January 2022 7 Min Read

Interview: Tom Dixon

By Josh Sims

Tom Dixon, OBE, is arguably the UK’s most successful product designer, having turned his hand to everything from restaurants and hotels to teapots, lights, chairs, and candles for major manufacturers such as Cappellini and Vitra. A bass guitarist turned nightclub operator turned performance welder, when he started making rough-hewn “cut and shut” things he also realised he might do it professionally, regardless of having no formal training in design. He has been the creative director of Habitat, revived Artek, and has a number of his designs in the permanent collections of the V&A and MOMA.

Before you worked in design, you were a bass player in a band called Funkapolitan, which had a couple of years of success. You’ve said that realising you didn’t need a qualification to be in a band changed your mindset; you understood that you didn’t need a design qualification to design either. And you don’t. How has that notion shaped your work?

It’s a bit of a post-rationalisation, but if you inspect how the music business works – you learn your own instruments, make your own tunes, book your own gigs, make your own flyers, even press your own records sometimes – you’re creating your own mini business before it gets into the hands of corporations. It’s all the University of Life, but if you look back on the self-belief [it generated], you could think you could design without needing a design degree. Why? Because I’d done it once before with my mates in music. Look to other cultures – Japan, Thailand – and people are much less likely to do something they didn’t actually study to do at school. So I think I might not have done design if I hadn’t done music first.

A metal plaque with 'Tom Dixon London' engraved on one side

The Coal Office, where some of Dixon’s more experimental work takes place, located in Coal Drops Yard.

Do you ever wish you’d have stayed in the band and made a career of that?

Ultimately, I broke my arm in a motorcycle accident and was replaced by a much better session player, who’s a friend of mine. He now plays for Pink Floyd. Being the second bassist in Pink Floyd could be good or bad. But rather than being an ageing rock star, I’d be an ageing designer any day.

When Dixonary, a retrospective of your work, was published, you said that you worried that it suggested you were at the end of your career when you still felt at the beginning…

Well, that’s the beauty of design, really – you can always react to new materials, new technologies. It’s something you apply to something else. It’s not something in itself. The more you know about improving things, engineering things, making them more sellable or less expensive to produce or more sustainable, the more there are new design challenges thrown at you – so there’s always an infinite set of possibilities. Design isn’t a sector, but a magic dust you can apply to anything – a chair, a restaurant, a windmill. And the more I find out about it, the more I want to apply it to other products. I’ve never done any electronics. I’ve only done one building. So there's a lot of potential out there and, for me, it’s always been about the next adventure.

Dixon in a brown suit, sitting on some gray steps

Dixon: from rock-star wannabe to the UK’s most successful product designer.

And what is your next adventure?

I spent a lot of time in lockdown just escaping my domestic environment, pottering around on my own in a massive industrial greenhouse in Sussex. That contact with the countryside, the growing of things, local production, all felt quite relevant – and, for me, it was great to be in a situation where I wasn’t surrounded by assistants [and] people asking me what to do next. Here, everything was in my hands, which were mostly filthy dirty. It was getting back to basics; making lots of stuff without any commercial motivation. All that felt pertinent to whatever will come next.

You’re often thought of as being as much a maker as a designer; as being hands-on.

I’ve always enjoyed making things, be that music or food or furniture. It’s easy to forget that the making was the pleasure of what I did and I was authentically making things before I did it as a business. Getting back to that reminded me why I fell into it in the first place. I’m pretty agnostic as to what it might be, which is why we’ve fallen into the restaurant business, and that’s about making things on a daily basis. I love being surrounded by the production of stuff. I’ve missed not being able to visit our global network of companies that produce the stuff – a lot of the ideas come from them. And, with Covid, Brexit and so on, it’s not looking great for import/export businesses this season.

Design isn’t a sector, but a magic dust you can apply to anything – a chair, a restaurant, a windmill. And the more I find out about it, the more I want to apply it to other products

Tom Dixon

It has brought about a renewed focus on the locally and nationally made, though.

