“What would you be, if not a designer?” “Lost,” replies Tom Dixon in a poignant indication of the relentless mind of a maverick thinker. He is the founder and creative director of his eponymous brand, but is a man of few words, choosing instead to speak volumes in between lines and through his work.
Starting his career as a performer and by way of accidental discovery landing in the business of crafting, the laurelled innovator with numerous international EDIDA wins in his bag, never received a traditional education in design. And, perhaps it is this unconventionality from which arises an oeuvre that is polyfocal and multifaceted in its identity and refuses to conform.
Some know him as the household name behind the ‘S’ chair he imagined for Cappellini, others as the force behind the reconception of the Habitat brand. But at his core, Tom is an individual invigorated by the idea of invention. “Being a designer means you never have to get bored – always a new challenge to confront a new idea to be created, a new territory to be explored,” he explains. As evidenced by the trajectory of his career, boredom would be a far cry. However, along with this quest to escape monotony, there is an erratic streak of rebellion and a rejection of fitting into a single box.
Where there is passion, there is always a strong sentiment of wrangling the limits of possibility. In the early 80s, you would find him playing bass guitar or working at a nightclub. Come the 90s, the experimentation on salvaged scraps gave way to formal furniture design. In 2002, he established his brand that thrives today in over 90 countries but at its heart is still rooted in London, a city where he spent most of his youth. However, it is a common misconception that the designer is of British descent. Tom clarifies, “I am actually French.” He started Design Research Studio, an interior and architectural design practice in 2007, adding projects including the Restaurant at The Royal Academy in London and The Manzoni in Milan to his already exceptional portfolio. Marking a monumental step, the brand relocated its headquarters, Coal Office, to London’s King’s Cross in 2018.
Last December, the prolific creative graced EDIDA India, engaging in a fascinating conversation with his friend, the chairman of the Fashion Design Council of India, Sunil Sethi. It was here that he remarked upon his connection to the country which has been instrumental in shaping his work over the years. He explains, “India has been fundamental in developing my own label. It’s been some of the best surprises in the trenches I’ve had.” Tom has been actively involved in initiatives to preserve ancient craftsmanship being rapidly lost to time. From this reverence sprang the Beat light, a hand-spun brass reverie crafted by Rajasthani artisans, its form echoing the traditional cooking pots and vessels used to carry water. The interior of the lamp is painstakingly hammer-beaten to refract light, carrying an intrinsic memory of the human hand that shaped the object. But if these lamps could talk, what would they say about their avant-garde creator?
While we can only imagine the answer to this question, a better look into his personality comes through what he is currently reading, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. “Art is not eternal” writes the author while the protagonist, Ken Kesey, spends the majority of the pages convincing his peers to join his new religion. But much like the designer himself, there is always more than what meets the eye. The book captures the zeitgeist of the ‘60s counterculture, questioning authority, proposing alternate lifestyles and challenging established norms of society. It circles the pursuit of transcendence and the theme of “intersubjectivity,” a condition beyond an individual’s ego. It makes you question if for Tom, the act of designing, in its purest form, is any different, simultaneously singular in conception and collective in existence.
Throughout his work, sustainability has been a running thread, almost an exercise in resisting vacuous impermanence as a dogma. “Longevity is the most important characteristic in the furnishing world,” declares Tom, “Innovation is the most important attitude to have.” However, it would be amiss not to contemplate the meaning of the two words and speculate if it could veer into a conversation on legacy. What does Tom Dixon stand for, what are the principles that govern his work? “I really don’t have any principles — each project or job has its own dynamic,” says the Promethean innovator, humbly evading the poetry behind his profound praxis.