British product, furniture and interiors designer Tom Dixon had an unconventional start as an art school dropout and bass player in a funk band. He began welding to fix his motorbike but quickly created furniture from salvaged metal and his career took off.
He sat down with us when he was in Australia earlier this month to talk curiosity, creativity and the important parallels between design and selling stuff. Dixon now holds honorary doctorates from several universities and has designs on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a myriad of European Museums.
Why would a designer leave art school?
Tom: I did a foundation course at the Chelsea School of Art and it just seemed like a step back. I didn’t feel that the teachers were interested. I had a motorbike accident and I broke my legs. That’s the excuse for never going back. By that time, I was sick of schooling anyway. I wanted to experience real life, not theoretical life.
Would you say you have a signature style? Something that makes people say ‘that’s a Tom Dixon’?
Tom: I’ve had a few phases that you could recognise as mine. I try and characterise it as expressive minimalism, maybe. I’ve had a series of periods, so the first thing was rusted metal. For a while recently, it was very coppery. I’m going into what I like to call ‘super texture’ right now.
It sounds like you follow your curiosity?
Tom: I guess it’s a harder and harder battle to get bigger. People expect you to do more of the same. I’m spending my whole time fighting with the forces of conservatism in my country.
So how do you maintain the balance between creativity and conservatism?
Tom: It’s an everyday battle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it yourself and you’ve got private clients or whether you’re doing it for another company and it’s got a brand identity that you have to follow. I’m owned by private equity and majority now (Tom Dixon is owned by British investment company NEO) …
You’re owned by someone else?
Tom: Yes. It’s quite abnormal for product design but it is a very normal state of affairs for a fashion designer. Many, many fashion designers set up under their own designer and get invested in and lose an amount of control but this is in exchange for being able to grow faster. That’s the sort of decision I had to relate to (British retail giant) Habitat. (Tom Dixon worked for the retail giant as head of design and creative director from 1998 to 2008). I wasn’t going to start with a tiny studio again, but try and do it in a different way.
Which is what makes you creative, really …
Tom: That’s the joy of business. I do have more liberty of action than a lot of other people.
Is that because you’ve got the name now?
Tom: I’ve built an infrastructure so that I can map my own ideas. The problem is the interior design business is much slower and more conservative than the fashion business or even the film business. It’s big bits of stuff that has to be transported around the world and made in a certain way. It’s interesting how un-modern this interior design business is. It’s not one that’s been disrupted.
Do you sit in your room with some amazing music on and come up with some great big new concept?
Tom: For me it’s always been about how you make something and then the joy of selling it. If you do design at art school, you’re doing it to please the teacher. You don’t get that thrill of having sold something. People had to buy (my stuff).
What was the first piece you sold that gave you that feedback?
Tom: We took over a store and actually made things on site. The first exhibition we did was making things we liked and then people came to enjoy it and actually bought them.
So you made stuff in front of other people?
Tom: I wouldn’t call it performance art, but it was that direct and that hard. (There is a lot of) instant gratification in having created something and then gotten rid of it.
Is there some piece of furniture that you wished you’d designed?
Tom: I’ve got a lot of admiration for people that are proper craftsmen or properly skilled designers. I’m still basically primitive. I’m not an expert and I quite like keeping in that state of childlike wonder.
What do you think were the turning points in your career?
Tom: It’s quite a slow business. It’s not like the fashion industry where you have a show and then it takes off. The turning point was when I got a job at Habitat. I gave up my workshops where I had maybe 15 lads working and doing metal work. I didn’t actually design for 10 years. I told other people what to do.
Did you miss designing?
Tom: No. I think if I could’ve done two years with my own workshop and then two years in corporate life, that would have been ideal. It was such a huge playground for learning about not so much design but international manufacturing and lots of top quality goods. That’s where I got a proper education.
How about designing the iconic 1990s Capellini S chair?
Tom: That was a turning point because it exposed me to much more than luxury goods. (Italian design studio Capellini commissioned Dixon to make the chair in 1991.) Italians are the best at making stuff. They already had this great big global distribution for luxury furniture. It exposed me to the ‘proper furniture’ track.
I had two worlds revealed to me. First, the craft world where I was making my own things and managing my own factory. Then retail – Habitat was owned by IKEA – so I had exposure to the biggest furniture group in the world. I used all those lessons to create my own thing.
While you were at Habitat, did anything really surprise you about what people liked to buy?
Tom: I had this genius idea of actually approaching the oldest designers I could find and asking them to bring back things from the 1960s. I discovered that some of those modernist pieces were a complete failure in terms of commerce. It was a lesson in the realities of what people think is a success and what is a real commercial success.
What’s something you’re really proud that you created?
Tom: I find it really hard to look back at something. I think ‘If only I could’ve just done this or that’. I have perpetual dissatisfaction with my own work.
Tom: It’s awful. It’s nice that things are in museums or in collections and books but I still think ‘I could have done that better. I missed a bit there’.