Q&A with Dedon Founder Bobby Dekeyser

Bobby Dekeyser has created one of the world’s best outdoor furniture design companies

High-school dropout, former professional soccer goalie and DEDON founder Bobby Dekeyser has created one of the world’s outstanding outdoor furniture design firms, with celebrities such as Brad Pitt waiting in line for his pieces.

How did you grow up such a rebel?
My family was like a circus. Our parents provided a safe frame for us to be what we wanted to be. We were all allowed to be open to the challenge to do what we wanted.

You became a professional goalie in your teens. Why did you choose a position where everyone is aiming at you?
I wasn’t good enough in the field, and I always wanted to be a stunt man. I could throw myself around.

At age 26, while recuperating in the hospital after a severe injury, you decided to leave the sport and completely change direction.
I knew what I didn’t want—structure and having to perform. I wanted to be with my family, my wife and kids, and to do something creative.

Your company name combines the first two letters of your name with your brother-in-law’s name, Donpai. Your first undertaking, brightly painted skis, was a disaster. What went wrong?
We painted them with pictures, names, logos. But of 1,000 pairs, only 80 sold, and 50 of those were returned. We didn’t do our homework in terms of quality.

Why did you turn to outdoor furniture?
We had this rattan furniture that always broke down in one or two seasons. I had the idea to make it last longer.

How did your grandfather’s business of manufacturing handles for heavy soap-powder boxes play into your endeavor?
My uncle was an engineer, and he experimented with the extrusion machine making different mixtures of colors, shapes and fibers.

Your early designs were more classic. How did a visit to a Cologne furniture fair change things?
I  found a Philippine man who was making this wonderful furniture out of rattan and leather. I told him my ideas for our fiber, and he invited me to visit his business in Cebu Island.

You moved your family there for six months. What were you doing? Designing, framing, weaving, caning—it was really good learning for us.

When you returned to Europe, how did music help your marketing efforts? To get attention, I’d hire singers and we’d create a little opera in the stores with songs about the furniture, the store and the people.

DEDON’s first 10 years were a struggle. What kept you going?
I’m a sportsman: You don’t give up; you have to finish the game.

You’ve been named one of Germany’s top entrepreneurs. Why run a company that has a fitness center and gourmet lunches for employees? There has to be a harmony between nature and work. You have to find your passion and follow it. I hate to control. I find people who have the same passion and trust them to be strong enough to believe in their own talent.

Why do you find outdoor furniture so satisfying? I love the outdoors; I could live outside. Even my New York apartment is like a boat, I can see the water. And we create outdoor living rooms. It’s not so much about the furniture but creating an atmosphere that brings families and people together to enjoy life.