Tom Dixon on Design’s Infinite Possibilities


May 14, 2020

The Tom Dixon operation is slick.

From the ground floor shop that feels more like a gallery than retail space to the flank of receptionists and young designers gliding around the office spaces, everyone seems quietly thrilled to be working against this considered, stylish backdrop. Everywhere you look, there’s a strong sense of having “arrived.”

This feeling is magnified by the location of the Tom Dixon Coal Office headquarters in London’s Granary Square, a forward-thinking retail and creative hub that includes Facebook’s British HQ and the famed fashion college St Martins. Bars, restaurants, and pop-up events draw crowds that mix with outlandish fashion students and Eurostar travelers ejected from the neighboring St Pancras train station.

It all seems so perfectly on point—almost hermetically sealed—so the urge to find some messy humanity inside is strong.

But then, Tom Dixon himself arrives.

Elegant yet quirky in a wool checked suit, the room crackles with his energy and curiosity.

As seamless and cool as the space is, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s not the result of relentless design control, but a more wild and enthused creative verve. Here is the messy humanity or, rather the human creative magpie that is Tom.

We talk in the airy restaurant on the top floor, so light-bathed that even on this drizzly London day it feels soothing and ordered. Customers can buy every plate they eat on, chair they sit on, and lamp that lights their way.

The Coal Office site was once a seminal warehouse club in the ’80s and ’90s and is now legitimized and respectable. It’s fair to say Tom’s own arc, from his roots in the clubbing scene to global tastemaker, are nearly identical to those of his new home. So how did he get here?

You started out at art school. Why the flex into design?

I had a terrible experience at secondary school, but they had a great pottery and art department, so I tried art school. But after six months it didn’t agree with me and I found it a waste of time. Then a motorbike accident on my 1962 BMW R50, (which now belongs to designer Fabio Novembre—he keeps it in his studio) got me out of this jail in a way. I took the first job I could. I was a printer, a graphic designer, and then a technician at Chelsea School of Art, and I even colored in cartoons by hand. It was while I was doing that that the band I was in took off and we got a record deal, but another motorbike accident stopped me from going on tour. This time I was looking at a girl and drove my 1971 California Moto Guzzi into a car. I was too embarrassed to tell her I had broken my arm.

By that time I’d already started a number of club nights like the Language Lab and Titanic, and in the day I enjoyed myself with classic cars and bikes and learned to weld. And that became a thing.

I knew a huge amount of people from the clubs superficially, and I was making things for the clubs. The people coming in were hairdressers, fashion designers, also people who needed stuff making. So I started producing stuff for them, like windows for Comme de Garcons, a chair for Paul Smith, and a racking system for Vivienne Westwood. That’s how I learned how to be a designer, through manufacturing.

In my post-rationalization, people who study design at college see it as theoretical thing that you then apply. I only had a tiny coal cellar off my studio for storage, so I didn’t have space and had to get rid of stuff. The idea that people paid me money for things I made legitimized the activity, and from there commerce and design were always linked. For trained designers it may be that first you study and nurture that, and then you sell your services. For me I was always doing them together, and I saw myself more as a tradesman than a craftsman. I would never have believed or dreamed my work had value without the validation of people wanting to purchase it. It gave me confidence.

How did that become this?

I’d had enough of nocturnal working. I ended my club career when the club I was running was held up with a gun for the bar cash. The business grew organically, and then I had about 15 people working with me doing large industrial-size metalwork for architecture and some of my own products. But then a client didn’t pay up and I got a bit shaky and took a job, and that was the Habitat job. I absorbed a vast amount of information at the high street designer store Habitat, created by Terence Conran, in the 10 years I was there and taught myself design management. Eventually I was on the board and creative director of the whole group, which funded my ability to do my own work again. That was 17 years ago.

What does your working day look like?

I like the dawn and daylight. I’m not a nocturnal animal anymore. I love the liberty of having an idea and being able to make it and sell it. I think that autonomy is missing from many people’s lives. Although it can be missing from mine; it can take two years to get something to market. But weirdly the restaurant has brought back that immediacy. Now we can make up a dish in the morning and sell it in the evening. The instant nature of literally cooking something up and giving someone pleasure is addictive.

What is the essential element that makes something a Tom Dixon design? 

How do you make things? How are they put together?

We like to broadcast an honesty and truth in materials, an expressive minimalism. The products are not designed to be stripped down to nothing, so they do own a space, but they are not complicated.

Hotels, restaurants, stores—what’s left to design that you want to get your hands on? 

It’s infinite.

The interesting thing about design as a label for what you do is that it can be applied to almost anything. I’d like to do fashion, architecture, civil engineering, transport, electronics. I’ve never done an emoji. I’m always happiest when diving into something I know nothing about. Most recently it was the Chelsea flower show, working with lots of very serious gardeners, and it was fascinating. You can explore the rest of the world through design.

You moved into the world of fragrance with your candles range. How does blending the aesthetic and aural senses work?

I always thought we’d never do that stuff under this label. But I was doing a pitch for a hotel and thought, “Let’s create the total environment, from the smell to the aesthetics. I took a bottle of perfume to the pitch and it broke in my briefcase, and the whole conference room stank. It was memorable. [And I got the job.]

