'The means of production are changing' - designer Tom Dixon looks to the future
PUBLISHED: 11:10 11 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:30 11 July 2018
Tom Dixon, designer of iconic modernist furniture and lighting, has moved his business to a new Kings Cross HQ. Here he talks about what he learned working in the music industry, moving to the epicentre of London's future industries and finding new creative 'obsessions'.
“I didn’t want to just have a dusty old furniture shop,” Tom Dixon explains, as we sit in the reception area – all exposed brick, statement lighting and juxtaposed seating – of his new London headquarters, The Coal Office, in Kings Cross.
He’s talking about the open-plan ‘factory’, in the bowels of the building, where his technicians work on new prototypes in full view of the public, and curious punters can pay £250 to spend an hour or two building a light fixture of their own.
“I think the modern world is really about showing people your ideas quite early on,” he continues, “and describing your process. It’s also about speed of action – a place where we can make something and someone will walk in who just wants it. That’s what I used to like in the beginning; I’d make something in the morning and I might have sold it in the afternoon.”
Before becoming the designer of such iconic, futurist pieces as the S-chair, Scoop Chair and Bell light, Dixon worked in the music industry, first as a bassist in the moderately successful Funkapolitan, appearing on Top of the Pops in 1981 to perform ‘As Time Goes By’, and then as a nightclub promoter. It was an experience, he says, which shaped his “approach to entrepreneurialism”.
“There’s no better schooling for doing your own thing and trying to monetise it than being in a band,” he tells me. “This whole thing of learning your instrument, making up your own tunes, printing your flyers, maybe designing your own sleeve for your record – and then trying to sell the damn thing – it’s a small business.
“You learn the power of an idea and a point of view, and how you attract people to it. That’s what I transferred into design. I can have an idea, I can make it, and then I can sell it. There’s an autonomy of idea making and trying to make a living out of it that you learn in the music business.”
The freedom of being self-taught is an ethos he adapted from the Sex Pistols, he adds. “They really couldn’t play bass or guitar or sing – or write tunes for that matter – but they were still number one right? I guess that left an impression on a whole generation.”
The desire to disrupt the status quo that was so essential to punk resonated particularly at a time when “the culture was overwhelmingly nostalgic”, he tells me. “When I was at school we used to look to Paris and think, wouldn’t it be amazing to have a culture minister? Look at the architecture that’s going up; look at what their art exhibitions are like. I think we’re considerably more future looking than we ever were, and open to many more influences through the power of the internet.”
Technology is something he has embraced throughout his career, he adds, and was a key motivation for re-locating to King’s Cross. “It’s a proper overlap of historic London and future London; you’ve got the Google offices, the fresh energy of the students at [Central] Saint Martins, with some of the proper industrial fabric of London – which I think is the character of the city.”
The area around Kings Cross has certainly undergone a rapid transformation in the last two decades, and remains in a state of flux, with an imposing new shopping centre now under construction on the opposite side of the canal. This restlessness is an even match for Dixon’s creative temperament. As well as continuing to produce striking minimalist furniture and bold lighting, he is constantly in search of new “obsessions”.
“What interests me now is having manufacturers in different categories, so we’re delving a lot into textiles. I just got dragged out of a perfume meeting – that’s interesting to me because it’s something I’m inexpert in.
“Then, through the fact that we’ve got this relationship with Saint Martins, I’ll be back into pottery, which is the only design qualification I’ve got – a pottery A-Level. So going back to that after so many years is great; it’s going back into the mud, literally.”
He is enthusiastic, too, about the prospect of digital technologies continuing to open up new opportunities. “I think the power of digital to allow the public and designers to be closer to the manufacturing process is inevitable, and it’s happening now,” he explains. “It’s an exciting time to be involved in design, because the means of production are changing.”
The Coal Yard, 4-10 Bagley Walk Arches, Coal Drops Yard, Kings Cross, London, N1C 4DH; tomdixon.net