is the type of designer that gives hope to all aspiring designers. A university drop-out (he lasted 6 months in a sculpture course at Chelsea Arts) and a rock-star wannabe (literally), Tom Dixon has made a career out of being rebellious. His presentation this morning at BODW was titled “Design, and how not to do it”.
Dixon’s passion for cars and motorbikes initially fuelled his dedication to teach himself how to weld, allowing him to fix and repair them by himself. At a time in the UK when the industrial era was ending, Dixon had access to an abundance of scrap metal. It was with this very crude material, and his basic knowledge of welding, that he first started to create furniture. He relished not having clients or school teachers giving him guidelines or restrictions, so his creations were borne of trial and error. His practice with this material and method churned out no less than 50 chair designs in his first year.
His first commercial ventures were with some of the large Italian manufacturers, Cappellini and the like. Their understanding of design being a value add in many industries gained Dixon’s respect and lead to a long term working relationship. A relationship that allowed Dixon to grown from a one-man operation, to a studio now employing more than 15 designers.
Not long after this time, Dixon was employed by Habitat as their head of design. This was to be his first ‘real’ job. He went overnight from being an untrained and uneducated designer and producer to the creative head of the largest furniture producer in the world (Habitat, founded by Sir Terrance Conran in the 60’s, is now owned by the IKEA group). Despite the shock to his system, he insists that Habitat was good grounding for him, an environment where he was able to work on diverse products in many categories, and enabled him to learn the peripheral business of design – sourcing, marketing, branding, packaging and retail.
Seven years later Dixon took the leap and went out on his own again starting his own label, in much the same way, he describes, as a fashion designer would. Rebelling again against what is the ‘norm’, Dixon decided rather than providing a design service to manufacturers (whereby he would receive only a small royalty); he decided if he could control the entire manufacturing process he would also be able to reap the financial benefits. One of the first designs he would produce under his own label was the mirror ball pendants (see photo below, from none other than the home of Gwenyth Paltrow). The idea behind this successful product was his rejection of design. His tenure at Habitat had left him almost sick of design, he explains, so these had to be pure, design-free. The sphere, being the purest form, along with a lack of design or decoration would enable the pendants to disappear. Thankfully, they don’t. But the designer is also happy to admit that sometimes things don’t work out the way you expect, and often what you think is a mistake can turn out to be a success.
The business of design is quite capital intensive, Dixon explains, – tooling and machinery can cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars – so again, he broke the mould and investigated unorthodox business models. He found off-the shelf plastic injection moulding machines, removed all the tooling and moulds, and ended up with what he described as a ‘plastic spaghetti maker’. He used this to create custom one-off chairs that are now worth far more at auction that what he originally sold them for (see photo below).
Dixon admits that the generation of the 80’s in London that he belonged to found it much easier to be rebellious. There was simply more to rebel against (i.e. the establishment), and the punk movement made that a lot easier. He feels that now almost anything is acceptable, so it’s much more difficult for designers (or anyone, for that matter) to be rebellious. However he encourages young and upcoming designers to do just that. He is still rebelling, be it against stereotypical business models, or types of self-promotion. I think it gives us hope that we can expect to see new and exciting things from him, and other designers in the future.