February 1, 2008
Coming to America
Tom Dixon’s entry into the U.S. market is the latest phase of
a multifaceted career that has spanned everything from sculpture and art direction to industrial and interior design.
Tom Dixon’s interior design for the recently opened Shoreditch House, a private club in the East End of London for the Soho House group, is a notable delight—by turns exciting, comfortable, funky, relaxing, and cheering as members eat, drink, sit with laptops, and schmooze. Numerous light-industrial buildings everywhere have been stripped out and done up in an OK fashion, but this is better. In the Sitting Room, Dixon has created a bodacious attraction by replacing most of the sloping roof with full glazing between the concrete rafters, installing a bold salvaged parquet floor that sports a dimpled tartan surface of worn-down softwoods, and furnishing the space as a lounge with sofas and big wing chairs (designed by Dixon) that yield dramatic panoramic views of the new London high-rises nearby. Pretty “effing” good, as the thirtysomething design-and-media club members would say, approximately.
Playful, populist, and sometimes insubordinate to what good design is supposed to mean, Shoreditch House’s stylish expression is one of the two or three most convincing looks around right now. But there’s more: the work also confirms Dixon’s remarkable progress in just three or four years from being classified as a maverick furniture and lighting designer (though he goes, Who, me? Maverick?) to becoming an established interiors guy—a go-to champion of atmosphere and witty scenography. With interiors, of course, total design responsibility is where the aesthetic payoff should really lie. And where the money ought to be.
When I meet Dixon in London, he’s busy completing arrangements for the opening of a Tom Dixon boutique in the ABC Carpet & Home emporium, in New York, where his furniture and lighting products will be sold. He is excited about the prospect, and who could blame him? Certainly the selling of name-designer multiples is where a lot of money actually is, as Nicole Farhi, DKNY, and Vivienne Westwood can attest. The critical audience has long been ready. Susan Yelavich, design historian at Parsons, first heard of him ten years ago when she was a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and Dixon “was enlivening the Cool Brittania–Austin Powers era” by creating one-off pieces of instant furniture with pumped swirls of hot polymer in Selfridges department store and giving away hundreds of chairs—and later, lights—at free-grab events in Trafalgar Square. “Dixon will have a disruptive effect on America,” Yelavich says, if he still represents “the demystification of design as a counterpoint to the consumerist ethos.” Good chance—or fat chance, if he’s made himself the Ralph Lauren of home furnishings?
The 48-year-old Dixon is tall and talkative, not at all like the brooding rebel I expected from the photos on his Web site. He’s responsive and funny, with a propensity for unexpectedly tipping things out of balance, like the magically grown-up kid played by Tom Hanks in Big—especially in the scenes where Hanks has been put in charge of a toy company and applies his kid’s point of view to make the company millions. We’re sitting on unmatching chairs flanked by others that don’t match on a raised platform in his multilevel studio that we reach by climbing some welded steps of plate steel. Around us are dangling prototype lights and cluttered furniture, some half-developed, some abandoned, some possibly going places. The nifty table we are sitting at is a multilaminated piece that Alvar Aalto would probably have felt at home with until he noticed that the bamboo plies are categorically un-Finnish.
The puzzle for me is why Dixon is branding himself for product when he has the talent to be a designer of spaces. “The logic of being an individual designer who sells things is to distinguish yourself from the others,” he says un-apologetically. “Unless you’re known for what you do, your destiny is always being undermined.” So an architect who works on projects commissioned by clients loses his identity? He answers my question with some Big-style disdain. “If I was an architect I would probably sell flat-pack houses, or just plans!”
Dixon’s design career got going with a brief period at Chelsea Art School in the early 1980s and restarted a few years later with improvised furniture and lamps that showed an enthusiasm for joining things, probably related to his competence as a self-taught welder. He mainly worked with junk, sheet metal, and diverse catalog components, but as often happens to successful practitioners of bricolage, his scavenger art began to give way when others became interested and demand started to grow. Taken on by the Italian furniture manufacturer Cappellini, Dixon designed the S-Chair, which looks something like Arne Jacobsen’s tall Oxford chair improved by insolence. Structured by a wave of bent sheet steel welded to a base, when seen in profile the S-Chair slithers down to the ground in a sinuous line. From the front it widens only where it has to be wide, like a boa constrictor that swallowed a pig. Dixon’s chair became a big seller for Cappellini.
By the mid-1990s Dixon was producing multiples with a company of his own. “He had lots of nice ladies helping him,” an envious rival from that time says. His product portfolio included Jack Lights, which were like ballooning kids’ jacks executed in pigmented polyethylene—another big hit in sales. Then, toward the end of the decade, Dixon was recruited by Habitat, the Terence Conran–founded modern furnishings chain in Britain later bought by Ikea, which had got somewhat lost in the retail wilderness. According to Mark Gilbey, the Habitat coordinator for furniture who was leaving when Dixon was arriving, “Tom was so innocent of commercial culture that he didn’t even know what a range plan was.” (“Which is what?” I ask.) “Chairs, tables, shelves, and so on had to have a range of styles and prices. That was paramount at Habitat. Tom made everything much more Now.” Whatever Now was, it started to work. As Habitat’s head of international design, and later as creative director (he remains a consultant), Dixon helped it back to its mission. The experience didn’t just make him a buyer and retailer. “Forty percent of about six thousand items annually were designed in-house,” he says.
