LUC. As a reseller of your product, the question I am most often asked is who is Tom Dixon. What would you like me to say?
TOM. That's a big question! Tom Dixon, the brand, is majority owned by private equity, so in a sense I am a part owner of myself, which is an odd situation to be in. The thing that is interesting for people is that I'm putting my own narrative of unique ideas and intellectual property under my own name. This arrangement is typical in the fashion industry, or for a fashion designer, but no one is doing it in product design. This has made me kind of stick out, we stand out. There are days in the office where I will hear the team saying "that's not very Tom Dixon, we can't do that" and at some level that is very disconcerting. I am sometimes in a semi-detached state, the control has passed - this is a construct of my own making. It's interesting to do things that others aren't doing - it motivates me. Working and collaborating with other people is what interests and motivates me now.
LUC. So who do you design for?
TOM. I do it for my own pleasure, although it has become a bit more of a machine. The infrastructure of the business has grown to such a scale now that, in principle, I can get back to what I was originally doing. We now have approximately 400 to 500 objects, we have distribution infrastructure sorted, we have stores in London, New York, LA and Hong Kong. and an established product development team. In theory, I shouldn't have to throw so many ideas into it, I can now experiment more vigorously with things that interest me. I love trying something new that I am not yet good at, it still feels like a hobby to me. It interests me - the idea of designing product that people want to buy. The idea of design vs commerce. This distinguishes us from a lot of other design firms. A lot of designers do it theoretically, and pretend to be less interested in the idea of their product selling. To me, the product selling legitimises what I am doing.
It fascinates me, that I can design product that people want to pay cold hard cash for. There is a joy in that, there is job satisfaction from seeing it through from concept through to reality.
LUC. Your work is mainly in metals and glass and the brand's products reflect this, and yet Tom Dixon owned Artek for 5 years, a Scandinavian brand recognised for it's timber products. Is there a reason why you haven't produced more timber products?
TOM: Our tenure at Artek as managers and part-owners was an interesting experience but frustrating. It was a company that didn't believe that exterior help was needed. We do have an amount of wood in our collection. But here is the thing, our direct competition are Danish companies and they are very good at designing, producing and manufacturing in timber - they are much closer to the wood. In a way, I think that market is quite crowded. Having said that, I am not going to ignore timber as a material, I am not counting it out, I am getting softer (laughing),
LUC. the reason I ask specifically about wood is that I am becoming more involved with our local designers in Tasmania, where a lot of the design is being produced in timber. I was interested to know why Tom Dixon hadn't gone down that path. It is a difficult thing for them to be competitive, as manufacturing in small quantities is expensive and yet 'mass production' has negative connotations to a craftsperson.
TOM. I believe we are entering a new industrial age right now. The line between beautifully made and hand-crafted and industry is becoming blurred. The combination of using advanced digital tools but hand finishing pieces is going to become the future. There is a new world emerging with digital printing being more accessible. It has happened in the graphics and music industries and we are now seeing it with 3D products. There will be less of a distinction between mass produced and artisan produced. We are now so far advanced with marketing and photography, with distribution that reaching a global marketplace is now much easier. So it shouldn't matter whether you are producing in Tasmania or Shenzhen. Tasmania will become much less remote which will mean being more of a global player.
LUC. Was there a 'tipping point that launched you or your brand into becoming the global player you are now?
TOM. Not really, there was a series of events or stages that occurred. I moved from my own studio work to sending designs to Cappelini. The late 80s and early 90's were transformative from being a self-producer to then accessing the global furnishings market. I gained experience in the luxury product market - having access to the large furniture fairs, getting experience in distribution and manufacturing. Joining Habitat and not designing for 10 years was a very big lesson for me, in a very different area - in design management, retailing, communication and global sourcing. Very few people have access to all these experiences, I was very fortunate. I also think the music business affected the way I do things. The idea that anything is possible if you learn stuff yourself, just by practicing enough.
LUC. What still excites you about design?
TOM. To be in a position to have a point of view on new categories, or new objects. Aesthetics may change or production techniques, but I still get excited by shapes. It is nice to work within our framework but explore new shapes and materials. Doing design, as opposed to art or sculpture, gives you a formal framework. It’s expected that the product will have a degree of function, and I feel more comfortable with a certain restriction. It’s got to hold up, it’s got to pour, it’s got to illuminate for instance. I am currently working on a pet project in the Bahamas where I have designed a system where I’m growing underwater furniture. It’s a half-conceptual, half-sustainability project. I discovered a 1970s scientist who tried to grow artificial coral to make cities that floated underwater. It never worked, obviously, but I’ve transferred the idea into an underwater furniture farm. I have a solar panel at the surface which feeds electricity down to a metal chair, which over time, will grown a layer of coral/calcium deposit. - and create not only a new ecosystem but a unique and valuable end product. That’s something I’m fiddling around with, maybe that will be my retirement plan?!
LUC. What's the ultimate collaboration?
TOM. The one I haven't though of yet! I don't know...maybe power tools? toasters? motorbikes? electronics? I wanted to design a coffin with IKEA but they weren't convinced, so we ended up producing a bed that could convert to a day bed or love seat, I am definitely moving towards architecture. The Design Research Studio - the interior design side of the business is only about 1/10th of the business in terms of turnover but it has proved a very good laboratory for our products. The product side of the business is scalable and manageable but to increase the architect and design side will mean building a much bigger infrastructure.
LUC. Which is the bigger compliment, innovator or iconic?
TOM. Definitely innovator. Being iconic is somewhat loosely used now, and also a term that is in the eye of the beholder. You would never consider calling yourself iconic! Being innovative means no one has done it before - that is so much more interesting. It goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning - these days sometimes it is hard to distinguish between brands. The idea of using a whole stable of designers to create the brand is problematic - you don't see it in the fashion industry. Italian design in the 60's was renowned for using a single creative director and holding the aesthetic, and I think this is more interesting way to operate.
After thanking Tom for his time, we went on to talk about Tasmania and his desire to visit MONA. He had heard a lot about the unique Museum in Hobart, I described the great architecture and design details from within the space. It led us to talk about the concepts he was working for the new lobby project in the Quay Quarter Tower - he wants to introduce elements of the Australian landscape - paying homage to the below-ground rooms found in central Australia and to the raw finishes and colours found in that landscape. So, with an ongoing project now starting in Australia, we will look forward to (hopefully) welcoming him down to Hobart next time he visits!