20 Minutes With: Lighting and Furniture Designer Tom Dixon
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20 Minutes With: Lighting and Furniture Designer Tom Dixon

Wed, Aug 3, 2022 10:42amGrey Clock 4 min

British designer Tom Dixon can’t be put into one box when it comes to product design. He is multi-talented, and widely recognised for his sci-fi lighting designs—many of which look like sculptures hanging from the ceiling—but that’s not where his talents end.

He also designs furniture, including lamps, chairs, and tables meant to brighten up drab interiors, often with a disco flair.

This year, Dixon celebrates 20 years of his namesake brand. Over the last two decades his brand has expanded to 90 countries, with showrooms in New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. The latest boutique opened in Beijing in 2020.

Dixon has won numerous awards, including the London Design Medal at the London Design Festival. In 2014, he received an Order of the British Empire from Her Majesty the Queen.

Dixon was born in 1959 in Sfax, Tunisia, as the son of an English teacher and a journalist for the BBC World Service. In 1972, he began studying art at Holland Park Comprehensive high school in London, specializing in pottery and life drawing, and in 1979, he began working creative odd jobs (one was painting at a cartoon film company, another was playing in a disco band called Funkapolitan).

The rise of punk in London at the time helped create space for the kind of freeform design ethos that Dixon adopted. It gave his generation “license to create—without certificates, university courses or parental approval,” he says. In 1983, he learned how to weld with the help of a friend who worked in an automotive shop. He made over 100 chairs by hand in his first year.

In 1986, Dixon designed the S-Chair, which became a hit with Italian manufacturers for its curvy, elegant design. “I have often been asked what the inspiration was behind the S-Chair, and, honestly, the only memory I have is of drawing a small doodle of a chicken and thinking that I could make a chair from it,” he laughs.

Today, Dixon’s studio is based in a 19th century factory called the Coal Office in King’s Cross. In June, he was the subject of a retrospective at the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan this June.

From his second home on the south coast of England, Dixon, 63, spoke to Penta about his brand, fashion inspiration, and the future of sustainable design.

PENTA: Can you believe it has been 20 years?

Tom Dixon: I can’t believe it’s true. I’ve been doing this longer than 20 years, but it’s 20 years since this label. It’s ridiculous. When I started it, it was after working for Italian luxury companies, working in the corporate world at Habitat (which is the equivalent of Pottery Barn in the U.S.) as creative director, it was time for me to do my own thing again. I wanted to mimic how fashion designers operate—design but also take care of their distribution and communication, and they have their name over the door, too. As a rule, product designers typically work for other brands. I wanted to have a singular voice and hold my aesthetic ideas together under one roof.

What fashion designers have you looked up to?

I love the Japanese brands that came out of the 1980s, like Commes des Garcons and Issey Miyake, in terms of keeping a sense of integrity. I love Raf Simons’ own label, too. There are young English designers at the moment too, like Grace Wales Bonner.

Who are your design heroes?

I was fortunate to have met the living design legends of the 1950s and 1960s before they passed away. Designers like Ettore Sottsass, Achille Castiglioni, Verner Panton, and Enzo Mari, who for me really are amazing examples who really believed in design as a way of changing the world. It was postwar Europe. When I first started, I was mainly interested in sculpture and only learned about design after I fell into it.

What was Ettore Sottsass from the Memphis Group like?

Calm, friendly, and unassuming. He was great. There were also designers I was inspired to rebel against. I thought postmodernism was the ugliest thing, very pastel, geometric and patterned. Meanwhile I was making things out of rusty metal. I’ve grown to love the Memphis Group—Ettore was not only a prolific designer, but he organized a whole movement. He has that polymath attitude, like Buckminster Fuller or Isamu Noguchi.

What was your approach for The Manzoni (restaurant and showroom) in Milan? It’s like a concrete metal jungle with an abundance of lights.

It was an attempt to try to challenge the idea of having conventional showrooms. I’ve been interested in food for a long time, there’s a link between entertaining and design, in general. We managed to get our restaurant The Coal Office going well in King’s Cross, so we brought something to Italy.

My time in Italy was often tied around food, as meetings with manufacturers were based around lunchtime at their factory, many of which have canteens. I thought it would be better to spend the money on a restaurant with a small showroom attached. Rather than someone entering a design showroom every 20 years to buy a designer table, they might come every two weeks to have lunch and eat off our plates and drink from our glasses. It’s a way to engage people than to have a dusty old furniture store.

What’s next for you?

My core interest remains the same. I love manufacturing techniques, materials, whether it’s industry or craft, we have a close relationship with the people who make the pieces. We have to be conscious and aware of our impact on the planet.

There are a few experiments in thinking through what sustainability looks like for a furniture company and how we can be more thoughtful about what we put into the world. That’s what our future is rotating around. We have to constantly rethink what we’ve done and how to pave the way for the future.

