The pages of the history books are filled with men and women who had to walk down many a wrong path before stumbling upon the one that led to greatness. Alfred Hitchcock was a draftsman and advertising designer before he ever thought to pick up a camera. Vincent van Gogh had an unsuccessful run as a bookstore clerk, preacher and art salesman before he realised his passion was for creating art not hawking it. And Stephen King only began writing and selling fiction as a way to supplement his wages as a temporary labourer while he was searching for a teaching job.
Tom Dixon’s journey followed a similar course; it was an unexpected detour that would bring him face to face with his destiny.
In the early 1980s, The Tunisian-born Londoner dropped out of art school because he found it “too conceptual”. Soon after, a motorcycle accident halted his ambitions as an artist in their tracks. He became a bass-player in a disco band before an unexpected symmetry of chance in the form of another motorcycle accident brought him back to the visual arts. During his recovery downtime he learnt to weld in order to repair his motorbike. The hands-on nature of it struck a chord in him and he began to experiment, welding salvaged scrap metal into furniture. The rusty repurposed furniture attracted the attention of London’s art-lovers and Dixon’s career as a designer began in earnest.
By the late ‘80s, the self-taught metal-smith’s hard work was paying off as Italian furniture giant Cappelini approached him to design for them. In 1991, they launched his S-chair, a sinuous steel frame made of wicker and marsh. It was hailed as an iconic piece.
He founded his own company called Eurolounge in 1994 and won yet more renown with a multifunctional “sitting, stacking, lighting thing” called Jack. Dixon had become a bona fide sensation.
The motorbike-riding DIY welder with no formal art education makes for an unorthodox figurehead of British design but he has an intuitive grasp of the discipline that people who are intensely schooled in the discipline would kill for. Dixon’s approach is one that a close friend once described as ‘vertebrate’ design. “That means,” he says, “that I design from the bones outwards and am not really interested in surface.”
His first real foray into business was his ten year stint as head designer at Habitat. His “first proper job”, as he calls it, was a successful one – he was the creative force behind the upmarket furniture retailer’s Renaissance, reissuing authentic archive designers and commissioning new pieces from up-and-comers. At the same time, he juggled creative control of Finnish modernist furniture brand Artek.
As successful as his stints at Habitat and Artek were, he decided to leave both companies in order to focus on his own eponymous label, started in 2002. The brand has been well-renowned since its inception. Highlights have included the highly reflective, space helmet-inspired Mirrorball and Copper Shade lighting pieces, and the glistening Fresh Fat Bowl, made using a cutting edge process that allows plastic to be woven into shape.
Launched in 2009, Dixon’s London showroom can be found in a converted wharf at Portobello Dock, Ladbroke.
The Shop was once a Victorian goods depot and is now home to the full range of Tom Dixon lighting and furniture ranges, as well as several concession brands. The Shop is part of a broader design emporium and all-round experience known as The Dock. The emporium serves as the venue for the London Design Fair and provides space for pop-up shops, cafés and exhibitions. Customers who need to take a break from deciding which of Dixon’s pieces they just can’t live without can dine under Mirrorball lights at the Dock Kitchen, run by rising chef Stevie Parle.
Sitting alongside some of Dixon’s iconic pieces at The Shop are his more recent curiosities, such as the Etch lighting range.
These acid-etched spherical pendant pieces are inspired by “the logic of pure mathematics”. They make for a grand spectacle when lit – the open structure’s design casts angular shadows. The lamp is amazing enough on its own but it is the elaborate shadow play which elevates it to the truly remarkable.
Dixon’s “ode to engineering”, the Fin Light is another great example of his industrial eye for design. The lamps proudly showcase the inner workings of electrical lighting. Each Fin lamp is built from an extruded aluminium heat sink, giant acrylic lens, six LEDs and other components that are normally hidden from view. The result is quite simply luminous.
While Dixon’s lighting design has always been worth giddy over, there’s something even more exciting just over the horizon. The brand is expanding into home accessories and gifts.
Dixon launched his Eclectic range at the Maison et Objet festival in Paris. The range is sure to make regular appearances on design fundis’ wish lists and wedding registries. Made of “honest and resilient” materials that include copper, wood, marble and cast iron, this collection is described as everyday home accessories, giftware and design objects that are made to be used or played with, treasured or given. The name says it all – these are pieces like no other and ‘everyday’ only in the barest sense of the word.
From his humble beginnings as a metal-working outsider to the creative head of multiple global brands to the curator of his own label, Tom Dixon has never lost his punk ethos or his eye for radical design. His title as maverick of British design is well-earned.
Extraordinary to think we have the timely accident of fate and motorbikes to thank!