The UK design company Australians love is 'no longer a teenager'
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The UK design company Australians love is ‘no longer a teenager’

Tom Dixon reflects on 20 years at the helm of his eponymous brand and why he has the best job for poking his nose in other people’s business

By Robyn Willis
Thu, Mar 9, 2023 7:30amGrey Clock 4 min

It might have been the jet lag talking, or perhaps it’s just evidence of his legendary laconic style but Tom Dixon’s view on the role of the designer is unorthodox, to say the least.

“Design is a great profession for the easily bored and the curious,” Tom Dixon commented. 

Sitting down last week ahead of an event at Sydney’s Quay Quarter Tower created to celebrate 20 years of his company, Tom Dixon was reflecting on what could best be described as a meandering career. 

Untrained, self taught and continually interested in the new possibilities of untried materials and their applications, Dixon’s career has been one of following his interests wherever they might take him, whether that is music, management – or design.

Indeed, while he was enjoying finally being able to see the foyer and market hall he designed for Quay Quarter Tower after three years of COVID stopped him from visiting Australia, he remained unconvinced the birthday celebrations were necessary.

“I don’t really think about these things and it was slightly imposed on me,” he said. “I like looking forward if at all possible. 

“Maybe that’s why I didn’t really want to do it – 20 sounds quite old – like I’m no longer a teenager.” 

He certainly continues to bring a youthful attitude to his work. The one-time bass guitarist for early 80s band, Funkapolitan who dropped out of the Chelsea School of Art, Dixon almost fell into design after becoming fascinated by the possibilities of welding.

This progressed into furniture design, with his S chair for Cappellini in 1989 (now in the New York Museum of Modern Art), followed by his appointment as creative director of Habitat, the epitome of homeware style in the 1990s, where he sharpened his understanding of the commercial realities of design and promoted emerging designers.

By the time the new century arrived, Dixon was ready to branch out on his own, founding his business, Tom Dixon in 2002. The Design Research Studio – the architectural and interior branch of his business – began the following year. 

More than 20 years on and he is credited with some of the most ubiquitous designs, including his BEAT range of lighting, as well as some of the coolest interior spaces in Europe, including Shoreditch House in London and Le Drugstore in Paris. In recent years, he has experimented with sustainable materials such as cork, mushroom-based products and latex, although he remains frustrated that the cost of manufacturing makes them less appealing to a commercial market.

Dixon’s BEAT range of lights have become synonymous with quiet sophistication and embody his ethos of ‘expressive minimalism’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he prefers not to be categorised.

“The big battle always is stopping yourself from being categorised or pigeon holed because effectively, everything is designed,” he said. “What has been nice here is, doing a corporate lobby doesn’t seem like a nice job, really but getting to see it now, that is the kind of design challenge we haven’t really had before. 

“It’s nice to approach it with a naive perspective.”

Clearly, that sense of exploration is key to what still drives him. Dixon’s range of homewares for residential and commercial use extends from lounge chairs and coffee tables to carafes, candles and cables. Such is his reach, the Tom Dixon brand sells in 90 countries.

So, what is it that has resonated with buyers from Beijing to Bondi?

“I don’t know if it does resonate across other cultures,” Dixon said. “Maybe I’m exotic. I sell in Dakar and I sell in Casablanca. Maybe I’m exotic because I’m not part of that culture.”

However, when products do well across the varied markets, Dixon said they tend to have something in common.

“When the objects we make are successful, they tend to be legible in different ways. I call it ‘expressive minimalism’,” he said. 

“Minimalism can mean you work all the visibility of the functions out of an object just to make a cube or something you can’t really define as a toaster or a car. If you are able to express the functions, you’ll be able to put it in a lot of different contexts I think. 

“And the most successful is where some people will say ‘oh that’s very Art Deco’ and others will say ‘that’s very Space Age’ and somebody else will say ‘that’s quite futuristic’.  

“Those objects tend to be the successful ones.”

His lighting ranges, which mostly recently has included the ‘Melt’ range seen in Sydney’s Bennelong Restaurant and the perforated ‘Etch Puff’, continues his fascination with lighting. Dixon continues to be inspired, it seems, by this evolving sphere of design.

Tom Dixon’s Melt range were installed as lamps in Bennelong Restaurant. Image: Sydney Opera House

“It’s a category that is fascinating because it’s still in the middle of this huge revolution in technology – and you cannot say that about tables and chairs right now.

“You have to remember that 10 years ago, LEDs were an expensive and ugly light that nobody wanted. 

