Both as a self-taught designer-maker in early 1980s London and as head of design at the Habitat retail chain and now Artek, the Finnish furniture manufacturer, TOM DIXON (1959-) has combined the creative with the commercial throughout his career.
Tom Dixon fell into design by accident when he found himself with “time on his hands” while recovering from a motorcycle accident. As an art school drop-out with no technical training, he taught himself how to become a designer-maker in 1983 after discovering welding when trying to repair his motorbike.
Born in Sfax, Tunisia in 1959, Dixon was brought to England as a toddler and grew up in London. After dropping out of art school in 1980, he played bass guitar in the band Funkapolitan and organised warehouse parties, before teaching himself welding.
Dixon’s D-I-Y approach to design matched the post-punk mood of the early 1980s. Having made his name – but little money – by making and selling limited editions of his welded furniture - chairs such as the S Chair and Pylon Chair - he tried his hand at retailing, by opening a shop, Space, to sell his products, then manufacturing through the company Eurolounge which produced his work and that of other designers, like Michael Young.
Dixon continued his collaborations with other designers in his “first proper job” as head of design at Habitat, where he has reissued archive designs by Verner Panton, Ettore Sottsass and Robin Day as well as commissioning new pieces from Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Ineke Hans and Marc Newson. He continues to initiate new projects as an independent designer and as creative director of Artek, the Finnish furniture manufacturer founded by the architect Alvar Aalto in the 1930s. “A kind friend once described me as a ‘vertebrate designer’,” Dixon said. “That means that I design from the bones outwards and am not really interested in surface.”
Q. When – and how – did you first become aware of design?
A. I was a late developer. My first formal job was as a technician in Chelsea School of Art interior design, aged 18. I can remember thinking it might be quite easy to do that.
Q. How did you start to design and make your own work? Did you envisage a long term career as a designer at the time?
A. Not in a million years. I was more involved in the process of making things – mainly welding – and it was a hobby
Q. Do you consider it to be an advantage or a disadvantage not to have studied design?
A. For me it was a considerable advantage as it allowed me to experiment with no constraints and make my own mistakes. As a result I developed my own attitude.
Q. Which of your early projects were most influential in your development as a designer?
A. Working with Giulio Cappellini (head of Cappellini, the Italian furniture maknufacturer) was a real eye opener. It was a window into a world where design was prized and respected in its capacity to grow industry.
Q. During the 1980s and early 1990s you were involved in lots of self-generated projects as a designer, manufacturer and retailer. Why did your work become so diverse and what lessons did you learn from that experience?
A. Working in the early 1980s could have been a dispiriting experience if I had known any better, but I was blissfully unaware and tried a variety of means of getting (my work) to market, driven mainly by necessity or naive optimism. If I knew as much as I do now, I almost certainly would not have bothered. I explored a variety of affordable techniques for self-production and usually designed to fit a new machine tool I had bought, a new stock of cheap available raw material, or to fit a local subcontractor’s skills.
Q. Which of your projects from the late 1980s and early 1990s do you consider to have been most important to your development as a designer? And why?
A. The S-chair provided a step out of the self-production ghetto. The Jack Light proved a convincing attempt at mass-production .
Q. Why did you decide to join Habitat? And how did the experience of working there affect your approach to design?
A. Habitat was a conscious decision to get a proper grounding in the business. By that time I had gotten involved in design, craft, factory management, design consultancy, marketing, sales and retail – all with no training or funding. Frankly it was unsustainable, and it was time to grow up.
Q. What did you enjoy most from your experience at Habitat? And what did you least enjoy?
A. I liked the Christmas parties. Very The Office and the travel to the beautiful world of manufacturing – Vietnam, India, China, Poland, Portugal, Brazil, Thailand. But I couldn’t bear all day meetings and repeating myself endlessly.
Q. What do consider to have been your most valuable achievements at Habitat?
A. We built a well for a small community in Zambia which was deprived of water. We reintroduced authentic designs by the oldest designers and by young, upcoming ones. We turned the firm back into profit, but all this was not done by me alone.
