Tom Dixon — maverick. It’s not a term he would use to define himself, or his practice, but all his various creations do share a certain non-adherence to expectation. They are all products of a distinctive curiosity, a willingness to experiment, and a genuine desire to improve the way we live.
In 1981, Dixon was a twenty-two year old musician playing the guitar in a disco band. Two years later, working at an auto repair shop, he would use a blowtorch for the first time. The transformative power of the torch, used as a tool for re-composition, ignited a deep compulsion to make. Though untrained, he built an enviable career when he was discovered by the prestigious Italian furniture manufacturer, Cappellini, with whom he produced the S-Chair, now part of the permanent collections of the MOMA and Victoria & Albert Museum.
For a decade, he worked as Head of Design, and then Creative Director, for British furniture and design brand, Habitat, accumulating and applying varied experiences until he made the decision to launch his own autonomous brand, Tom Dixon, in 2002. With an unconventional approach, his company designs, develops, produces and distributes furniture, lighting and accessories, while also creating interiors for commercial ventures and most recently architecture for residential clients. And, it all began with a flexible mind and the pointed, blue flame of a welding torch.
Whether he’s giving away limited runs of chairs at impromptu events, manufacturing items on-site at design fairs, or designing a bespoke apparel line for Adidas, Tom Dixon keeps things unexpected. Dixon’s indifference to convention, fueled by his alchemy of local and global know-how, is the cornerstone to his continuing success. It was a pleasure sitting down with him during an interview at Inform Interiors in Vancouver.
Interview by Ko Jubilo
Photographs by Jen Latour
Copy Editor Jennifer Chiu
Koko Jubilo: I’ve heard that you have an affinity for motorcycles and cars. During a visit to your studio I think I may have seen a vintage G/S BMW scrambler, among others. How has this informed your design practice?
Tom Dixon: I think whether it’s a bicycle when I was younger, or motorcycles or cars, I did spend a lot of time taking them apart and trying to put them back together, which was harder. But you know, having got my hands greasy quite often, it was always going to be a big influence. I had in mind, when I started welding, that I was going to fix cars . I did learn in a car garage how to do it, but I didn’t really use it for that, so in a way, it was definitely a departure point. I was thinking I was going to be welding and restoring vehicles as a hobby, but it really quickly turned into something else.
Metal definitely has a special quality that you understand on a deeper level when you work with it. Do you still find yourself welding?
Yeah, I just recently bought myself a TIG welder so I could get back into it. I find it very difficult to only really have two-dimensional tools. Even computers I consider two-dimensional in that way. I’m much, much happier particularly in the prototyping phase to go straight into cardboard models or metal models, just to have something at full size that occupies a space rather than something that is stuck in an A4 kind of frame, you know? So the sketching and the computer work often come well after the first kind of rough cardboard model.
Yeah, I remember reading in your book that on a particular occasion you actually used polystyrene to make a one-to-one scale model chair that you then sacrificed in the process of casting it in bronze, as an edition piece. Being mainly autodidactic, I guess I would compare you to contemporaries like Tadao Ando.What has been the key element that has contributed to your constant evolution as a designer?
Did he not learn anything then? How did he do that? (laughs) That’s amazing. I think I’m easily bored and so I’m constantly trying to find something else to do, and I think that the evolution comes from patience, in a way. That’s one factor; the other factor is being super interested in manufacturing techniques and how things are made, you know? I’ll still get really interested with the factory visit or the relationship with the craftsmen, and what propels me now, what is really exciting right now, is all the digitization of industry and big tooling. I’m not talking about rapid prototyping. I’m talking about how quickly quite sophisticated engineering tools are becoming accessible to designers, in a flexible
way. To me that’s just amazing—something you can jump on, and start making much more easily. So, that’s a current example. I’ve a got a reasonably good setup for conventional manufacturing now, but I’m much more interested in that.
I know that you’ve been awarded the Maison Objet, Designer of the Year—congratulations on that. Do you think having won multiple awards and being exhibited in specific collections for museums, such as MOMA and the Victoria & Albert Museum, has legitimized your practice as a designer and contributed to your ethos of reviving the British furniture industry?
I’m halfway cynical and halfway flattered by things like that. But, you know, the reality of Designer of the Year is that it’s sort of randomized marketing and support. The things like, the Museum of Modern Art—I didn’t really realize for maybe 15 years that it was as important as it was to people that collect or curate. I’ve always loved museums anyways, rather than specific accolades, so I don’t think it’s really changed anything to do with my method.
But it’s nice to be recognized.
Well it’s always nice to be recognized, but I’m probably as interested or more interested if I’m sitting in a place like this and spot one of my lamps up in someone’s apartment and I’m like, ‘OK’! Because the idea that people have actually paid good money to acquire this thing from a personal perspective is fascinating.
Besides the new furniture and lighting offerings, you have also recently launched an accessories line, as well as diversified into the realm of architecture. Can you please expand on your current architectural project to date?
Well, we’ve had an interior design practice from pretty much the first few months of starting this business. I started from zero and initially we needed something as a service industry where we could make fees to start making our products. But increasingly, it has become closer and closer, in terms of being a very good way of understanding what people really need in projects, or in details, or in bars and restaurants. Because when we are designing them, we are missing stuff, so quite a lot of the accessories are coming from when we are coming to the very end of the project and we want to specify some serveware into a restaurant. We can’t find what we like, but I’ve got the luxury of being
able to make it. Conversely, the more and more we are able to do hotels or do bars, we have these amazing showrooms where people can consume our world without having to buy a table or a lamp, or something. That’s kind of nice because it works to perpetuate the other side of the business, which ever way you look at it. And now we have our own restaurants so we are also operators of these spaces, which is quite good for really understanding what people should or shouldn’t put in their bars or restaurants.
So have you come close to finishing the residence in France that you’ve been working on?
The residence! Oh that’s done now, thank goodness! At least the focus is taken off me now that they are doing the garden. Now they have a proper garden designer in and I am like, “Halleluiah!”, because working on someone’s personal space is tough! Tough because building never goes to schedule, because there are a lot of unknowns, because it takes so long, and because it is so personal. But it was really nice of them to allow me to do theirs, as a naïve, untrained person. It was a big leap of faith.
There is debate regarding the difference between architecture and product design. How has working in architecture informed or cross-pollinated into your product design? I know you talk about longevity and not using trends in your products.
Are they different? Well, I don’t know. You can inhabit lots and lots of different worlds, whether its software design or fashion design, and all these things sort of had different names before. Software design was engineering before, wasn’t it? Fashion design was more styling and what we do used to be called decorative arts. So it’s only recently that people have started attaching that name to anything that is shaped and I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is that knowledge can be transferred to lots and lots of different trades as long as you’ve got a very clear core aesthetic and attitude to start. I mean, it’s been very interesting working with the Adidas people, for instance, on something that would be sportswear or fashion, but if I do it properly, it’s neither. It could be apparel but it can take on some of the characteristics of things I value such as non-obsolescence or adaptability or things I’m into…fluorescents. You can have your stamp on something. I look forward to what that would look like if it were a piece of electronics or a bridge or something. I think the beauty of the profession is that you shouldn’t be limited by what people think you should be doing. We are just finishing a hotel in London. It’s really difficult to get a hotel until you have done a hotel. Hotel chairs would never trust you until you’ve done your first project. It will be a game changer, in a
way, because you get that stamp that this person can do a hotel, or running shoe. Well not
running—more like walking! (Laughs)
You always seem to have interesting projects going. One thing that stands out seems to be your underwater experiments. You’re currently using a process called mineral accretion. Could please elaborate for us, and tell us how it’s coming along?
Well, it was a 70’s technique, which never really came to fruition. It has more to do with building cities and floating them but the technology is still there experimentally. What [mineral accretion] can do, interestingly, is regenerate coral reefs and so I had this ludicrous idea that we could actually grow chairs underwater in an underwater factory and that would provide an environment for fish to breed and live and rest and make an infrastructure. I am testing out the theory, and it’s been three years of pain because it’s happening in the Bahamas and the Bahamas isn’t in the right state in terms of infrastructure—being able to ship things in and out, it’s corrupt. But it’s fascinating as a conceptual development of what could happen in the reasonably near future. It’s all these echoes in terms of things that we really need to do, like regenerate coral reefs, or find better ways of making concrete, or the rest of it. It’s put me in touch with the eco-nuts or visionaries. It’s nice to get out of your comfort zone and it’s nice to allow yourself to stretch into these completely different universes, and this one’s underwater. I’ve never even scuba dived! The guy that’s growing them is a wrecker, a salvage guy. He waits for these ships to beach on the coral reefs like they’ve been doing for three hundred years—Spanish galleons and the rest of it—and he goes out and rescues them and then sells them back to the insurance companies. It’s a bit ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ actually!!
Whether it’s the Bahamas or somewhere else, you always seem to be traveling… on this particular trip you traveled all the way up the west coast from Mexico. Please tell us about any memorable moments and where you might plan to go on your next big trip?
What we’re really doing is trying to see customers and thank them for supporting us for so long. Since I have never really come to Vancouver since I started this company, and having had people looking after us all this time, I think it’s only fair we see what people want and go to support them a bit. Memorable moments have been particularly fantastic: a lesbian bar in Seattle, a semi-drunk baron encounter in Mexico in Guadalajara, and quite a lot of things in between. I’ve never been to LA,
damn it! Never! So seeing LA for the first time was quite good. Next trip? Man, around the world, don’t you think?! Why restrict yourself!
Indeed. Thank you, Tom!
Special thanks to Inform Interiors for setting up the interview.