England’s coolest designer on why college isn’t always the way and why you shouldn’t try to be like him.
Maybe you don’t know Tom Dixon’s name (you probably should, but if that’s not the case, please continue reading), but you’d certainly recognize his work. In the late 1980s, when his career was getting underway, he created the S chair (Google it). And his pendant lights hang in almost every other Coveteur home we’ve ever photographed. For all intents and purposes, Dixon is a designer—but the volume and pace at which he creates is, well, astounding. Take a tour through his New York boutique or his massive new concept store in Los Angeles—there’s enough there to furnish your entire home, from the most stylish bar accessories known to (wo)man and scented candles, to the dining room table you *wish* you could own. But on top of being a designer, Dixon is every bit the sarcastic, witty Englishman who takes mischievous pleasure in telling it like it is, which is exactly what we discovered when we sat down to talk to him at his store in Soho. Here he is, #nofilter.
Why being self-taught is best:
“I think different personalities respond to different motivations or triggers—I didn’t have a theoretical design career like you’d have at college. I was always more involved in commerce, which is what I still do. When you’re making things from very early on to sell them—or if you had to sell them to make the next piece—you get much more conscious of the other side of it, which is what people buy and how much things cost to make and all that sort of stuff. It also allowed me a lot more practice. I’ve gone in and talked at colleges occasionally, and I’ve noticed that students will have four or five projects a year, and I get bored very easily. I was making a lot of stuff and learned through trial and error. I think that’s the best way of doing it—you can do more and faster. Sometimes college slows you down; you have to wait or ask for materials and get permission. It’s not like I’m anti-college or anti-learning a profession but, in my case, I was very keen to get into the real world and out of school.”
What lead him to design in the first place (if it wasn’t school):
“I was playing bass guitar in a disco band, and that’s a very nighttime occupation. You have big swatches of time when you’re not on tour or in the studio, so you have time to do what you like. My hobby was making things and, really, it was welding that gave me the framework. I mean, I was always interested in art and sculpture, but very quickly after discovering welding, it became very satisfying to be able to have an idea and turn it into a reality and see somebody buy it off me, sometimes within a day. I think when people have that kind of job satisfaction, having mastery of your own destiny becomes something that is very special. After having been in a band in which you have to share your ideas with six other boys and spend a lot of time in a transit van, it becomes a kind of compromise. It wasn’t design [that got me], it was the making of things. I didn’t really decide I was a designer until much later when a label was slapped on me. The fight even now is to avoid being typecast or pigeonholed into being the person who makes chairs out of scraps. Now it’s dangerous: I could be a perfumer or the guy who makes the smelly candles, so I try to avoid being too specifically typecast. Sometime I wonder if I’m even a designer at all.”
What being a designer really means:
“It’s interesting because even ‘design’ as a trade is relatively recent. You would have been called a decorative artist at one point or an engineer. I think that’s the beauty of the profession; I think that’s why it suits me. It’s a slightly different job every day: sometimes I’m involved in the communication or the packaging or the factory management or the engineering of an object. I like that it’s multidisciplinary. I think any designer who is sold is interested in stuff beyond the pure shape-making of an object, which itself could be called sculpture, really. Unless you’re truly a super-functional engineering designer, I think the shape-making is one aspect of it, but increasingly it’s also about the functionality, which is obviously imperative, and beyond that there’s all kinds of other aspects, like creating desire or making an object cheaper to make or easier to transport.”
What his job—being Tom Dixon—looks like day-to-day:
“Communications is often my day-to-day. In a year, I probably spend a third of the time on product development, a third of the time on commercial activities and a third of the time telling people what I do and marketing it. In the modern world, you have to explain why people should get your stuff rather than somebody else’s.
“The design and product development happens in our studio. Most designers of my generation have a studio and that studio services specialist industries and they work for many different brands or specialists. I did that for a while and I wasn’t very good at it. I’ve tried lots of different ways of being a designer, more like a craftsman or working for myself, working for a company, working for luxury brands. What I’m doing now is a 10-year-old new way of being a designer, which is closer to the model of a fashion company than it is a product design company, actually. I mean that in terms of self determination: putting it underneath your personal name as a label and doing the product development, but also doing the distribution of it, the marketing of it, all under your own name. That’s not something that is normal in interiors, but it’s completely normal in fashion. Being owned by a private-equity company as well is like a lot of fashion brands, so I’m only a part owner of myself.”
How design has changed:
“The business has changed out of all recognition. When I started, honestly, there was no design museum in the world, for instance, there were no design collections in museums in general. There were no design publications. So the recognition of design as a profession, as something that resembles a bit more of an artist’s career or a fashion designer’s career, is a completely new thing. Philippe Starck is the only person that’s really transcended that from the start. He actually was—even when I started—the only star and still is the only star in the business. The business has changed in that everything surrounding it has changed: the media, the presentation of it, the recognition of it as an interesting thing to study or as an interesting career.”
How he dreams up his designs:
“I’m quite pragmatic, and I’ve always been driven partly by opportunity. That opportunity for us starts with the manufacturers—we have to have manufacturing partners that can make this stuff. I’m always really interested in the factory, the craftsman, the place where it comes from, and I visit a lot of places where we work. A lot of the ideas come from the art of possibility. I’ll see a machine or an object being made and say, ‘Why don’t we try making a chair like this?’ Then the boredom drives it a lot. I’ll get bored of a certain color or material. At the moment I’m thinking, ‘We’ve gotten a bit metallic, isn’t it time we researched a bit of softness?’ The furry room [in the New York store] is really about what our attitude to softness might be. I’ll approach a weaver or a collaborator if we’re doing textiles and then we’ll start talking bedding and upholstery, which might be logical for us to do with softness. Nothing’s appeared yet, but that’ll be the next interview that we do—I’ll be all soft and cuddly and furry.
“It was a lot easier at the beginning because you’d test out things and you could pull out of them quickly, but when you reach a certain size and you’re distributing to 60 countries you have to start making decisions that are commercial, which is always quite dangerous because you think something might be commercial because you really love it. Often it’s that trance of pulling myself back to reality: loving something and then convincing everybody else that it’s a really good idea. It’s really about trying to see yourself from the outside as well, trying to see yourself as others might see you, rather than just being yourself.”
How to make being creative your job:
“I think the most difficult thing to create is a unique perspective. That’s the thing that you’ve got to hold on to. It’s so tempting and so difficult to filter out what’s your idea and what’s everybody else’s idea when you’re assaulted with the amount of information and imagery [we get] every day. That’s what’s changed, really. The accessibility of information means that people very quickly jump onto a trend, so creating your own uniqueness is the hard thing. I had the benefit—which didn’t seem like a benefit at the time—of being completely invisible for years, just doing my own little thing in London without people really knowing about it except for a couple of special dealers or collectors. I think it’s really hard for people now. Hanging onto your individuality and your own point of view and refining that point of view so that it becomes a real body of work is the hard part. My advice is be yourself—definitely don’t try to be like me.”
Visit the new Tom Dixon boutique in NYC at 19 Howard Street! It's just down the street from Opening Ceremony so, you know, plan to make a day of it.