Q. How – and why – did you found Tom Dixon Ltd? What do you hope to achieve there?
A. I have had a firm going in a variety of formats since about 1983, but for some of the time at Habitat it was slightly hibernating. The latest incarnation is a company called Art and Technology , which owns two brands, Artek and Tom Dixon, as well as a design studio called Design Research, which does consultancy work. This structure is funded by Proventus, an enlightened Swedish investment company that owns a majority stake in the company. This means that Tom Dixon is now a brand - not a person! I therefore own only a small portion of myself - not an uncommon situation in the fashion business.
Q. How do the products you have developed for Tom Dixon Ltd reflect your development as a designer?
A. I am still mainly motivated by materials and processes but these preoccupations evolve. I am currently exploring blow moulding, vacuum metalising and computer controlled manufacturing systems.
Q. What are your objectives as a designer? How have they evolved over the years?
A. I really feel that I am only starting to find my feet as a designer. I want to design more things that I have never tried before: buildings and motorcycles; books and gardens; foods and discotheques; water purification systems.
Q. How would you describe the way you work?
A. Some days I work as a designer, but the bits that really interest me are the invention, engineering and marketing rather than the actual process of designing. I think that effective designers tend to be interested in the whole chain. Robin Day, Verner Panton and all those people really felt that they were going to change everything through design. It’s a very humbling way to look at it. I think designers now are much more concerned about the shape of the object and their own personal evolution within it. And I think a good designer is somebody who manages to put together all the elements – an understanding of materials and a belief in improving functionality – then puts the shape on last as a result of all those experiments. I’m a designer very occasionally. I tend to be on the periphery, occasionally popping out a product which is designed mainly through an interest in materials and technologies.
Q. Which innovations in technologies and materials have proved most productive for your work?
A. I think I have always been interested in the interface between industrial technologies and handwork. I am currently looking into the interface between computer programmes and rattan chair production in Indonesia.
Q. Do you consider your work to be part of a tradition?
A. British do-it-yourself?
Q. Why did you decide to join Artek? What is your role at the company – which was founded in 1934 by the Finnish modern movement architect Alvar Aalto – and how do you plan to develop it?
A. Artek is probably the only company from the modernist era to remain in its original form. It has an extraordinary cultural and historic heritage and a unique position in Finnish society, but it will vanish without new products and thinking. It is a great challenge and gives me an opportunity to learn something about wood! As I am now a part-owner of the firm I think it becomes easier to apply change. I am engaged in a process of investigating the latest innovations in wood and natural materials technology to develop a new aesthetic for the company based on a superior knowledge of the latest developments in sustainable materials and processes.
Q. You once quoted a friend as describing you as a “vertebrate designer” – what does that mean?
A. This was a quote from my friend the Italian designer Fabio Novembre, who reckoned that my work was characterised by an interest and exploration of the structure and construction of the object (coming from the skeleton) rather than the skin and surface (invertebrates, with no skeleton). This was a concern of a lot of designers at the time.
1959 Born in Sfax, Tunisia to an English father and a French-Latvian mother.
1963 The family moves to Huddersfield in England after living in Egypt and Morocco settling in London in 1964.
1979 Starts a foundation course at Chelsea School of Art, but drops out after six months.
1980 Ekes out a living as a graphic designer and colourist for animated films.
1981 Joins Funkapolitan as bass guitarist.
1982 Works as a nightclub promoter and warehouse party organiser.
1983 Teaches himself how to weld and starts to make welded furniture initially as part of the Creative Salvage collective.
1985 Cappellini puts Dixon's S chair and Bird Lounger into production.
1989 Opens Space studio to batch-produce metal furniture and to execute stage and retail design projects.
1992 Opens Space shop on All Saints Road, Notting Hill to sell his own work and that of other designers.
1994 Co-founds Eurolounge as a company to manufacture plastic products including his own Jack Light.
1998 Appointed head of design UK by the Habitat retail chain.
2001 Becomes creative director of Habitat and develops a mobile machine to make Fresh Fat Plastic products.
2003 Launches the Mirror light encased in a highly reflective glass spheres
2004 Appointed creative director of Artek, the Finnish furniture manufacturer founded by Alvar Aalto.
2005 Designs the Wire series of furniture, recycled Ecoware collection of dinnerware and the Rubber Band Chair.
Learn more about Tom Dixon's work at tomdixon.net
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain