Architecture: Habitat man is not quite what you might expect
Thursday 18 December 1997
The maverick young British designer Tom Dixon is about to become, if not a household name, a sort of household god. As the man who heads the design team at Habitat, he, along with their head of design in France, will choose the look that you see in the high-street stores and catalogues on both sides of the Channel. Between them they are responsible for choosing over 4000 products. It is a smart move from a company reinventing itself for a middle market in the next millennium - and a challenge for the 38- year-old furniture and light designer who has never held a company job.
Flick through any fashionable house and garden magazine and you will spot a Tom Dixon design. The slinky "S" chair with cane wrapped around a cobra-strike of metal that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has put in its permanent collection. His spiky light which looks like a Skylon. The soft-glowing lamp that doubles as a stool (he calls it a Jack because it is six pronged, as in children's throwing jacks). "The reasons the Jack appeals so universally is because it's mathematically correct. The stellation of a cube - Islamic, Celtic, the proportions are the same." It's typical of this designer to make something so carefully worked out be so playful in its appearance.
Though you may not guess it at first glance, there are, in Dixon's story so far, echoes of William Morris at the turn of this century: a designer with a mission to offer affordable good design for all, and failing. Morris failed because his Utopian ideals were far too elitist. Tom Dixon failed through successive attempts to kick-start a British manufacturing industry.
Dixon has a lot of talent - and a lot of passion - for making good design available to all. The zeal he has for affordable, well designed, everyday things is quaintly old fashioned. He shares a West London house with his partner Claudia and his two daughters (it was Tom who pioneered the designer baby as the ubiquitous accessory at parties six years ago). Bare boards, white walls, good fireplaces and a dozen lime green Eames chairs that the children and everyone else uses as props for climbing, pushing, shoving and larking about furnish the house - plus a perspex table or two.
It's far removed from Habitat's world, but his choice will be popular because he's so good at tapping into mass market needs. Early Tom Dixon pieces sometimes turn up at auctions, sometimes made from coal-hole covers and industrial offcuts he found in skips. "I earned pounds 15 for a kitchen chair on which you sat on a frying pan."
His first big breakthrough was when the Italian manufacturers Cappellini put into production the "S" chair for which he is now famous. He made the original with rubber tube cut into strips and run around the steel frame - a commercial disaster. Cappellini pioneered the rush version and it is one of Tom's regrets to this day that it is an elitist chair costing nearly a thousand pounds. "I'd have found a source in the Philippines by now to make it less expensively," he says.
In truth he had difficulty mainstreaming his brilliant designs throughout the Eighties. He founded Space, which was a design company and shop which he sold eighteen months ago to form Eurolounge, a studio with a shop front in All Saints Road in Notting Hill.
He was going to launch the first product that he made for his new company at a design fair in Chelsea, in exchange for designing their bar, but he was late and they chucked Eurolounge off the stand. So he took the collection to the Cologne furniture fair in January 1997, where his Jack designs sold like hot cakes. "Everyone else was playing safe," says Dixon, "that replay of the Fifties and Sixties that they call the `Wallpaper' look." By the end of 1997 he had sold over 3,000 Jack lights and rented an aircraft hangar in Norfolk to stock the design. No more bubble wrap and hand-to-mouth existence. Then Habitat came along with the offer he couldn't refuse - to be responsible for their look.
From the early Seventies, when Terence Conran founded Habitat with an easy going lifestyle of chicken bricks and pine flatpack furniture and modern Italian lights, Habitat has been the comfortable middle income market. In the Eighties, storehouse board wrangles saw Conran leaving to begin empire building in London with restaurants and the Conran shops. A young Milanese, Vittorio Radice, turned around the Habitat fortunes in the late Eighties and was then taken on to do the same thing at Selfridges. The group had an uncomfortable time in the late Eighties as style overcame content. You bought a lifestyle along with a fully stretched power-dressed look.
As Habitat dressed down, it began to clone itself in characterless little ways. My house was the source of a Habitat shoot with photographer James Merrell. When I looked in the catalogue, I couldn't find it - every house looked the same: white walls, beech floored and oh-so-anonymously furnished by the Habitat style team with the ubiquitous dhurrie, blue-and- white check throw, pail full of white flowers, and blinds. So Tom Dixon's arrival will be a good thing.
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