The Design World of Tom Dixon

I sure know a lot more about Tom Dixon since his appearance last Saturday at Inform Interiors (as do the other 280 or so attendees). For instance, he’s noodling around on the guitar again (in his youth, he played bass in a rock band). The reasoning behind his sowing an underwater furniture farm in the Bahamas (to grow furniture, naturally). And that Robin Hood is one of his heroes (hence his habit of staging mass chair and lamp give-aways).

Here are some other takeaways from my inside-the-showroom chat with the witty Brit industrial designer: 

On undertaking this North American tour

“I sell in maybe in 65 countries, and so it’s bloody difficult to really keep up with all the people that sell us around the world. So, if I can, I try to come to the States at least a couple of times a year. I’ve tended to concentrate on affairs on the East Coast, but there’s something really different about the West Coast. You know, I think America just in general is a place where we seem to fit quite well at the moment. I think a lot of European brands think they can just chuck stuff at America and America will just buy it. But I think you’ve got to spend the time, you’ve got to invest. It’s been well over due, it's seven years since I’ve been to the West Coast.”


On his second trip to Seattle

  “It’s nice for somebody whose only ever been to the East Coast, and New York really, to see another America, a slightly less polished one, and more diverse. So I was very enthusiastic about [coming back].”

Tom Dixon signing his book at Inform Interiors

Tom Dixon signs his new book, Dixonary, at Seattle's Inform Interiors

On describing his design style, say, to an alien

  “Blimely. It would depend on how alien they are. I’m somebody’s who’s trying to avoid too much trend and fashion in interiors, and just trying to carve my own furrow, my own groove in contemporary furniture. I use a bit of my provenance as a kind of backdrop, as everybody should be proud of their origins, and the U.K has got quite a lot of things you can take from. Unfortunately, it hasn’t had a good 100 years in terms of contemporary interior design. When I started, it was very nostalgic. So I’m trying to do something that is probably a bit more reduced and a bit more heavyweight than a lot of my peers in the industry, and I’m making some things which have got a distinct aesthetic, a kind of minimalist expressionism. I think the other thing that makes me different from other product designers is that, in the main, they don’t self-produce...manufacturing companies, all expert in a specific sector, upholstery or tables or lights, whatever, employ designers. Most of them have a stable of seven, eight or 10 designers (dead ones, living ones). There’s lots and lots of dead designers [said with a smile]. All of them are working in that manner, but I’m self-producing…"

Tom Dixon's Etch Light Web pendants

Tom Dixon's dreamy shadow-casting Etch Light Web pendants

On creating his own design company in 2002

“Before 2002, I took 10 years out of designing and I was creative director for a company called Habitat, and it did give me a bit more of an understanding of what it might take to create your own label in this sector. It’s been bloody hard, I’ll tell you, to do all the categories [of design] that I’m interested in. The reason that furniture is made like it is is because each different sector has a completely different manufacturing challenge: different materials, different import restrictions, different safety guidelines. The distinction between lighting production and upholstery production is 10,000 miles difference of knowledge. So trying to do the whole lot is kind of reckless. If you were a fashion designer, for instance, the rate of change might be faster and you could be just as innovative, but your base skills and materials remain the same, manufacturing techniques and what you can make at home on your sewing machine, you can also get 100,000 made in Vietnam. And that not the case with all of this [furniture], each one has its own distinct issues and challenges. So, I’ve attempted something quite difficult basically…Now we’ve reached a level of recognition, and a level of distribution, which allows the manufacturers to be slightly more open to some of the wackier ideas that we’ve got. So the bits of the jigsaw puzzle are coming together.”

On exporting products in the new global economy

“It’s still quite difficult. I’m starting to think of ways of being clever about it. There’s a light [the “Etch Shade Black”] that is made in the U.S. So, I’m regenerating U.S. industry whilst I’m at it…I do think things should be made a bit closer to where things are consumed. So my battle is to try and think of ways that we can make things in different places."

On the lure of lighting design

“The thing about lighting is it’s very much recognized as a part of the modern world. You know, it’s got electricity [and] people are more likely to be forgiving in terms of newness and in terms of materials. …On top of that it’s driven by a very fast rate of innovation in terms of technologies that you can use to create light. Bulbs are changing, their temperature is changing, the size is changing, the quality of light is changing. It’s all driven by government legislation and by technology. So it’s a really exciting field right now. There’s so much more shape and kind of mood possibilities than ever existed before and people are inventing new stuff all the time."

Tom Dixon's new Bell lamp, bookTom Dixon's new Etch Shade Black

Left to right: Tom Dixon's new Bell lamp perched atop a stack of Dixonary books. The stunning, made-in-America, spherical Etch Shade Black looms above the gathering crowd at Inform Interiors

On his creative process:

I’m pretty atypical of a lot designers in having a really, really close relationship to how things are made, and where they’re made. Again, most designers are designing for a company where if they’re lucky they can see a factory, but that’s my everyday. Trying to work out what I can make, at what price, in what way on this machine or that machine. It’s very much where I started and very much where I’m at now, but just on a different scale and different distance. I know how to make things. I spent ten years very grubby [as a welder] making stuff. I don’t have a factory. I run around the world looking for factories, and also trying to work out whether I can make things in the U.K. I do still have a welding machine and am doing some experiments where we are trying to figure out how a designer can be an industry as well.”

On potential Seattle partnerships: 

“I already work with somebody in Seattle that adapts our lighting for the American market. [Who] is none of your business [coy smile]. I have to keep my sources a secret. It’s my uniqueness. I’m very keen on trying to work [with others], particularly if they are doing something unique. It is all about being as unique and different as possible…it’s a great time to be designer that’s interested in distribution and progress.

On his favorite materials: 

“Metal’s been good to me. There’s always really interesting possibilities in metals. I get obsessions about materials. At the moment, I’m interested a bit in textiles for the first time. The nice thing about being a designer is that there is opportunity to just dive into these completely unknown worlds and explore them a bit. 

Tom Dixon's Bash vessels Tom Dixon Form Tea Set

Left to right: Tom Dixon's glowing Form tea set and Bash vessels

On the benefits of designing restaurants and other commercial projects: 

"You very quickly understand the need of functionality and the durability requirements and the gaps that exist in people’s ranges [of products] when you do a restaurant or a hotel or a bar. (I’ve only ever done one private residence.) Each client is different. The Parisien one [the Eclectic Restaurant] was a particularly good client and very much wanting us to express ourselves and very expert in knowing what they needed…but not particularly wanting to get in the way, and that’s kind of a rare client. [Dixon has restaurant as well. The Dock Kitchen.] They were particularly open and very generous, and very specific about what they didn’t want. I usually come with a couple of different concepts. I had an idea about the Anglo-French [connection]—there’s always been quite a lot of tension between the two countries—and I thought it would be quite amusing, a British invasion of Paris.”

On undertaking his new book, Dixonary

“I really didn’t want to do a book at all. But there’s this phenomenon of people writing about you without your permission. So they can just take your press releases and pictures that exist from other sources and cobble together something which is very ugly, and probably inaccurate. So that happened a couple of times and I thought that it might be time to put some stuff into order and it became a whole project in itself. So, it was very time-consuming and irritating, but it was also about trying to put information in bite-size, digestible pieces rather than trying to be too clever, and to catalog stuff in a chronological, rational way. It’s been a useful exercise, actually.”