Yes, and it’s probably a good thing that people are closer to the source of production of the things they buy, even if they’re maybe forced into it. Perhaps for too long, design has happened away from where things are actually made, so we’re seeing some deconstruction of that. In part [this is] because designers are getting closer to where things are made, and because the miniaturisation and digitising of manufacturing is allowing it to be closer to home, too. Just as there was that time when suddenly musicians were able to make and record music in their own bedroom, now the machines are allowing the same to happen with design. We’ve experimented a lot with metal stamping, for example – those big industrial processes have now become more available without the huge tools and investment.

Is design doing enough to bring on greater sustainability?

I think designers do worry and obsess about it more than a lot of people, but it takes a combination of design, government, legislation, consumers, and manufacturing to work together. The only example I’ve seen of that happening in a fast and impressive way has been with LEDs. They were initially considered a really ugly and expensive light source which was forced onto people by government legislation and by improvements in engineering. Designers were there to make it acceptable and explain it to the public, and now everything is lit by LED and we accept it. But that wouldn't have happened without all the elements coming together – and now we’re in a situation where lighting uses a tenth of the energy that it [had previously used]. And that’s astonishing, right? Now we have to do it with flying and transport and heating.

Do you think the UK has a greater appreciation for design than it did 20 years ago?

An interest in design just didn’t really exist when I started out – there wasn’t the coverage about decorating your home in Sunday supplements, or the Design Museum. The Festival of Britain and the Design Council [were] a couple of big drives to make design important in the UK [over previous decades], and there were notable exercises in good design, but when I started out it was all very nostalgic – it was Margaret Thatcher, chintz, Laura Ashley. All the hardcore designers were in Germany or Japan, or doing post-modernism in the US and Italy. It felt like a backwater. But that all made it interesting times for [me and other designers] to be anti-establishment.

Do you think the UK’s standing in design has changed?

We’ve absolutely excelled in graphic design, in architecture, in packaging. And we’ve exported a lot of our designers to car firms [and to] fashion. You find British designers all over the place. But we haven’t had a significant manufacturing base supporting design in the UK in the way, say, Italy has with furniture. It’s not design itself that’s the problem, but the distance here between design and making stuff. You find British design talent instead in film, gaming, digital.

I think designers do worry and obsess about [sustainability] more than a lot of people, but it takes a combination of design, government, legislation, consumers, and manufacturing to work together.

Tom Dixon

Is the need to sell stuff an important part of your process?

It’s more about trying to get things made at a price that people will pay. At college, you’re in a non-commercial environment where you don’t have to sell anything for a few years – and I skipped that bit. I was welding in a coal cellar in Notting Hill to start with and so if I didn’t sell, the stuff just piled up. I was selling things very early and that endorsed the activity. I was flabbergasted that people would buy what I made, so from the beginning commerce was intrinsic. And as you get bigger you have to fuel the fire.

When I joined Habitat, a retail organisation rather than a design organisation, everything was about what sold and what didn’t, and [they had] vast amounts of data about that. One day you’re trying to source a plant that would sell £1m-worth a year and the next day you’re looking at cuddly toys or rugs or art posters. I’ve had a different journey through design, so when I started my own company I was much more aware of what had to be done to sell things. Traditionally, it’s not the design department that has to worry about those kinds of things.

Tom Dixon holding onto the leg of a chair suspended from the ceiling

An experimental chair designed by Dixon.

You’ve said that you spend a lot of time persuading designers to “undesign”. What does this mean?

Trying to get to the essence of an object without making it too complicated or fashionable is something I’m quite keen on. More successful objects look like a lamp or a chair and aren’t trying to be something else. They’re what I like to call “expressive minimalism” – they have to retain the lampness or chairness about them, because I don’t like it when things are so minimal you can’t recognise them. But they have to be almost cartoon versions of themselves.

