Designer Tom Dixon, the eternal rebel, shares his views in Hong Kong talks

Tom Dixon's success lies in a fruitful fusion of an anti-establishment aesthetic with traditional materials and craftsmanship

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 March, 2015, 6:10am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 March, 2015, 6:10am

For the past 25 years Tom Dixon has been turning out instant classics, from furniture and lighting to his more recent foray into the world of architecture and interiors.

Late last year the self-taught designer was responsible for redeveloping a 1970s Thames-side office building into one of London's most intriguing new hotels, the Mondrian London.

This month he unveils a conceptual pop-up "traditional market" with his newest range of home and office products, including scented candles and sleek minimalist stationery, at five Lane Crawford stores.

Paradoxically, Dixon's longevity in the notoriously fickle world of modern design owes much to his infamous disregard for following fashions and trends. Following his creative instincts, celebrating for example, traditional craftsmanship and materials such as copper and iron at a time when modern plastics prevailed, has proved key to his success, he says.

"It also helps that I didn't have any formal training. I've always been more interested in the making of things and not having studied design allowed me to experiment without any constraints, to bring something new. I prefer to come to something with as little as possible."

The London-based designer, who dropped out of art school after just six months to play bass guitar with his post-punk band Funkapolitan, rediscovered the creative world almost by accident after teaching himself how to weld in the early '80s.

His earliest DIY projects went beyond the initial intention to repair his own cars and motorbikes to combine scrap metal salvaged from builders' skips and metal yards with discarded items such as Victorian-era coal-hole covers, reworking them into quirky one-off chairs and tables.

His best-known works from this period include the curvaceous S-Chair, which Dixon says was inspired by a small sketch of a chicken he doodled on a napkin. His early prototypes, created in the mid-1980s, experimented with upholstery made from the inner tube of truck tyres, latex and rattan, before being spotted by the Italian furniture manufacturer Giulio Cappellini. The chair is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"At that point I didn't envisage a career as a designer," says Dixon, who was born in Tunisia in 1959 and raised in London from the age of four.

The '80s, however, proved to be the start of Britain's obsession with contemporary creative culture and Dixon, who had already established a store selling his and other designers' products in Notting Hill, was soon recruited in 1998 as creative director of Habitat, a high-street furnishings chain founded by Terence Conran in 1964.

While revitalising the brand with his trademark functional modern design, Dixon says he garnered invaluable experience in the complex process of distributing a newly designed product.

It also left him keen to cut out the middleman he viewed as a significant obstacle for entrepreneurial young designers battling to reach the market place.

In 2006 the maverick designer infamously challenged the conventional design-retail model by giving away 500 injection-moulded polystyrene chairs in Trafalgar Square. It took just seven minutes for every chair to be carried off.

"It confirmed," says Dixon, "that you have to do your own thing." To this end, Dixon's anti-establishment aesthetic has extended seamlessly into an international business that exports his furniture, lighting and home products to more than 60 countries alongside his Dock complex in west London containing his studio and a Tom Dixon store and restaurant, Dock Kitchen.

In 2000 his work was recognised by the award of an OBE from the Queen. In 2007 he established the interior and architecture arm of his practice, Design Research Studio. Their most high-profile project, the Mondrian London, offers a case study in the merits of original design avoiding the prevailing trend for international hotels' often bland, globalised experience of luxury.

Taking inspiration from the '70s Warren Platner-designed Sea Containers House's maritime history, the designer redefined the notion of placemaking by installing an enormous 68-metre copper ship's hull, complete with a reception desk set into the form. The curved wall it creates draws guests through a uniquely sculptural entrance directly into the main lobby.

"The building is a bit like a ship with its proximity to the river so we thought there was a strong narrative," says Dixon.

He "nicked" the beaten copper hull from the Cutty Sark down the same river while other artifacts were sourced from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to add a touch of authentic maritime history.

I still tend to ignore trends and obviously hope I'm still experimenting
Tom Dixon

Inside, the hotel's 359 guest rooms feature brass-framed bedroom doors and some of Dixon's custom-designed furniture. The nautical theme continues with quirky porthole windows and mirrors. "The rooms are quite compact," he explains, "because they're havens away from the more social, busy parts of the hotel. The important thing is getting the communal spaces such as the lobby, lounge, the restaurant and rooftop bar right."

For Dixon this meant creating a design story behind areas such as the art deco-inspired rooftop lounge, which sports a solid brass bar, plush purple armchairs and views of the South Bank skyline evoking the top deck of a luxury liner. The spa reflects an unusual submarine quality with curved walls and luminous pathways.

"It was about making a connection between the original architecture and the Mondrian brand; about an Anglo-American relationship and the glamorous style of transatlantic travel and translating that into a cohesive design story to justify the idea of an American hotel in London," says Dixon.

His fascination with materials, from humble industrial materials such as cast-iron and copper to glass, alongside reinventing the art of crafts, is most evident in his latest crop of new pieces that form a collection at Lane Crawford. Introduced at the Paris trade show Maison & Objet in January, the range of products for the home and office exudes a sophisticated working of his favourite robust materials dating back to his early DIY scrap-metal experiments.

"The aesthetics are in constant mutation and evolution," Dixon says, "but the underpinning obsessions are the same: materials and manufacturing processes, craft and industry, shape and texture."

The Cube stationery collection comprises daily office necessities such as a tape dispenser, a stapler, a desk tidy and pens - all imbued with zinc alloy plated with copper, a material Dixon also employed at the Mondrian hotel. Meanwhile, the Trove collection is a pair of durable black cast-iron storage boxes described by Dixon as an "unconventional decorative accessory that masquerades as a treasure box". The pressed-glass lids magnify the contents.

So which does he find more creatively stimulating: the design of space or products such as lamps and furniture?

"I find it increasingly hard to answer that question," he says with a laugh. "The beautyof our company is we are involved in doing both and each challenge informs the other. The most satisfying and stimulating are designing a space with objects inside that are tailor made for that space."

What hasn't changed in 35 years of making things is Dixon's willingness to take on a challenge. "I still tend to ignore trends and obviously hope I'm still experimenting," he says."My experiments are also now in brand building and creative commerce as well as objects and materiality."

Tom Dixon will speak at a British Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Asia Society in Admiralty today, 8am-9.30am; and at a lunch held at Qube, 2/F PMQ, Central, noon-1.30pm