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

By NADJA SAYEJ
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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