But it was a stepping stone to thinking more about filling a space—about what is important to the design, like acoustics and materials. People are smelling something simple that creates a memory, that creates a more fulsome experience. Like in a restaurant, we want to be able to talk but for it not to feel silent. Designers can be mono sensual and you forget all of the other bits that become essential to the experience.

Is what it looks like or smells like more important? Well fragrance first obviously but we are in a position to do more interesting containers. We have access to so many materials like cork from Portugal or cast iron from the North of England. Why not reflect what’s in the smell though the container? That’s what makes us different.

What have your restaurants/food taught you about design? 

Our first restaurant, the Dock Kitchen, started as a work canteen, but it didn’t quite work like that. We had a kitchen because it had been Virgin Records. We had the design showroom, and at night and on weekends could move into there and go from 20 seats to 40. It was very successful.

It reminded me that the last thing you want to be is a furniture shop. Retail is pretty tough. I still live with my grandmother’s wardrobe; you can have a four-generation sales cycle for furniture. When was the last time you bought a pendant light? Ten years ago? And people come to test out furniture and might come back later, or then go home and buy it online.

But restaurants have very quick turnover. I get bored easily, so it gives us a chance to do something new. It brings a lot more joy and more fun, but also it’s riskier and more dangerous.

What are the most important issues design needs to engage with? 

Sustainability, of course, but I’ve been around long enough to know if you make something interesting and well made it will have a long life. These are not single use items. We were making these lamps 17 years ago and they look just as good as vintage pieces.

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A sculptural celebration of the triangle, the Pylon collection is a set of semi-transparent pieces that are both lightweight and strong. Photo by Peer Lindgreen

Do you consider cradle-to-cradle design important? How do you see sustainability fitting with design?

We don’t have a cradle-to-cradle policy because I don’t think people should buy or design things planning to throw them away. When I worked with Artek there were all these amazing designs by Alvar Aalto, so we implemented a buyback policy where we restored and resold items called Second Cycle. It’s still going now. Some of the stuff was coming back from the 1940s and some of these products are still being made in the same materials—we could put a new leg on an old, three-legged stool. At some point people realized these items were valuable so we started to run out of stuff to buy back. That perfectly describes my view.

Do you originate every design? Or does your team also bring you concepts?

We have more designers in the interior design agency, but we only have three product designers. I talk to them every day and tell them roughly what I want and sometimes they improve on it. It’s also about getting them in at a price and quality people will buy at. But when I choose a team I don’t want people who are exactly like me; that would be stupid.

Where does emotion fit into your interpretation of good design?

I think emotion is an overused word. It’s not that I’m not emotional. I can shed a tear. I like people to get a feeling. I like the idea of being able to create a total environment. I like people to walk through spaces and get different reactions as they walk through. I’d rather have a ghost train where around every corner you are confronted by a different sensory experience, rather than a mono aesthetic.

What designs are you most proud of? Are there any you’d like to modify?

I’m very critical of my own output. I can always find fault, and I never feel things are finished. But there are some that have been more significant in defining my next step. Like the S Chair took me into Italian luxury goods, the Pylon Chair was when I became better at welding. There are one or two lamps that were transformational, like the mirror light and the Beat Light in terms of visibility. We did an audit online and found 840,000 fake Tom Dixon Beat Lights on websites globally, which is easily 10 times our actual production of real items. It’s interesting to see which ones have influence beyond or production.

Does that infuriate you?

You can spend a lot of time being bitter about it, but you can’t do much about it. I’m more interested in doing the next thing.

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Tom often works from the Coal Office, which opened in 2018 in King’s Cross, London. Photo by Tom Medwell

Do you have a design routine when approaching a project?

No routine. I’m quite chaotic. I get a pattern out of the chaos. I like to cause as much chaos as possible in the beginning—lots of models and discussions. That way you often get an unexpected outcome. Other times I wake up in the night and know exactly what I want. And bicycling is good for ideas, like washing up, maybe because it’s repetitive or boring.

London, New York, China? Where are you most inspired?

I went to Dakar recently and it’s my current favorite. The people are so beautiful and dress so colorfully and there is all the French art deco with the backdrop of the sea. I was born in North Africa in Tunisia so maybe there is a pull. I love Paris and can’t fail to be inspired, and I never get bored in New York; it’s so dense and things always happen. I can find inspiration everywhere.

Any other designers you think are making interesting work?

There is a lot of great talent around. I still like all Konstantin Grcic, Max Lamb. The Bouroullecs are always coming up with something interesting.

It’s uncertain times for the UK. How do you think it will affect the creative industries?

London is still an epicenter. I think the UK might be under threat, but London is resilient and always emerges under a new guise. This is my city, and I’ve seen that happen three or four times-in the culture, crime, world-class thinking, and finance. It always bounces back in some unexpected way.

Finally, is there any historical object you wished you had designed?

It would have been nice to do something really epic like a lunar landing module. Or maybe it would be better to be really humble and say the sewage system. Or even better the teaspoon. Let’s say the teaspoon.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Sixtysix with the headline “Tom Dixon.” Subscribe today.

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