Tom Dixon is a self-taught British product designer who founded his eponymous brand in 2002. He is responsible for designs such as the S-chair from Cappellini, the Italian furniture brand, his own brand’s curved wingback chair and candles encased in copper and bronze. He has also worked with Harrods and Selfridges, the UK department stores, and London’s Mondrian Hotel. His most recent product launch is Bump, a range of glass vessels inspired by school chemistry classes.
Why did you choose this profession?
I didn’t really choose. It was just a hobby of sorts. I learnt how to weld, which fitted my general impatience, and started making things for fun. At the time, I was in the music business and that was a very nocturnal activity, so during the day I made things. Then people started buying them. I was surprised that I could have an idea and convert it into dollars.
What made you want to start welding?
I was into vintage cars and motorbikes at the time. I had in mind that I would be fixing them but I didn’t really get around to that. Instead, I started buying scrap metal to practise welding, and down at the scrapyard all the extraordinary shapes and forms that come from pre-existing components fuelled my imagination.
How would you characterise your style?
I think “expressive minimalism” might do the trick. I like the kind of transformation of raw material into an object of use and I have an overriding interest in structures and the way things are made. I think that the materiality should shine through the object.
Could you briefly explain your design process?
I’m atypical. I prefer to assemble the thing myself and make sure that it works in full size rather than just work on computer programs and send it off to be made by other people. We tend to do a lot of model making and full-size maquettes, and we also produce our own output. We have a big factory base where we get things made and stock them. We do all the distribution, marketing and logistics ourselves. The connection with either the craftsman or the engineers has always been a major inspiration.
Name your three most important influences
I’m very interested in sculpture in general, particularly the current English school and the French prewar mob. And engineering, for sure. I’m super interested in architecture too, but I wouldn’t count it as one of the main inspirations on what I do. It’s a passion, but whether that comes through in the objects, I can’t tell you.
What has been your favourite project?
We have just put the Pylon chair back into production, which I think has a lot of the characteristics we’ve just been talking about: engineering, sculpture and a passion for welding. It was an attempt at the lightest metal chair in the world, so it has a competitive element as well.
If you couldn’t, who would you get to design you a chair?
That’s a complex one . . . I like Konstantin Grcic, a Munich-based designer who trained at the Royal College of Art.
What is the one object you would never allow in your home?
I think it’s very dangerous to say never. Referring to it makes me nervous, but I’ll get back to you if I can think of something really disgusting.
What is the strangest request you have had?
We rarely work for commission now, but I did have a very faithful client who one day came in and asked me to knock down their ancestral home and build a new house. It was nice, given that I had no previous record as an architect! It included their great-grandfather’s shepherd’s hut, which they insisted on knocking down as well. It took them four years to settle after the trauma of the build, but they’re starting to enjoy it now.
What would you look for in a client?
I think the best are like the ones I just described, who surprised us. People tend to pigeonhole you. I’ve been pigeonholed as a variety of things: the guy that did things from scrap metal, the guy that made chairs, the guy that makes lamps and so on. You spend a lot of your time breaking free and if you’re curious, you always want to try something else. That’s why the best clients are the unexpected ones.
Do you believe in form over function?
I think that the battle for function has been broadly won, but I’m keen on the balance of the two rather than one winning over the other.
What draws you to chairs as a particular form?
There is something human about the scale of a chair and intimate about the way that you use it. I like that they have these human characteristics — I did a lot of life drawing at school and I always feel like the chair has arms and legs and feet. It’s the closest you can get to the human body in furniture terms, which makes it very attractive as a typology.
What do you see next for product design?
Product, and certainly furniture design, is still a very old-fashioned business if you compare it to, say, the music business. It’s been very slow to become modern because you’re dealing with big, fixed, slow-selling items. But I think like any business right now, digitisation will find its way to disrupt. A lot of it is to do with logistics: the main dotcoms are looking to sell directly from the factory, for instance. But, increasingly, you are able to design something on your laptop and get it made more locally.
What would you say is the main trend in product design?
These things are cyclical but there has been a big resurgence of post-modernism, which was the sort of 1980s look: simple, brightly coloured, geometric shapes. The other big trend is the idea of the visibility of design tools and the means of production.
Everybody was obsessed with rapid prototyping for a while but now you can laser-cut digitally and CNC [computer numerical control] mill wood digitally. Power to the people in terms of design and production.
Photographs: Emily Andrews; Peer Lindgreen