Being a successful product or furniture designer often means certain things. You are probably part of a team of designers working for a brand. You create something you feel the customer will like, deciding on its shape, form, size, colour and material. Then you try and find the cheapest possible way of manufacturing it, which usually means getting it made in countries like China. After that, you received the consignment, of which most goes to the warehouse and some to the shop. And then you hope to god people buy it.
Not so for Tom Dixon. His approach to design has taken this process model and turned it on its head. For Tom, the consumer, manufacture and design become integrated in a process of communication and production that is more organic and nuclear rather than linear like a production line. The designer is the manufacturer, the consumer becomes involved in manufacture and design, and the three are engaged in a love triangle of creating something that is wonderfully tailored to the customer’s needs and wants.
He explains this best in his book, Industry, self-published in 2010. “I’m kind of re-thinking the whole system of … how you present products and get things to the consumer,” says Tom. “Habitat [where Tom was head of Head of Design and later Creative Director, from 1998-2008] brought the supermarket (of homewares) to the consumer … and then IKEA brought the customer to the warehouse. And the next logical step would be to bring the customer to the factory; but then actually, bringing the factory to the consumer is better still.”
“We’re increasingly getting to a point where the designer and the consumer are almost as one … it’s simplifying the interface between industry and the consumer, so it’s the designer working as a creative assistant … It’s about the fulfillment of the product to the customer, communication and the design and the manufacture being seamless,” Tom states.
A great demonstration of this thinking is in the Fresh Fat experience of the early 2000s, where a plastic extrusion machine was brought to stores and customers had their chairs made before their very eyes, in the perfect marriage of customer and industry.
The World According to Tom
Looking at Tom’s products in high-end Singapore design and furniture store XTRA, where he recently came to launch his 2010 collection also named Industry, one doesn’t immediately see the revolutionary, experimental thinking behind his work. Batches of Tom’s products are on display, in stylish arrangements no doubt, but still in a conventional retail fashion.
The best place to be part of Tom’s extraordinary world is at his recently opened, eponymous Tom Dixon shop in London’s Portobello Dock. To call it a “shop” is to not do it justice though. “Warehouse installation space,” might be more accurate, a space designed like a industrial stage set where customers peer through dividing structures into rooms that have raw material themes: copper, cast iron and wood, for example. Here, Tom’s full range of products is available, including the Industry collection, alongside selected products from other designers, curated by Tom. If shopping here works up an appetite, customers can head to the Dock Kitchen where seasonal dishes are served up daily by star chef Stevie Parle.
This space was a long time in the making. “I’ve waited ages to have a place in London,” says Tom. “Space in this city is so expensive and furniture is a business that need quite a lot of space. Finally I got this fabulous studio that was the headquarters of Virgin Records in the ’80s. Everyone has gone through it, from the Spice Girls to The Sex Pistols to The Rolling Stones, and it’s a big complex on the canal. It’s more like an estate that has got it’s own character, it’s a Victorian building, an industrial building and it’s blessed with all of this outdoor space. We have about 8,000 square feet but because it’s got the water and a lot of outdoor space it feels much bigger.”
Why, with such an illustrious career, the desire to have a space now? “It’s difficult to show your universe, your aesthetic if you don’t have a store,” Tom explains. “If you want to create a whole world of Tom Dixon you probably have to do it yourself. For us it’s more like a brand centre than a shop. I’ve modelled the furniture business more closely to how fashion designers do the fashion business rather than what other furniture designers do. Most other design firms have got seven to eight designers working under an umbrella, a brand, who never really get a chance to be involved in the presentation or the way your communicate [with the consumer]. The shop for us is a way of being different, of showing what we’re on about, and it’s a way of getting much closer to the customer as well so we understand what does and doesn’t sell.”
And, perhaps more to the point, the shop arose because chance presented itself. “We got this fabulous space because of the recession. The store was opportunity driven. It was almost impossible to justify having a furniture business in London before the financial crisis,” Tom responds when asked how long his store had been in the pipeline for. Spontaneity, in this case, was the mother of invention.
The House that Tom Built
As the Tom Dixon shop magically sprung of a choice opportunity, so did the home that Tom is building for himself. Located right next to the shop, the home-to-be is an old water tower. “It’s a really vertical building, a cylinder, looks like a beer can on legs. I’m putting two more storeys on top, so when I’m finished it’ll be nine floors of quite small circles, seven-metres in diameter.” And when will it be done? “By Christmas,” he says. But as of November, Tom had yet to decide what it will look like on the inside.