“Lighting is still in the process of evolving. You can see it everywhere – the deconstructing of spaces with light. There is much more opportunity to be theatrical, much more opportunity to light things underneath or do washes or linear lighting.”

With so many options, the role of the lighting designer is even more important, he said. 

“I was talking to Es Devlin,” Dixon said. “She’s the UK’s leading lighting designer for installations and rock shows. I asked her ‘what’s your tip for lighting’ and she said ‘turn it all off, have one candle’.”

It’s the notion of reducing complex problems into a simple, beautiful expression that comes through in Dixon’s work. Although, he has another take on the role of design.

“It’s a great profession for poking your nose into other people’s business.”

Tom Dixon’s collection is available in Australia through Living Edge.

 



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Why Prices of the World’s Most Expensive Handbags Keep Rising

Designers are charging more for their most recognisable bags to maintain the appearance of exclusivity as the industry balloons

By CAROL RYAN
Tue, Mar 5, 2024 3 min

The price of a basic Hermès Birkin handbag has jumped $1,000. This first-world problem for fashionistas is a sign that luxury brands are playing harder to get with their most sought-after products.

Hermès recently raised the cost of a basic Birkin 25-centimeter handbag in its U.S. stores by 10% to $11,400 before sales tax, according to data from luxury handbag forum PurseBop. Rarer Birkins made with exotic skins such as crocodile have jumped more than 20%. The Paris brand says it only increases prices to offset higher manufacturing costs, but this year’s increase is its largest in at least a decade.

The brand may feel under pressure to defend its reputation as the maker of the world’s most expensive handbags. The “Birkin premium”—the price difference between the Hermès bag and its closest competitor , the Chanel Classic Flap in medium—shrank from 70% in 2019 to 2% last year, according to PurseBop founder Monika Arora. Privately owned Chanel has jacked up the price of its most popular handbag by 75% since before the pandemic.

Eye-watering price increases on luxury brands’ benchmark products are a wider trend. Prada ’s Galleria bag will set shoppers back a cool $4,600—85% more than in 2019, according to the Wayback Machine internet archive. Christian Dior ’s Lady Dior bag and the Louis Vuitton Neverfull are both 45% more expensive, PurseBop data show.

With the U.S. consumer-price index up a fifth since 2019, luxury brands do need to offset higher wage and materials costs. But the inflation-beating increases are also a way to manage the challenge presented by their own success: how to maintain an aura of exclusivity at the same time as strong sales.

Luxury brands have grown enormously in recent years, helped by the Covid-19 lockdowns, when consumers had fewer outlets for spending. LVMH ’s fashion and leather goods division alone has almost doubled in size since 2019, with €42.2 billion in sales last year, equivalent to $45.8 billion at current exchange rates. Gucci, Chanel and Hermès all make more than $10 billion in sales a year. One way to avoid overexposure is to sell fewer items at much higher prices.

Many aspirational shoppers can no longer afford the handbags, but luxury brands can’t risk alienating them altogether. This may explain why labels such as Hermès and Prada have launched makeup lines and Gucci’s owner Kering is pushing deeper into eyewear. These cheaper categories can be a kind of consolation prize. They can also be sold in the tens of millions without saturating the market.

“Cosmetics are invisible—unless you catch someone applying lipstick and see the logo, you can’t tell the brand,” says Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Bernstein.

Most of the luxury industry’s growth in 2024 will come from price increases. Sales are expected to rise by 7% this year, according to Bernstein estimates, even as brands only sell 1% to 2% more stuff.

Limiting volume growth this way only works if a brand is so popular that shoppers won’t balk at climbing prices and defect to another label. Some companies may have pushed prices beyond what consumers think they are worth. Sales of Prada’s handbags rose a meagre 1% in its last quarter and the group’s cheaper sister label Miu Miu is growing faster.

Ramping up prices can invite unflattering comparisons. At more than $2,000, Burberry ’s small Lola bag is around 40% more expensive today than it was a few years ago. Luxury shoppers may decide that tried and tested styles such as Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull bag, which is now a little cheaper than the Burberry bag, are a better buy—especially as Louis Vuitton bags hold their value better in the resale market.

Aggressive price increases can also drive shoppers to secondhand websites. If a barely used Prada Galleria bag in excellent condition can be picked up for $1,500 on luxury resale website The Real Real, it is less appealing to pay three times that amount for the bag brand new.

The strategy won’t help everyone, but for the best luxury brands, stretching the price spectrum can keep the risks of growth in check.

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