The Dedon story begins in Munich in 1990, where Bobby Dekeyser, at just 26 years of age, made an impulsive, foolhardy and typical Bobby decision: to leave professional sport and found a company – from a hospital bed. Sophia Watson has the story.
January 28th, 2015
“I always wanted something normal,” says the now 50-year-old Bobby Dekeyser. But normal is a path he was not destined to follow. Born in Leuven to a family of serial entrepreneurs, and raised in Belgium, Austria and Germany, Bobby describes home life as “entertaining chaos”. The family moved frequently, and Bobby attended nine different schools. “I had no idea about what a house was,” he recalls, “because we usually lived in an old factory.”
His mother’s extended family – led by Grandpa Heinrich Hummer, who would later become an entrepreneurial inspiration to Bobby – were in the business of plastics extrusion. Consumed by their work, the family adopted a laissez-faire approach to child rearing. “There was plenty of love, but few rules and no supervision; children were expected to find their own way,” recalls Bobby. As a result, structure and some semblance of ‘family living’ is something he craved from an early age.
At 15, Bobby left school to pursue a career in soccer as a professional goalkeeper and, unlike many with the same dream, he succeeded – signing with the prestigious FC Bayern Munich at the age of 19. The team quickly became a kind of surrogate family for Bobby. He explains: “Any sport might have served, but soccer offered an outsider an extra measure of social acceptance. Plus, it was a good way to impress girls,” he quips.
But the fairytale came to an end when, in the summer of 1990, Bobby suffered a crushing facial injury that would force his career to a grinding halt. While in recovery in a hospital bed in Munich, Bobby discovered – in a local paper no less – that his club had replaced him, without so much as a phone call. Angry and unfulfilled, he used his time in hospital to reflect on the direction his life was taking.
Bobby decided he was ready for a new adventure. And so it was that at 26, he founded Dedon, right there in the hospital. It began, as he himself readily admits, not with a plan to make outdoor furniture, but with the vision of “A warm, friendly environment where people enjoyed creating beautiful things together. I wasn’t thinking about being a big business success. I just wanted to have fun with family and friends.” It may sound like a rather unconventional reason for starting a business, but then Bobby has always been rather unconventional.
After a couple of false starts, a vision emerged of creating furniture for an outdoor living room. First, Bobby and his uncle, Seppi Hummer, engineer and family expert in plastics extrusion, created an ingenious synthetic fibre. It was supple yet strong, natural in appearance yet completely resilient to the elements. When they had developed it to his satisfaction, Bobby went so far as to copyright the formula.
The next piece of the puzzle fell into place when Bobby attended a furniture exhibition in Cologne and happened upon exquisitely woven furniture exhibited by Manny Climaco, an entrepreneur from Cebu in the Philippines. “What if,” Bobby wondered, “the same weavers who created these pieces were to use Dedon fibre instead of traditional rattan?” Six days later, Bobby was on a plane to the Philippines, a 47-kilogram roll of fibre slung over his shoulder, determined to find out.
Convinced that his new idea held promise, Bobby then re-located his entire family to Cebu, where, for six straight months they lived and worked to bring Dedon to life. When the Dekeysers finally returned to Germany, Dedon was a furniture company.
In 1997, after a number of catastrophes with the rattan frames of the furniture, Bobby switched to hand-moulded aluminium frames, which have become characteristic of the brand today. Shortly after, he met designer Richard Frinier – the ‘king of outdoor furniture’, as he is widely known – who set Bobby on a course toward high-end contemporary design. It was also during these years that Bobby’s sister, Sonja, took on marketing responsibilities, developing the brand image that would put Dedon in a league of its own.
It was also in these years that Hervé Lampert first came into the picture. Hervé was doing an internship at the plastics factory in France where Bobby was extruding Dedon fibre. The two hit it off immediately, and before long, Bobby had convinced the 20-year-old to join him on the Dedon journey.
In 2000, fed up working with the sloppy practices of suppliers in other parts of the Asia Pacific, Bobby and Hervé took matters into their own hands. They established a factory of Dedon’s own in Cebu in the Philippines, the place where the very first Dedon chair had been manufactured back in 1993. Bobby had found the unique culture he was searching for, and here he established the manufacturing headquarters as well as a private luxury island resort for Dedon on Siargo Island.
For Bobby and Dedon, the region perfectly captures the essence of the brand. Bobby explains: “We have always loved travelling in Asia and working with the wonderful people there, therefore we decided to invest in Hong Kong and the Philippines as well as Indonesia, in terms of showrooms and production facilities and of course our Dedon Island resort. We love the Asian mentality and the creativity and culture.”
More than just a hotel, Dedon Island is a kind of a laboratory for Bobby – an “Outdoor living lab for bringing our barefoot dreams to life”.
The Yin Yang collection is good example of how Dedon has injected some Southeast Asian flavour into this vision. The concept demonstrates a strong tie to eastern spirituality, and the overall function and aesthetic is typical of traditional ways of ‘family-style’ eastern living. Another of Dedon’s signature pieces, the Nestrest, exemplifies Bobby’s original intention. The hanging lounger is an unusual meeting place and sanctuary – which can be traced back to Bobby’s penchant for “creating atmospheres.”
The global character of the brand, however, is in no small part attributed to Bobby himself, who is “constantly travelling around the world, usually up to ten different countries a month.
No one quite sums up Bobby Dekeyser as well as the man himself. In his 2014 autobiography with Stefan Kruecken titled Not For Sale!, he states: “My story has taken a rather strange and in some places even mad curse – it reveals a life path that should actually be impossible based on school performance and the normal rules of economics. If I had listened to my teachers, financial advisers, and many other doubters and complainers, my story may never have existed.”
Now in its 24th year, Dedon is available in over 80 countries worldwide, and has gone from a staff of three to 3,000. But as proud as he is of all that the company has accomplished, he is prouder still of how they accomplished it – as family and friends, with respect and love and trust, always celebrating life and living. That, to Bobby, is the real Dedon story.
This article first appeared in Habitus magazine issue 24
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