I think the most successful thing about any design is something that lasts several generations and, for that, you need to find a way for an object not to go out of fashion. The fact is that most things have already been designed in that way. There has to be an intentional neutrality about the decorative aspect, which for me means making the material in evidence, trying to add as much solidity into the construction, [and] allowing the structure to be the decoration. Sometimes we manage it and sometimes we don’t.

Is it possible to do all that and still stand out enough?

I get student designers asking me how they can get to be in my position and I tell them not to do what I’ve done, but to do what they believe in – to work out what makes them different, not the same. That’s harder and harder to do in a contemporary world because everything you do is exposed so early on; you’re bombarded by so many influences, so it’s hard to tell what’s your idea and what’s come through your Instagram feed. It’s hard to be unique.

Tom Dixon's side profile
Headshot of Tom Dixon, slightly greying man in a black turtleneck and brown suit jacket

Sustainability, and especially longevity, is woven into the fabric of Dixon’s work.

We stick out a bit in nicking another idea – this time not from the music business, but the fashion business – in putting my name above the door, communicating that name myself, distributing our stuff ourselves. Most [product] designers don’t get involved with the nightmare complexities of all that, but it’s normal for fashion designers, even though it’s much rarer to do your own production in fashion now, which we don’t do either.

You’ve said that you’re never quite satisfied with anything you’ve designed. Why is that?

You learn all the time and once you’ve done something you’re conscious of the bits you could have done differently. There [are] often compromises – to hit a price, or meet certain legislation, and that’s like snakes and ladders to meet the demands of 100-plus countries. A lot of the time the legislation doesn’t make a lot of sense; often it just gets in the way.

There are some things I’m fond of because they represent a moment in my career. I like the Pylon chair. I was actually trying to make the lightest chair in the world and it’s not that at all, but it did teach me structural engineering. The latest one is the Hydro chair which took a huge amount of technological development. Like a rock artist, you get the fear: “I’m never going to be able to pull off a ‘Ziggy Stardust’ again…”, though Bowie probably didn’t worry about that. But I do love a chair that looks different and performs in a different way. But that chair does have its faults. Still, people are more interested in the aesthetics, not the detail of the manufacture process.

Champagne and wine glasses stacked with a hand holding the topmost one

A set of Tom Dixon wine and champagne glasses being stacked by the designer himself.

Does that mean interiors is, as a sector, getting closer in approach to that of fashion?

I don’t think interiors will ever be something we buy every season. That just doesn’t strike me as feasible. I mean, when was the last time you, or I, bought a table? Maybe 20 years ago. That’s why you can’t have design that’s too fashionable, because people aren’t able to dispose of furniture in the way they do fashion. I think people are increasingly conservative when it comes to the big items, the cornerstone pieces of a home – sofas, tables. I think the way people used to have, say, blow-up furniture – all that has moved into the fashionable office sector. But people don’t live like that. They want higher-quality materials, but also something a lot more neutral. If something is expensive and heavy to move around and going to have an effect on the aesthetic of your home, well, you consider that in ways you don’t a shirt you stick in your closet and put on from time to time for a party.

The silhouette of a man walking away, next to a river with a forest in the distance
A yellow-coloured showroom with several lamps and sofas scattered around the room

To Dixon, his designs are never truly perfect, but each project reveals something new.

Do you think of yourself as a contrarian?

Not on purpose. When I started, it was much easier to be anti-establishment, and the things I made were a reaction to the things I didn’t really like at the time, particularly all that postmodern stuff – though actually I love all that now. At the time, it was easier to position yourself as opposite to that. I think that designers should be interested in looking at things from other angles, so there’s an element of trying not to be in the same vibe as everyone else. But now you mention it, being contrarian does sound quite tempting…

We would like to extend our thanks to Tom Dixon for speaking to us and sharing his journey as a product designer.