Maverick Brit designer Tom Dixon has had an unconventional design journey. From design school dropout to welder of salvage art furniture, from the iconic S-Chair to his eponymous design label, and an OBE from the Queen thrown in for good measure, he has never been easy to pigeon hole as a designer. His prolific work output is both impressive and inspiring.
Here, to talk to Dixon about his work and his Indian connection, is Bengaluru-based architect Sandeep Khosla. With a design aesthetic that has made him a multiple award winner and frequent speaker on the design circuit in India, Khosla is no stranger to Dixon’s work; he is a self-confessed fan, and many of Dixon’s lights are installed both in his home and office.
We are at The Manzoni, Dixon’s new space in Milan, a restaurant and showroom. You enter through a lounge and bar, with Fat lounge chairs and bar stools and Opal and Melt lights. There is a dining area as well, but we choose the Jungle zone, with gleaming Mirror Ball and Spring lights hanging in clusters. The conversation promises to be as sparkling as the lighting.
Sandeep Khosla (SK): Intriguingly, you were a bass guitarist in a band in the 80s and you are self-taught as a designer. How did the music business inform your design sensibility?
Tom Dixon (TD): It was not so much that it informed my design sensibility; it taught me that you can create your own ideas and sell them. That is what happens in music, particularly if you teach yourself an instrument. You transfer the belief that you can learn a trade and then create your own intellectual properties and then promote and market them, and people will buy them.
SK: You have been coming to India for many years for your collections - your Beat lights, which were hugely successful, and now the Rock family. How did your India journey begin?
TD: I was making the S-Chair and I got an order for a nightclub full of them. I had no bulk production at that time as they were handwoven in rattan. Coincidentally, a Sikh entrepreneur walked into my studio soon after, said he could manufacture them, and invited me to India. The chairs collapsed in the nightclub, it was an abject disaster, but it was too late, I was in love with India, with all its possibilities and its ‘can-do’ attitude.
SK: Most of your objects seem to be largely in one material – having a singular materiality of your will. Is that sometimes a bit of a challenge, using just one material and making it feel so desirable and luxurious?
TD: I try and make ideas that are immediately graspable, plus we are constrained by our manufacturers’ supply chain, which may not be particularly good at mixing materials. I prefer things which have a simple but boldly expressed idea, so, maybe, mixing materials becomes fiddly or fussy to me.
SK: Some of your lights take on completely different energies in the off and on modes, which is quite magical. You also consider moods - I saw your video about lighting for sleeping. With so many factors, what is the most challenging part about designing lighting for you?
TD: The designing of lighting at the moment is a joy because there is so much progress in light sources. That is the moment where you can do something different, when engineering and technology are moving forward. The difficult thing for us, selling in multiple countries, is compliance and safety; but sometimes the constraints are for a good reason and it forces you to design your way around a problem; but yeah, compliance is hell.
SK: I have been to Coal Drops Yard where you have your showroom and restaurant. Now we are at The Manzoni, again a restaurant and retail space. How did you get into restaurants?
TD: Our old space used to be the Virgin Records HQ and it had an industrial kitchen left behind. So, I thought - why not do a small pop-up? We were in a tertiary location, not a lot of people were coming for furniture, but people came for food. People have instant sensations, they look at something for 30 seconds and then move on, like design zombies. Food is really good at slowing people down, it is like a speed bump. And instead of showing one chair I can show 80, and people can sit on them long enough to know they are comfortable. Also, a restaurant is open every day till midnight.
SK: Some say imitation is the best form of flattery and your work has been copied extensively. Would you say that at some level you are flattered or are you just frustrated?
TD: Fifty-fifty. In India, funnily enough, the copies come from China. It is bewildering to observe that in a place where they could easily copy them, they are importing fakes from China. Then there are countries where if they call it a replica, they are allowed to sell it, because they have told the buyer it is not real. It becomes impossible to deal with. I am thinking of starting an authorised fake line myself!
SK: I was staggered to see the number of things you have designed, from apparel to furniture, accessories and lighting. Your design research studios are doing restaurants, hotels and even a cruise ship. Over the next decade, what would you be excited to do?
TD: The beauty of designing is you can apply it to pretty much anything. I see myself really as a young upcoming designer with a lot of possibilities. I would love to do bridges, tunnels and civil engineering, so it is like where do you stop, there are so many possibilities. I am doing a garden next month for the Chelsea Flower Show, that is not just designing but learning a whole new trade.
And there is our cue to ask Dixon how he would stir up 2019, and pat comes the answer.
Tom Dixon: “I’m going to stir up 2019 by getting into gardening.”
(See more from the series 'Cross Border Conversations 8X8' )