’s so funny. 
ND:  I got really into it.  I was the only person looking at the clutch, like, how beautiful it was. 

MI:  I am sure you were the only one!
ND:  Yeah, believe me, it was like being in jail, there were knife fights in the hall.  But it’s an excellent school, actually.  It ranks with the top three institutions I went to.  Royal College of Art, Apex, and RISD — in that order.  Excellent teachers.  Lucid, intelligent. 

MI:  So you can pull an entire engine apart and put it back together?
ND:  Sure. 

MI:  Really?
ND:  Well ... if it’s an American car. 

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