With just a few pottery classes on his resume, Tom Dixon founded one of the world’s most significant design companies. Now he wants to go back to where it all began.
By CARLI PHILIPS
ONE OF THE world’s most prolific designers, Tom Dixon has worked on interiors, accessories, furniture and lighting since the 1980s. All this, despite having little formal training: he attended London’s Chelsea School of Arts for just six months before dropping out to play bass guitar in a disco band.
When a motorbike accident rendered him unable to play, Dixon set his sights on a nightclub, which he ran with friends. This left him with time to kill during the day, which is how he accidentally became a designer.
“I just started making things because I had too much free time and I thought it would be fun,” Dixon says. “And then people started buying them.”
He attended a few pottery and drawing classes, but it was welding that won him over; in welding, he found a means of expression. “It was satisfying to have an idea and be able to turn it into a reality, with someone buying it – sometimes within a day,” he says.
From there, he established an independent think tank for designers, called Space, and created the famous S-Chair for the Italian manufacturer Cappellini, a piece that started out as a sketch of a chicken and became one of the most significant designs of its time.
In the ’90s, Dixon took his first day job, as the head of design at the UK furniture retailer Habitat. It put him in good stead when, in 2002, he launched his eponymous mega studio, which continues to design everything from dinnerware to dining tables Dixon still loves making things by hand, even after 20 years as the creative director of his multimillion-dollar company. At his headquarters in London, which also boasts a perfumery, haberdashery, restaurant and furniture showroom, there’s a workshop for rapid prototyping, welding and woodwork.
“The earlier pieces have soul, since I handmade each one of them,” he says. “But I am hoping to find more time to make things with my hands again.”
Of course, time is not an easy thing to come by for Dixon, whose long list of collaborations includes “hacking” an IKEA sofa and partnering with Adidas on a modular clothing and accessories range, described as “everything you can fit in a bag for a week away”. Dixon holds an OBE for his services to British design and has work in the world’s best galleries, from the V &A to MoMA.
Then there’s his Design Research Studio, a practice that develops interiors, branding and architecture for hip hospitality venues. And, most recently, the complete home he designed for clients in Monaco. It wouldn’t be Tom Dixon if it wasn’t multidisciplinary to the max.
“The earlier pieces have soul, since I handmade each one of them. But I am hoping to find more time to make things with my hands again.”
If there is one thing that unites his projects, it’s a strongly expressed materiality; for Dixon, this has always been key. His most iconic designs are born from a mix of unlikely surfaces and high-tech construction methods, among them his Copper light fixtures (which undoubtedly helped kick-start the copper trend). These eventuated from his interest in the vacuum metallisation process used to create space-helmet visors.
Now the visionary designer is investigating new methods of processing traditional materials, such as alternative leathers made from pineapple and perfumes made with mushrooms. His current obsession? Cork.
“It’s an amazing material because it’s carbon positive but also remarkable in acoustics, and it smells really nice, too,” he says. “It’s the ultimate traditional material for the future. By repurposing it for our range of extremely fat-edged furniture, we have taken full advantage of its elasticity, sound absorption and waterproof nature.”
But there’s more. The new Swirl collection, a series of tables, vases and sculptures, is made using powder residue from the marble industry. It’s mixed with pigment and resin before being sliced and sculpted on a lathe.
When Britain was hit with Covid-19 lockdowns, Dixon retreated to the countryside and moved into a friend’s greenhouse. Away from the bright lights of London, he relished the chance to once again spend his days making things by hand.
“Despite the constraints and nightmare of the pandemic, it has been an opportunity to work in a different way, which has been quite refreshing and inspiring. It resembles what I used to do when I started.”
That said, Dixon is well and truly ready to leave the greenhouse behind. “I’m making an active campaign against everything being on Zoom,” he says. “My big battle right now is to get people to come back into the office – to try and regain a sense of purpose and collective unity.”