In celebration of two decades of the Tom Dixon brand, Sophie Harper visited the TWENTY exhibition in London to find out more about the brand’s achievements, with her tour guide, Tom Dixon.
An accidental designer and reluctant self-promoter, it would seem Tom Dixon’s accomplishments in furniture and lighting design were unexpected by the man himself. But now, 20 years on from the self-titled brand launch, with numerous accolades, an OBE, and retail units all over the world, Tom and his team are celebrating another milestone with a beautiful collection – and a big party!
Walking around Tom Dixon HQ at Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross, London, with Tom Dixon explaining the various items on show and how they came to be is quite an entertaining experience. Within the first few minutes he rolls his eyes as he says, “My marketing team bullied me into it,” gesturing at the work going on around us to set up for the TWENTY exhibition. I wasn’t sure if he was joking at first, but as we walked through the labyrinth of brick alleyways and atmospheric showroom spaces, it became apparent how much Tom lives for the creative process (albeit not so much for the PR).
Realising his love for making things early on, Tom discovered a knack for pottery throwing and drawing when he was a teenager. He described it as more of a hobby than a craft, until a friend with a car body repair shop showed him how to weld, which led to Tom making more than 100 chairs in a year – just because he could – at which point he realised his hobby had become an obsession.
In 1988 Tom made his first light. “The Spiral Light was probably my first real lamp, and sparked off an enduring passion and interest in lighting objects,” he says. Tom continued to make furniture and lighting products that didn’t conform to any kind of trend, but instead appealed to him in form and function, and soon he was providing items to furnish the homes of friends, and contacts he had built in the entertainment industry (following a stint as the bassist for disco band, Funkapolitan).
In 1998 Tom landed the head of design role at Habitat – his first “proper day job” as he refers to it, and swiftly after that became creative director. But still making his own products in his own time, it was clear Tom needed his own outlet to design and create for his own audience.
Tom’s self-titled brand, Tom Dixon, launched in 2002, with production starting on a line of extruded plastic products, and Tom had to figure out his way through a number of challenges – namely what sorts of products people were prepared to spend their hard-earned money on.
lighting designs from Tom’s collections over the years include the Mirror Ball Pendant, Copper Shade, Beat Lights, and Melt – all of which have been copied and reproduced by mimic manufacturers (the highest compliment for a designer – if a tad annoying).
“I try to create things that are really visible, but that exemplifies the attitude of hyper-neutral – almost minimal, but still expressive,” Tom says. “The trick is to make something that works in any context. I might look at something and think it’s quite space-age, but someone else might see that it would fit well in an art deco-themed hotel in Miami, or even see some correlation with a bit of Victoriana design. The success of an item or collection comes when it fits in many different environments – when it’s still impressive or ‘out there’ but you can’t immediately place it in a moment of time.”
A lot of Tom’s work is born out of a love for trying new things and working with new materials. He gets an idea in his head, then researches and plays around with different concepts. During the walkaround at Tom Dixon HQ, he shows me the Biorock chair he’s been able to produce using an experimental process, utilising metal and electrical currents underwater to ‘grow’ a concrete-like substance. Then we take a look at a brightly lit wall, where Tom unclips one of the lights. “This project was about pure light, so what you have is literally just a circuit board and a track,” he explains. “Normally tracks just sit on the ceiling and that’s it. This was a collaboration with a lighting company called Prolicht from Austria. I was intrigued by the fact that the circuit board is usually hidden, but actually it has a beauty all of its own. We’ve produced two modules, which you can play around with, and designers can make their own objects with one of the kits.” He points to the huge round light made up of the circuit boards hanging in an attractive lifestyle display. “It’s still very decorative, but the whole thing is made up of really bare materials.”
Tom Dixon’s passion for the made object extends beyond furniture, lighting and accessories, and in 2007 the Design Research Studio was born – allowing the brand to operate as a complete design service, incorporating interior design and space reconfiguration. Since then, Tom has worked on a number of hospitality projects including Virgin Voyages first ship, The Pullman Hotel in Bercy, Drugstore Brasserie on Les Champs-Elysees, and The Manzoni, Milan. With all the projects Tom has worked on, of course the lighting takes centre stage. “Lighting has the ability to really transform a space,” he says, and as he talks of all the things he loves about his work, it’s clear how much he enjoys designing lights: “Lighting allows you to be more extravagant just because it’s part of the modern world. It’s hard sometimes with tables or sofas to be innovative – most people prefer their furniture to be more conservative – but with lighting you can be more expressive, so it’s more fun to design!”
Tom Dixon’s TWENTY collection can be viewed online and at the London showroom at Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross.