That design guy: Oliver Zissman interview

Oliver Zissman in his shop, That Design Store

Oliver Zissman in his shop, That Design Store - Credit: Archant

The St Albans based interior businessman talks concept design and his city centre showroom That Design Store.

Oliver Zissman in his shop, That Design Store

Oliver Zissman in his shop, That Design Store - Credit: Archant

Oliver Zissman doesn’t mess around. A gumptious entrepreneur, he doesn’t care for the chit-chat that goes on in business.

“I moved in with my ex three weeks after meeting her. Then we opened a cake shop,” he says of his past forays. “I get on with things. I have absolutely no regrets but I should probably slow down a bit.”

Call it impulsive, call it passionate - it’s paid off so far. His entrepreneurial pathway has led him to opening That Design Store in St Albans, which is on the cusp of celebrating its one year birthday. “When we bought the store the aim was to have it open before Christmas. We opened on November 15th. We told the builders that if it wasn’t ready by then, the whole deal would be off.”

Tom Dixon designs in That Design Store

Tom Dixon designs in That Design Store - Credit: Archant

Impressively, this was only six weeks after Oliver decided quite spiritedly that he would dabble in design. “I was milling around and my business partner and I decided we wanted to sell random bits on the market. Or have a pop-up. Within a week we’d progressed to the idea of opening up That Design Store. We just thought ‘sod it, lets do it.’This mantra seems to have worked well for Oliver whose career has spanned across the arenas of fitness, food and furnishings. In each case, one concordant theme runs throughout: retail.

At 18, he launched Totally Fitness, with his brother, specialising in leasing health equipment. “This was when the internet was new. We were the first website in Europe to do this with fitness. We had a few stores dotted around too.”

He says this almost flippantly as if it were no big deal, before casually adding that they had a concession in Harrods as well. But his flippancy isn’t in any way arrogant. If anything, Oliver plays down his accomplishments.

Concept lighting at That Design Store

Concept lighting at That Design Store - Credit: Archant

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The interference of the recession made things tough for Totally Fitness - which bored him. So it was on to the next.

By this point Oliver was partnered personally and professionally with the ex he mentions frequently – Luisa Zissman of The Apprentice fame. They ran a company that provided boxes for tall cakes (which were apparently in short supply) but Oliver was ready for his next endeavour – interiors.That Design Store is the first and only Concept Design Store in St Albans and stocks designers like Design House Stockholm and Tom Dixon. “I already knew about Tom Dixon but didn’t have much else interior design knowledge,” Oliver explains. “We went to the London Design Festival to get some candles and came out with a whole store concept. We met with Tom and told him our vision. They loved the idea.”

With Dixon on board, Oliver wanted the store open 10 days after buying the Market Place premises. “There was no floor. The ceiling needed to be re-done. There were lots of late nights,” he recalls. “It had a third of the stock in it when we opened, compared to today.”

That Design Store

That Design Store - Credit: Archant

He sources the products himself, such as items from Buster + Punch and Rewined. The latter is an American brand of candles, scented with notes of various wines. This has led him to take on the role of the brand’s UK and European distributor. “They asked my advice on who should do it – I said me!” he says, without a fleck of ostentation.

His accomplishments in this role have so far seen him seal deals with the likes of trend-setting Parisian design stores Fleux and Printemps. “These candles are different. None of this Jo Malone crap.”

When asked about the Scandinavian trend in interior design that seems to be unceasingly popular, Oliver isn’t naïve about the cheaper alternatives available to the consumer - particularly in St Albans where, in the space of a month, Danish brand Tiger and Sweden’s Clas Ohlsen have opened branches. “These places are unique yet inexpensive. The maze-like shopping in Tiger is way off; but they’ve got a good business model.” Although not complacent, he feels his customers won’t be interested in those stores, and vice versa. Again, this isn’t snobbery - it’s a knowledge of the target consumer. Any pluck he exhibits is well restrained when he’s on to a good thing. When asked about expanding the showrooms he is lackadaisical: “We probably won’t expand. Expansion will be done online. It’s very successful on the net,” he says.

That Design Store serves its purpose as an interactive exhibit. The shop is forever showered with compliments, partly for the experience of being inside it. It’s in a 15th Century building, with original exposed beams above and avant-garde frippery below. “People love it. Other interior shops in St Albans are very white. We have metals, dark grey walls. It actually comes alive in the darker months. It’s amazing at night.” Some of the most exhilarating items on sale are lights. Decorative filament bulbs, cord lamps, pendent systems - the showroom is a sight to behold; it’s light in all its misshapen, contemporary, silvery-bronze splendour.

“All I’m thinking about now is Christmas!” says Oliver. “The Nordic candle holders will do well at Christmas. We only had 20 in stock last year and sold out before they even arrived in-store. We’ll order 200-300 this year.”

And beyond the festive season? “Push the online. Compete with the giants - something we are doing well already.”

That Design Store is located at 27 Market Place, St Albans and can be browsed from afar by visiting