What is your approach to sustainable design?

Sustainability isn’t a single thing, it’s a huge host of actions. The most sustainable thing would be not to make anything at all. There’s a seaside plant called eel grass, which is collected in Denmark to create roofing material, and we’re experimenting with it as an upholstery material. Like many other people, we’re experimenting with mycelium, a type of fungi to make furniture. We’re also doing a conceptual project where we’re growing chairs underwater.

Reprinted by permission of Penta. Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: Aug 1, 2022.


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You’ll never guess where they found a little extra room when renovating this west coast house

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There was a time, not too long ago, when the most important must-have for would-be renovators was space. It was all about space to be together and space to be apart.

But as house prices increase across the country, the conversation has started to shift from size for the sake of it towards more flexible, well-designed spaces better suited to contemporary living.

For the owners of this 1920s weatherboard workers’ cottage in Fremantle, the emphasis was less on having an abundance of room and more about creating cohesive environments that could still maintain their own distinct moods. Key to achieving this was manipulating the floorplan in such a way that it could draw in light, giving the impression at least of a larger footprint. 

See more stories like this in the latest issue of Kanebridge Quarterly magazine. Order your copy here

Positioned on a site that fell three metres from street level, the humble four-room residence had been added to over the years. First order of business for local architect Philip Stejskal was to strip the house back to its original state.

“In this case, they were not quality additions,” Stejskal says. “Sometimes it is important to make sure later additions are not lean-tos.”

The decision to demolish was not taken lightly. 

“Sometimes they can be as historically significant as the original building and need to be considered — I wouldn’t want people to demolish our addition in 50 years’ time.”

Northern light hits the site diagonally, so the design solution was to open up the side of the house via a spacious courtyard to maximise opportunities to draw natural light in. However, this had a knock-on effect.

A central courtyard captures northern light. Image: Bo Wong

“We had to make space in the middle of the site to get light in,” Stejskal says. “That was one of the first moves, but that created another issue because we would be looking onto the back of the neighbouring building at less appealing things, like their aircon unit.”

To draw attention away from the undesirable view, Stejskal designed a modern-day ‘folly’.

“It’s a chimney and lookout and it was created to give us something nice to look at in the living space and in the kitchen,” Stejskal says. 

“With a growing family, the idea was to create a space where people could find a bit of solitude. It does have views to the wider locality but you can also see the port and you can connect to the street as well.”

A garden tap has also been installed to allow for a herb garden at the top of the steps.

“That’s the plan anyway,”  he says. 

A modern day ‘folly’ provides an unexpected breakout space with room for a rooftop herb garden. Image: Bo Wong

Conjuring up space has been at the core of this project, from the basement-style garaging to the use of the central courtyard to create a pavilion-like addition.

The original cottage now consists of two bedrooms, with a central hallway leading onto a spacious reception and living area. Here, the large kitchen and dining spaces wrap around the courtyard, offering easy access to outdoor spaces via large sliding doors.

Moments of solitude and privacy have been secreted throughout the floorplan, with clever placement of built-in window seats and the crow’s nest lookout on the roof, ideal for morning coffee and sunset drinks.

The house has three bedrooms, including a spacious master suite with walk-in robe and ensuite overlooking the back garden. Adjustable blades on the bedroom windows allow for the control of light, as well as privacy. Although the house was designed pre COVID, it offers the sensibility so many sought through that time — sanctuary, comfort and retreat.

Adjustable blades allow the owners to control light on the upper floor. Image: Bo Wong

“When the clients came to us, they wanted a house that was flexible enough to cater for the unknown and changes in the family into the future,” Stejskal says. “We gave the owners a series of spaces and a certain variety or moods, regardless of the occasion. We wanted it to be a space that would support that.”

Mood has also been manipulated through the choice of materials. Stejskal has used common materials such as timber and brick, but in unexpected ways to create spaces that are at once sumptuous but also in keeping with the origins of the existing building.

Externally, the brickwork has been finished in beaded pointing, a style of bricklaying that has a softening effect on the varied colours of bricks. For the flooring, crazy paving in the courtyard contrasts with the controlled lines of tiles laid in a stack bond pattern. Close attention has also been paid to the use of veneer on select joinery in the house, championing the beauty of Australian timbers with a lustrous finish. 

“The joinery is finished in spotted gum veneer that has been rotary cut,” says Stejskal. “It is peeled off the log like you peel an apple to give you this different grain.”

Rotary cut timber reveals the beauty of the natural grain in the kitchen joinery. Image: Bo Wong

Even the laundry has been carefully considered.

“The laundry is like a zen space with bare stone,” he says. “We wanted these different moods and the landscape of rooms. We wanted to create a rich tapestry in this house.”

The owners now each experience the house differently, highlighting separate aspects of the building as their favourite parts. It’s quite an achievement when the site is not enormous. Maybe it’s not size that matters so much after all.

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