The British designer who has lit up the world of lighting, but is also designing a wide range of exciting products from armchairs to washing up liquid
‘Extraordinary objects for everyday use’
Britain’s Tom Dixon is today one of the world’s most sought after designers, with an international client list and a formidable portfolio of products from the iconic S chair, in the permanent collection of the MoMA, New York, and V&A, London, to modern classics such as the Copper Pendant and Mirror Ball lights, as well as glamorous interiors such as the Mondrian Hotel. All of which is rather amazing when you consider that he is completely self-taught and came to design via a totally unorthodox route.
Tom was born in Tunisia and moved to Britain when he was four years old. He found school and then Chelsea Art School unfulfilling, but both did allow him to work with ceramics and experience the satisfaction of turning a raw material into something useful.
He left Chelsea School of Art after a motorcycle accident, and what followed was a peripatetic few years with stints as a printer, typesetter, a colourist for cartoon films, and then as the bass guitarist for a pop-funk band that signed a record deal and toured with The Clash and Simple Minds. This, however, came to a dramatic end when a second motorcycle crash left him with a broken arm and rendered him no longer able to play his instrument.
It was when a friend, who owned a car-repair shop showed him how to weld, that Tom’s career as a designer began. ‘With welding, you make very solid structures very quickly and the attraction of that technique, and the speed in which I made things, was what turned me into a designer,’ he says. ‘So everything I do has come from industrial technique.
‘People that have inspired me are engineers and sculptors. From Noguchi and Hepworth all the way to Amish Kapoor. And the more maverick engineers like Eiffel – you can see the Pylon chair has taken direct influence from him’.
In the 1980s, Tom caught the eye of Giulio Cappellini, then head of the eponymous Italian company known for its exciting approach to design, and it was at Cappellini that Tom designed the sculptural S chair and was hailed for his design ingenuity. ‘I have often been asked what the inspiration was behind the S-Chair and, honestly, the only memory I have is of drawing a small doodle of a chicken […] and thinking that I could make a chair from it,’ he says. ‘The secret of its success, I believe, was creating an unexpected and unconventional shape in an archetypical comforting material.’
In 1998 Tom became Head of Design at UK Habitat which then had 70 shops, before becoming its Creative Director. ‘I learned a lot,’ he says. ‘You get really fast feedback about what’s worked and what’s not’.
He’s taken this experience to his own company which was set up in 2002 and it continues to flourish and has garnered a reputation for superb lighting. ‘It’s partly the fact that I can use the latest technology and partly that I can be more radical,’ says Tom. ‘A lot of people feel unknowledgeable about lighting and maybe I help to simplify it. I think customers who are slightly conservative are more forgiving of innovation or crazy shapes than they would be with furniture.’
But it’s not just the glamorous end of the market that attracts his attention – he has also turned the design spotlight onto more mundane items such as a clear washing up liquid and a jet black hand soap. ‘“Extraordinary objects for everyday use” is my mantra,’ he says. And it is proving a successful one.