Self-taught British designer Tom Dixon rose to fame with his innovative welded designs made from salvaged steel in the eighties. Ever since, he has been a leading figure in the design industry, focusing mainly on furniture and lighting. Recognizable for his unconventionality, Tom Dixon strives to surprise. Receiving an OBE for his services to British Design, this distinguished contemporary designer has come a long way from his beginnings in his welding studio in London.
The Making of Tom Dixon
Born in 1959 in Tunisia to a French-Latvian mother and English father, Tom Dixon moved to England at age four. He spent his childhood in west London before enrolling in the Chelsea School of Art. He soon abandoned his formal studies after a motorcycle accident and started exploring design through self-expression. Dixon has stated that he’d never had an ambition to be a designer, but the “design thing crept up on” him through his love for making and repairing things.
Never one to follow the rules, Dixon took a hiatus from crafting to pursue music for a few years as the bassist of Funkapolitan, a funk-disco band. A second motorcycle accident left him with a broken arm, setting the course of his career for the decades to follow. A chance encounter with a friend who owned a car-repair shop led him to learning how to weld, the craft that ultimately shaped Tom Dixon: designer.
A year later, Dixon had already created over one hundred objects, mainly chairs. He soon gained exposure in the design world with his bizarre welded creations made of spare parts and scraps of metal. Attracted by the speed with which he could create his furniture from industrial waste, Dixon showed great interest in mass-production and industrial techniques, although his approach was hand-crafted at the time.
“I was untrained, so it was messy, but I think that was symptomatic of that time in London. The crudeness was an appealing contrast to what was coming out of the design-aware nations – Italy, Germany and Japan. It was the end of postmodernism, so there were patterns and Formica, slick electronics. What we were doing was extra-rough and felt provocative in a way that it’s harder to do now. It’s so difficult to be anti-establishment. Now design can be rough, or plain, or minimalist or postmodern, it’s all legitimate.“
Space – Eurolounge – Habitat
Dixon’s career took off in the mid-eighties. He set up ‘Space’, a creative hub for artists and designers. Not long after, he began working with Italian design company Cappellini. The partnership produced the iconic ‘S-Chair’, inspired by a doodle of a chicken, as stated by Dixon himself. Others have described the chair as an abstract female form, or a sixties-inspired object of pop culture. Though the shape can be interpreted in a number of ways, the success of the chair was undeniable. Today, it is part of the permanent collections of the V&A museum, as well as the MoMA.
‘Space’ transformed into a design studio in the nineties and Tom Dixon became internationally recognized. In 1994, he founded another company, Eurolounge, for the manufacturing and sale of products in a new medium – plastic. A largely contributing factor to his success was Jack. Described as a “sitting, lighting, stacking thing”, the playful, geometric design was the result of Dixon’s first experiments with plastic.
His career took a turn in 1998, when he became the head of design for Habitat, later becoming creative director. He went from his self-educated background and reputation as “anti-establishment”, to becoming a key figure of a leading British conglomerate. This transition from handcraft to corporate was a critical moment for Dixon, as he has stated that Habitat was like his ‘university’. Today, he uses his vast knowledge gained during his years at Habitat to run his current business. Essentially, it taught him first-hand about the necessary business side of design, an element greatly lacking in formal design education. At the same time, Dixon brought a fresh perspective to the brand, leading it through a period of intense revival.
Tom Dixon: the Brand
In 2002, parallel to his work at Habitat, Dixon founded his eponymous brand. Merging his business know-how with his passion for design, it marked the beginning of a new adventure. Tom Dixon’s furniture and lighting have since been exhibited regularly at the Milan furniture fair as well as London Design Festival. The company has grown to receive international acclaim, selling its products in 65 countries around the world.
The business originally launched with a furniture range created from extruded plastic. Chairs, tables, even bowls – all designed with the aim of bringing awareness to the unique formative qualities of the material. The ‘Fresh Fat’ series essentially brings a new perspective to an otherwise mass-discarded material. There is also a handcrafted element, drawing from Dixon’s roots, as the plastic extrusions are woven together manually into a finished product.
The Pylon Chair came to be in an attempt to create the world’s lightest metal chair. Constructed in steel and triangulated for maximum strength, its inspiration stemmed from electricity pylons and steel bridges. Though more of a sculptural piece than a comfortable seat, it has become a recognizable element of the brand, extending to an entire range of products with the same aesthetic. Taking to YouTube, Tom is shown welding the entire structure in a condensed, one-minute video on the official channel of the brand. This video perfectly demonstrates the hands-on approach he started out with and continues to implement today. Dixon’s eagerness to roll up his sleeves and physically experiment with the creation of his designs expresses in the end products. They possess an extremely tactile and thoughtful quality, resulting from his very up close and personal involvement in their development.
Within the Tom Dixon brand, he set up the Design Research Studio, dedicated to interior design. Since its conception, the DRS has realized a number of high-profile projects mostly in the hospitality sector.
In order to aid the complex process of designing restaurants, Tom Dixon puts on his apron and becomes a sous chef at his restaurant from time to time. “Which is a sort of ritual humiliation for me,” he jokes, referring to his place at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy. Yet he persists in his quest to understand the spaces he designs through personal interaction with them, considering this experience paramount in his mission to become a better designer.
Tom Dixon has indeed come a long way since his welding days. His latest collaboration with IKEA has owned the recent ‘hacking’ craze with a range of customizable furniture. Also, in recent years, he has designed a custom Moto Guzzi motorcycle, a glassware range inspired by lab equipment, a textile collection and multiple restaurants. That’s without mentioning the latest furniture designs launched under his eponymous brand. He even developed his own marble-like material for his ‘Swirl’ object collection unveiled at Maison&Objet in 2019. All of his products are characterized by a genial playfulness – the result of his constant experimentation with various geometric forms and materials.
With a portfolio as diverse as they come, it is hard to pin-point Tom Dixon’s style. In keeping with his rebellious and unpredictable nature, his designs never cease to surprise. The curiosity-inducing element of his work is one of the key things which have kept Tom Dixon young over the years. His unique and self-motivated career path is perhaps what sets him apart from other designers. He emerged onto the scene a rough diamond, as opposed to the norm of fresh out of university cookie-cutter designers. Always offering a fresh and grounded perspective, he stands in contrast to the pretentious image often attributed to designers. As relevant today as he was in the nineties, Dixon is a unique force in the design world.