Dennis Paphitis

  1. Dennis Paphitis

Dennis Paphitis is an Australian born, Greek Cypriot and the founder of Aesop. In 2012, Paphitis stepped aside from his day-to-day company involvement however, he continues to hold a keen arm’s-length interest in Aesop and advises on company projects, which include the recently launched Aesop Foundation. Paphitis’ more recent projects and interests include his work for the Robin Boyd Foundation in Melbourne, Notting Hill Editions in London and Hotel Almhof Schneider in Lech.

Dennis is an enthusiast of remarkable quotes, so Building Momentum decided to play along.

Helmut Newton said, “Photography is 10% inspiration, 90% moving furniture”. What is your life work composed of?

The movement of furniture and considered realignment of objects is one of the most immediate ways to clear your head and generate inspiration, it’s a kind of pre-productivity foreplay that there’s no shortcut for. The idea that inspiration switches on just when we need it is a little absurd. Personally, I crave a very specific type of order, light, music, energy and room temperature to begin the working day but once this is sorted, it’s possible to work intensely for hours without pause, so long as there’s an on-going supply of high quality food near me. I’ll generally begin in the office at 11am and sign off at 7pm every week day, it’s a steady, focused sprint to sift through all that I’d like to process in a day however mostly I wrap each week feeling reasonably productive and every so often, gratified.

Aldous Huxley believed, “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him”. What have you inherited from the whole Aesop experience that you now hand over as a creative consultant?

The significant post-Aesop learning experience for me has been the capacity to make obscure and abstract connections through having worn multiple hats simultaneously, during the formative years of the company. Being involved in the ethical, strategic and commercial foundations has shaped the way I consider the creative dimension of my thinking. I don’t react to a brief or project in isolation, my concern is for how a gesture or initiative contributes to the long term wellness and understanding of what a company is trying to do. Long over short, slow over fast, steady over fleeting, this is a founder’s way, we think in multiples of ten years, not ten weeks.

Dieter Rams was a fan of wabi-sabi, the Japanese art of imperfection, “Limit everything to the essential. But do not remove poetry”. What is just the right amount of creative control and obsession for details when building a successful brand?

Rams is brilliant. Everything his hands touched remains desirable and continues to inspire and resonate. Brand poetry must be fiercely protected, it’s the essential intangible that can’t be managed and measured, but acts as the critical core and compass for so many decisions. Customers can feel this sincerity. I have enormous respect for Aesop’s Creative Director, Marsha Meredith. Marsha implicitly manages the complex tension between ‘pushing and protecting’ the boundaries, it’s a delicate dance between the two paradoxes. Creativity is always more dictatorship than democracy if it’s not going to end up a broth of well-intended trade-offs. I feel constructive obsession ought to be celebrated and encouraged, this is how beautiful work is generated, balance and moderation are generally banal and overrated. “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life” - Walter Pater.

Yvon Chouinard thought “a product independent of the label should stand its own merit and not rely on the label to carry it” – I guess it is the definition of the ultimate luxury product, it doesn’t need any label. Yet why are image, branding and retail experience still central to marketing products?

Chouinard is correct. The service or product must have its own heart, blood, emotion, it needs to do its job and then some: under promising, over-delivering. What we’re assaulted with in much of the market today are hastily pulled together pastiches disguised as ‘concept and innovation’ - they’re the white noise of useless branding. Respect, relevance and consideration are far more critical and enduring qualities than mandated innovation. It’s more prudent and responsible to invest in serious research and development with some real effort in producing the best possible product with minimum waste and maximum desirability. The non-Aesop brands I work with are generally smaller, privately owned groups with a long-term focus and desire to build piece by piece. They all share a strong sense of history and more than a desire for immediate success and attention, the very opposite of digital ‘look at me’ anxiety.

Henry Ford once warned: “If you wait for the customer to tell you what to do, you’re too late. My customers didn’t want a model T, they wanted a faster horse”.  Does commercial success rely on an eye for trends and a sense of timing or is it just finding the proper way to educate and enlighten consumers to their future needs?

Timing matters, there are visionary thinkers who are simply too early with their provocations. I prefer the products I didn’t know I needed. I’m more interested in current gaps and needs. The premise of Aesop remains always to look closely at existing requirements (our daily use of cleanser, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.) and to elevate the spirit, design and functionality of these products so that our morning shower is made infinitely more enjoyable. The aesthetic assault inflicted on customers in almost every product category can be alarming. I can’t begin the day in a shower washing with fake, sweet smells wrapped in ugly bottles, with ugly typography before I’ve even had a cup of coffee. Products need to deliver pleasure and provide a strong sense of joy and meaning. It’s not the job of brands to educate, we have institutions for this purpose, brands need to provide useful, interesting and inspiring solutions.

Shot in Paris
by Alexander Guirkinger

Many thanks to
Olivia Mayolle, Rose Agency