Known for his focus on manufacturing methods and clever craftsmanship, self-taught British designer Tom Dixon's success is partly due to his ability to keep the design world guessing
Tom Dixon is in Hong Kong a year after opening his store in the city. On his return – right after this year's Milan Design Week – a number of local design professionals have joined him at the outlet for lunch. The topic on everyone's lips is the fact that he didn't present anything at the fair. "Every year, [people always ask] 'what are you doing?' Is it going to be amazing? It's got to be bigger, more extraordinary than the year before," Dixon says later, during an interview in the shop's cosy upstairs cafe. "I think you need to remain unexpected, and sometimes not showing up somewhere is more unexpected than doing something extraordinary."
Tom Dixon built his career on the unexpected. Rather than enrolling in a design school to learn the trade, he started out completely self-taught, creating furniture that made best use of his welding skills and, often, salvaged objects. From there, he went on to design for Italian giant Cappellini in the late '80s, creating its iconic S chair. He then took on the role of head of design and then creative director at British furniture retailer Habitat. By 2002, he had established his own brand, now present in 65 countries across the globe. Its accompanying interior design arm, Design Research Studio, has created the interiors for high-end restaurants and other hospitality projects, from Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa restaurant to the industrial-chic private members' club Shoreditch House, both in London. "Many designers go to college and learn design as a theoretical thing," says Dixon, "whereas I was inspired to become a designer because people wanted to buy the things that I was making, and I saw this as a fabulous way to make a living."
I think you need to remain unexpected, and sometimes not showing up somewhere is more unexpected than doing something extraordinary
While the rest of the design world flexed their creative muscles at Milan Design Week, Dixon attended as a 'tourist' for the first time, before embarking on a three month 'Around the World in 90 Days' tour, visiting the brand's outlets and launching its new glossy Black collection and unveiling his latest collaborations and collections at the London Design Festival this month.
In April this year, he moved his company's headquarters to the newly invigorated Kings Cross area of London, joining other creative and technological giants such as LVMH and Google amid the industrial environs of Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard. Located in the 19th-century Coal Office, the 1,600sqm (17,500sqf) space houses a shop, workshop, office, restaurant and terrace. The following month, Dixon opened a new permanent showroom in New York at 25 Greene Street, Soho, during the NYCxDesign festival, joining other notable design names filling the street such as Lee Broom and Artemide. The two-storey space – the brand's first permanent location on the East Coast following a series temporary digs – showcases a range of Tom Dixon pieces and also serves as a base for a trade-focused bespoke service, as well as his Design Research Studio.
Meanwhile, Tom Dixon's visit to Hong Kong coincides with the anniversary of the opening of his flagship store last year, his first presence in this part of Asia (he opened a store in Tokyo in 2015). "We decided to skip Milan and focus more on the places that we call home," says the designer. "Brands now are no longer just about a logo, they're about your network. And this year our network is being enriched."
Tom Dixon is only in Hong Kong for a day, but his schedule is a packed one. Before lunch, Dixon conducted a small workshop focused on the construction of some of the brand's lighting pieces. As inspiration, Dixon draws on an array of creative sources as diverse as punk-rock music and custom motorcycles – the aesthetic of the Black collection is informed by traditional Japanese lacquer furniture and Bauhaus interiors – but it's the mechanics behind the design that lie closest to his heart. "My inspiration always comes much more from my obsession with craft techniques and methods of manufacturing," he explains. "Most of our competition have 10 or 20 designers working under one manufacturer's label, but we're different because we put things into production. It's about getting more intimate with how you make things."
But Dixon is hardly satisfied sticking with what's familiar. As soon as the design world gets a handle on what elements make a Tom Dixon a Tom Dixon, the formula changes. The company's latest Black, Blue and Silver collections are evidence of this: cool, futuristic departures from the warm tones the company has become known for.
As soon as the design world gets a handle on what elements make a Tom Dixon a Tom Dixon, the formula changes
"Our shops became Aladdin's caves of copper and gold, so we went with crisper, fresher colours," he says. Some of his best-known pieces (the Wingback chair, the Melt and Mirror Ball lights) feature strong silhouettes and hard, industrial elements, but some of his recent projects are ventures into textiles and even scents. The possibilities are endless. "I'd be interested in collaborating with other sectors, whether horticulture, transport or architecture," he says. "I don't want to get stuck in a pure homeware rut. But that's the joy of being a designer."