Several ideas ran through his head. “I’m interested in things that have got a story, like heirlooms that been handed to me. I’ve got Louis chairs, furniture that my great-great grandmother had because she was French, some Moroccan furniture from when my mother lived in there, things that I’ve picked up or prototypes that I’ve made of things that never went into production — a mix of inspirational stuff or things that mean something to me,” Tom shares. “Or I might just keep the house fairly empty, a refuge from my job. Maybe nothing in there would be nice.”
To find out, we will just have to wait. See, just like his entire fabulous career, global retail network spanning 52 countries and everything else he has achieved, his new home and flourishing shop just kind of fell in place and evolved. “I try to keep design as spontaneous as possible otherwise you lose the fun of it, which was always the point of it. It was my hobby rather than my profession,” says Tom. “I’ve never planned anything properly.” Well, as the phenomenon of Tom Dixon continues to grow to an increasingly admiring public, this has not been a problem.
Made by Tom Dixon
Key pieces Tom has created over the years that have become synonymous with his name and brand. And what his recent works are.
Tom designed this ‘S’-shaped chair in 1987, and it was an instant classic. Already showing Tom Dixon’s expert hand at metal, the chair features a welded metal frame and comes in whicker and marsh straw in bold, solid colours. Italian design house Cappellini start producing it in the early 1990s.
Jack Light 1994
Inspired by the childhood game of jacks, this ‘sitting, stacking, lighting thing’ sealed Tom’s place in the design industry’s firmament. The prototype for this light was made by sticking six polypropylene wastepaper baskets together in a jack-like configuration and then rotary moulding, a process that ensures a even thickness of plastic throughout, used to make the final product. One of Tom’s earlier forays into plastic, a material he would go on to become very successful with.
Fresh Fat 2001
This is furniture making turned into consumer-centric performance art. Plastic extrusion machines are used to churn out rolls of hot, fat polymer which is then hand-woven into a link pattern to form primitive shapes. When the plastic solidifies it shines like glass and is extremely durable. With this collection, Tom showed that the often denigrated plastic could be a craftsman material and used to make beautiful, artful objects and not just cheap, throwaway stuff.
Mirror Ball 2003
To create this highly reflective sphere, a bubble of pure metal is blown on to the inside of a polycarbonate globe. The mirror surface that results is dramatic and stylish
and encases the light from the bulb to create a soft, broad beam.
Etch Lamps 2010
A follow up to Fresh Fat is Flash Factory, another consumer-manufacturer experience. This time, the consumer produces their own Etch Lamps, metal lamps made from 0.4 millimetre brass sheets digitally etched with acid. Etched using a method that is typically used to make micro machine parts, these sheets create a intricate shadows when lit, like modern day shadow puppets. With these lamps, Tom again shows that you can design, produce and sell things yourself, making your own industry, and not just be a consumer of mass-produced items made by faceless workers halfway around the world.
His latest collection continues to be an expression of Tom’s philosophy of integrating industry and design. There is Void, highly-reflective gumdrop-shaped lamps in brass, stainless steel and copper. Made using the same concept that goes into a thermos flask, these lamps are double-wall spun and shaped to hide the tiny light bulb that goes with them to produce a spotlight effect. There is also Peg, solid wood chairs that are as good to stack as they are to sit on; and Offcut Bench, a flat-packed designed made by recycling waste material from wooden furniture manufacture. Industry also heralds the return of Jack, giving rise to the motto “It’s back – it also comes in black, and it stacks.”
The Tom Dixon story
The milestones of Tom Dixon’s life and career are well known but are worth repeating to show just how this “talented untrained designer” came to be.
1959: Born in Tunisia.
1963: Moves to London as a boy where he grows up
1980: Drops out of Chelsea Art School to play in a band Funkapolitan
1983: A motorbike accident results in him teaching himself welding so he can repair his bike. Tom becomes fascinated by welding and metal.
1983: Starts his career as a designer at London nightclub where he performs on stage, welding found metal objects into furniture.
1984: Creates S-Chair, whose metal frame is made by, welding, of course.
1987: Sets up his own shop and think tank, Space, and factory, Eurolounge.
1994: Creates Jack, the “sitting, stacking, lighting thing”
1998: Joins Habitat as Head of Design
2000: Awarded an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen of England
2002: Sets up Tom Dixon, the Company and creates Fresh Fat
2003: Creates Mirror Ball
2004: Teams up with Swedish private investment firm, Proventus, to establish Design Research, and becomes Creative Director of Artek
2008: Leaves Habitat after having risen to Creative Director
2010: Opens Tom Dixon shop and launches Industry collection
The Anti Designer
Celebrated as the “talented untrained designer,” Tom Dixon stands for everything many big designers don’t. With no fancy design school background, he rose through the ranks of the design industry and created a new way of thinking that took everyone by storm. With his annual collections and now his London shop, he brings people into his enthralling world.
This article was first published in Tatler Homes