Q&A with Iconic Designer Tom Dixon
The copper Beat and Etch lights from U.K. native Tom Dixon seemed to single-handedly bring the metal back into vogue. Editor-in-chief Anicka Quin caught up with the designer on a recent visit to Inform Interiors in Vancouver.
Your roots are in salvaging materials, and in music—an interesting background for a designer.
That’s the last time I came to Vancouver, actually—it was to make a stage set for Expo, for an English punk band. I went to a scrapyard, and then into the Expo compound, welded up some stuff, then went home.
And metal is still a big part of your work now. Does salvage continue to inform your design?
Salvage was a departure point, but it was the welding that really engaged me, in a way—like having a superpower of some sort. Suddenly you were able to make stuff quite simply. Then the components evolved and changed very rapidly: from scrap metal, to going into kitchen shops and plumbing shops to find pieces that suited the thing, so I could make multiples. Then further on down the line, buying more machinery that could do the slicing of metal, the folding of metal.
As I look back, everything is more defined by the manufacturing technique than the salvage.
You’ve been attracted to the warmer metals for a long time, long before it was on trend to be in copper and brass.
I can’t believe how long chrome and stainless steel have been the master of design—it’s a modernist shorthand in a way. I like them as well, but I’d always loved copper for its malleability. It’s an incredible metal. It’s got all kinds of different qualities in terms of how you work and what you use it for: transmitting electricity, cooking, and the rest of it. And I just thought it was mad that it wasn’t being used more, and hadn’t been used a lot since the ’60s—as a decorative metal, it was really kind of ignored. The very fact that nobody else was using it appealed to me, I guess.
I don’t like doing what other people are doing, especially as you come about into your own niche, when you’re starting a company. It’s really important to be recognizable, particularly in the beginning—to have something that is your signature. Copper became that really quite quickly.
British engineering inspires one of your latest collections, Cog.
I was a mucky little boy, and I quite liked taking things to bits. I remember taking my toy tractor to bits and sticking it into an electrical plug in the wall when I was four—I almost died! Then bicycles, motorbikes and cars—I was always taking things to apart. (Though I was much less successful putting it back together.)
Even now, I love the very simple engineering techniques. All those are made on the lathe, and it’s amazing how one can have so many possibilities. I feel I could have been quite happy being an engineer—but I’m not patient enough.
You enjoy coming at design from a naive point of view, like when you were involved with Adidas.
It’s not just design from a naive point if view, it’s everything—I still take a child-like pleasure in designing. It’s not seen as a particularly positive quality to be inexpert. But I think British tradition proves otherwise. A lot of the great steps forward were by amateurs—Darwin, for example, wasn’t a professional. There’s a lot of merit in looking at things from an inexpert perspective. I don’t mean that experts aren’t good, I just mean that, for me, it’s been my method. And I think the more expert you become, the more you become part of what exists rather than challenging it. And designers should challenge stuff.
Can you tell me more about your space, The Dock, in London?
It’s had two previous histories. It was built as an exchange for Victorian rubbish to take the horse-drawn carts onto the canal. And, more recently, it was Virgin Records, so it was Richard Branson’s headquarters. The horse shed was their staff’s restaurant, the canteen. And where my store is now was recording studios. It’s infused by this whole other history of Spice Girls and Sex Pistols.
What’s nice about it, from my perspective, is that it has all kinds of assets that are quite rare for an office in London. I’ve got a lot of water, I’ve got quite a lot of outdoor space, and I’ve got a restaurant, because we converted the canteen into a restaurant, and I have a store. We were able to build up this whole kind of world of what we stand for.
Is it true that you did some shifts in the restaurant when it first opened?
I might do one a month now. It’s quite exhausting actually. I get cold starters and desserts, which is the kind of embarrassingly unskilled position in the kitchen. You’re not quite washing up, but you’re doing the least possible cooking—a lot of chopping.
I’m a trainee—it’s quite nice to go down to not being a boss, and working properly in a team. It’s been terrifyingly stressful, and very much more complicated than anyone realizes.
What is it that appeals to you to do it?
I’ve learned a lot from the whole thing. Our restaurants are quite big on provenance and not messing around with the raw materials too much. Everything is made to order rather than pre-prepared, and we are serving up great tastes in as simple a way as possible with good ingredients. So I see an analogy in that with design, and I also learn to be a better cook and a better restaurant designer at the same time. You try designing from the perspective not of the customer but the kitchen—everyone knows what it’s like to be a customer in the restaurant, but very few people know what it’s like to actually make that run smoothly. But I do.
Can you tell me a little bit about your Form tea set?
I like to use my nationality as a kind of departure point in terms of trying to find how we look against everybody else. Part of that is about tea, and about tea pots and different tea ceremonies, whether it’s the mug of tea in the factory or the posh cream tea at Claridge’s. I came from Shanghai, where I was given a proper tea ceremony. I’ve been in Japan and had a tea ceremony, and in India, where they have chai. It’s interesting, the cultural underpinnings of who you are. The tea service is partly driven by the restaurant, where we can’t find anything that has the right balance between modern and tradition, and also by the fact that it’s kind of a symbolic item, and also by the fact that we’re working a lot with the metalworkers—we found people who are doing something slightly more sophisticated. There are always several reasons to do something. I’ll do a tea label next—I’ll launch some tea.
I’ve heard you describe British culture as a study in contrasts: the tea and fish and chips, high class and working class. How do you see that in your work?
People are always too ready to classify you as something—you’re this or that. I’ve had a lot of luck in working at many different levels. My parents are quite socialist, but I know innovation and exotica comes at a price as well. If you’re trying to do something new, it’s never going to be cheap. I like the idea that you can work in a couple of worlds, and that you shouldn’t be too classified, really—I had the chance to work in an Ikea organization like Habitat, that company I was at. I like opposites—I like rough and smooth. And I do like tradition and modernity. People are too prepared to pigeonhole you, to be frank. I think you can authentically be interested in both, and believe in both. tomdixon.net