Tom Dixon Gets Down to Business—Conquering America

The designer talks about his unconventional career path and his plans to break into the American market.

This year, Tom Dixon, Britain’s self-taught wildchild designer (he started out clubbing by night and welding by day), decided to take ICFF—and, with it America—by storm. His mix of high British humor and industrial craft was noticed first by Cappellini, for whom he designed a series of products like the ubiquitous S chair and Pylon table. In 1994 Dixon founded Eurolounge and in 1997 received the Millennium Mark Award. He became head of the UK design studio for home furnishings giant Habitat in 1998, and in 2001 was named its Creative Director.

Dixon tempers the ridiculous luxury of the furniture industry with one-off (rumored two-off) events like the 2006 Trafalgar Square Great Chair Grab, where he gave away 500 of his moulded chairs. We spoke to him on his birthday about his plans for America, his sense of humor, and the necessity for corruption.

Eva Hagberg: So what are you doing in the States?

Tom Dixon: It’s time for America, isn’t it? We weren’t really ready to do it for a while and now things seem to be sorted out. I also work with Artec which has a reasonable relationship with America. So it gives us a bit of critical mass and we can do it seriously. You can’t do America unless you do it seriously.

EH: You do it less seriously in Britain?

TD: It’s a domestic market, a different story. My New York friends tell me they find it very tough. I think it’s time to break the dominance of these artistic design items.

EH: The design in Britain seems a little funnier, sassy.

TD: Are you laughing at my design?

EH: Ha, no!

It’d be quite good if you did.

EH: I’m interested in all these different things that you do—how you reconcile being the creative director of Habitat with everything else. Aesthetically and socially you’re doing many different things.

TD: I do a lot less for Habitat now. I resigned about four years ago but they have not yet accepted my resignation. Now I do about ten days a year for them… so that’s taking up much less time. I concentrate most on trying to do my own thing on my own. People are used to a bigger scale. I decided to be clever and seek finance and do it properly. When we did that we ended up with Swedish financers, and Artec, and so rather than doing a traditional thing I’m now part-time.

I think the way that a lot of designers work in the end is highly frustrating. You end up really providing a service to a variety of people, you never really hold on to the creativity. You can’t show and express ideas in the fullest way. My whole thing is to control the design direction. To design in an intrinsic way. There are a few people who are lucky enough to have people respect their ideas. So many people are slaves to companies and end up competing against themselves. It’s like being a rock star and putting out albums for multiple labels at the same time. In terms of how people do business it doesn’t make any sense.

So I’ve tried a variety of employment strategies: being creative director, having my own companies. So this is now my new get-rich-quick scheme.

EH: I heard a rumor you’re bringing the Trafalgar Square Great Chair Grab to New York?

TD: No, I’m using New York to pay for giving away free furniture in Europe. One of those chairs just got a metal skin, it’s a shell with a metal skin. So I can sell that for extraordinary sums of money which will allow me to fund…

EH: Giving away chairs?

TD: Freebies. That’s about rethinking how much of this business works. So it’s an idea stolen from, you know, companies like Google. Give away what you do and make money on the side with advertising, services.

EH: I think it’s tough to be socialist in design.

TD: I don’t think it is. I think all the radical thinking, this mad rush to make a million-dollar chair is extraordinary. There’s no revolution, no sustainability.

EH: Is that what you want to be doing?

TD: I’m interested in trying to think of how you could do a really old-fashioned business in a new way. I think it’d be nice to reach out, get people touched by design. Now I’m preaching to the converted and so what? What’s nice about Trafalgar square was in seven minutes I gave away 500 chairs to people: old people, poor people, poor students. So, yeah, it’s certainly an interest and there’s other ways to make money. China is shipping tons of furniture over, we’ve got a warehouse in the UK, and it’s a high risk, very low return.

Imagine if I get a mobile phone network and stick a logo on it, I can get your message into peoples’ homes. Well, that’s a faster way for me to make a million dollars than by selling chairs.

EH: So how do you stay uncorrupted, make sure you keep doing good things?

TD: I don’t. I’ve always been corrupt, it’s just that I also like to think. I get bored very easily.

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