As the lure of the marketplace grew stronger for Dixon, he became convinced that “designers should take a lead from the publishing and music businesses—you need a brand or label so people can recognize your own personality and point of view.” He unshackled himself from Habitat, and with a partner clinched a deal with venture capitalists to create a new company, Design Research Limited, encompassing two divisions: one branded Tom Dixon, and the other an extremely interesting buyout: Artek, a Finnish company created by Aalto in 1935 to make and sell his own furniture.
Artek’s indispensability as a producer of Modern design was something I learned of as an architecture student in Helsinki trying to talk my way into Aalto’s studio. When the great man himself got on the phone and directed me instead to the Artek showroom, it was a crucial experience for me that nearly compensated. I tell Dixon, who cracks, “Probably he was drunk.” But he fully appreciates Artek’s splendor and inherent value. With first-run Modern furniture classics selling at high auction prices, he says that he’s been soliciting Finnish institutions, offering to trade newly made Aalto furniture for beat-up old pieces whose once clear varnish has turned amber with age. No doubt the philistine-run establishments that were just dumping their inheritance of innovative molded-plywood pieces and buying crappy replacements will see it as a good deal.
At approximately the Artek-acquisition stage, Dixon began his short learning curve as an interior designer on Inn the Park, within a new restaurant pavilion in St. James’s Park designed by architect Michael Hopkins. The restaurant operator, Oliver Peyton, offered Dixon the job despite his lack of a résumé: “I’d known Tom and his work for a long time. He does masculine designs, and they felt particularly outdoorsy to me.” Dixon says he considered himself capable because “I thought I could do better than the architects. They seemed mainly interested in lighting the timber columns.” Hopkins Architects’ pavilion, of clear-finished timber, is cut into a hillside with public access both at ground level and on a grassy roof, with a glazed front and sheltered terrace alongside the park’s curved lake. Dixon’s interiors use color and lighting effectively (furnishings slightly less effectively), and they handle customers well. His work drew less attention than the contributions of the architects and the original executive chef, but he shared in the critical praise.
Dixon’s next integrated design required the full monty: both architecture and interiors for the Tokyo Hipsters Club, where the program required a restaurant, art gallery, retail shop, and lounges for self-styled hip users. “As it was just a stage set for a retail concept, they were looking for a designer who had never worked as an architect before,” Dixon says. “My idea was a bunker where revolutionaries could gather.” Under dramatic lighting, the building’s rough concrete walls look like a newfound discovery of British Brutalism that’s been lost for 40 years.
Dixon’s penultimate interior design to date was for a major Habitat shop. In the prime London shopping location of Regent Street, the design had to respect its situation in an English Heritage–listed building Grade II—a grade so high that you can’t replace an interior doorknob without consent. Unfortunately, the historic and design importance of the interior was unworthy of that concern. Its 1926 classicist plasterwork had decorated the West End’s major cinema of the day, and though the space had since been used as a church and then shops, it essentially remained a vast auditorium—without seats but otherwise complete with proscenium, horseshoe balcony, projector apertures in the glassy ceiling dome, and cinema exit doors. Dixon’s design won listed-building approval in preserving all features by means of a new central mezzanine that stands clear of its surroundings within the balcony horseshoe. But reasonable interior design was fatally compromised by having to display retail furnishings gypsylike against backgrounds and diagonal glimpses of not very skillful plaster decoration that now means nothing since the auditorium functions that lent them sense are long gone. The problem was insoluble, or at least Dixon didn’t manage to solve it.
Which is why it’s taken the recent opening of Shoreditch House to settle the matter about Dixon’s merit as an interior designer. He’s dealt with the spaces as if he came to them with abundant experience, using many of—but not exclusively—his own furnishings. It’s an imaginative piece of work vibrating with fun and excitement, and that’s nearly as good as it gets for any interior design. A guest shown around is likely to feel the urge to put in an immediate application for membership at £700 a year.
Right now, Dixon has clout as a committed British designer. He makes and sells products. He builds and furnishes complete interiors. If he had to do only one, which would he choose? He doesn’t reply, since he’s embraced the consumerist ethos lately, so I’m channeling an oracular answer from the Mother of the Arts: build, baby, build. I admit that Norman Foster, like Aalto, has long designed furniture as well as buildings; Ron Arad and Philippe Starck do both interiors and furniture. And I hear Zaha Hadid’s office is furiously at work on her brand, which will include shoes and even perfume, if a whiff innovative enough to be worn as Zaha can be developed. Tom Dixon might be right to consider it a silly question.