Tom Dixon: Free spirit

Tom Dixon is the great maverick of British design. In a rare interview, he talks to Clare Dwyer Hogg about his life and career, his decade as head of Habitat, and what he's planning next

The driving London rain is no deterrent for Tom Dixon, who isn't one, it seems, to use a taxi, even when running late. He turns up, soaked but unfazed – until The Independent's photographer asks if he came on a scooter. "A scooter?" he replies, incredulous. No, he does not ride a scooter. He has a motorbike. Which makes sense, given that the oft-told story of his unorthodox design training begins with Dixon learning to weld his bike in a friend's garage when he was a student short of cash. That's when he discovered he liked welding just as much as motorbikes. It wasn't a planned career move, but one thing led to another, and soon he was making stage sets.

"I was making things without having to worry about functionality and safety," he says with a grin. An early exhibition in Ron Arad's shop resulted in a purchase by an LA gallery of a "really very rough-thrown, huge chair with bits and pieces of whatever was around" which resulted in a purchase by ... Janet Jackson. "There'll always be people with more money than sense," he says languidly, before pulling himself up. "Oh no, I sound like Gerald Ratner, don't I? I don't mean it like that," he says, laughing.

We're in an imposing but empty house in South Kensington, where he has taken up creative residence from this week – the beginning of the London Design Festival – until October. "We were supposed to do this in an underground car park," he says, "and that fell through, so we're stuck with a ballroom." The ballroom in question is attached to a sweeping staircase, rooms with ceilings higher than an underground car-park could ever dream about, and comes with a very clear social brief. The house belongs to a friend of Dixon's who uses unusual spaces in a creative way; the theory being that if artists bring their talents to abandoned places, then a process of regeneration by stealth can occur. "It's about attracting radicals and designers," Dixon explains as we clatter down the main staircase and into the echoey entrance hall. "It seems to be working."

Dixon is keen to keep experimenting, which is why this idea suits him. "What we're going to do throughout the festival is create an upholstery collection here in front of your eyes," he says, leading the way into a room, empty aside from a sofa, and plonking himself down. He's going to be working with George Smith, the traditional upholstery specialist – which seems a world away from Dixon's industrial finishes in domestic environments, or the ultra-modern silhouette of his celebrated Wingback chair – but that's the point. "We're going to make something modern out of the traditional," Dixon says. "The foam which came in the Seventies meant you could do anything, but it limits longevity. With this upholstery you've got beech frame and webbing and layers of different fibres that could carry on for 700 years." He wants to see if he can re-ignite interest in this dedication to intrinsic quality. Visitors will see the Wingback chair in stages of production, and craftsmen demonstrating upholstery with boar bristle, horse hair, muslin and steel springs. "It's an experiment. It's a collaboration that's already proved fruitful with the Wingback chair, and that's proved very," he pauses, and then decides on the word, "popular."

Often, when designers reach the top of their profession, they're aggrandised as "gurus". Dixon is usually labelled a "maverick". Certainly, his CV begins with him welding motorbikes, but it seems an anomalous description for a man who, up until 2008, spent almost 10 years as the creative director of Habitat. But then Tom Dixon is something of an anomaly – one minute he's giving away his products for free (in 2006 he gave away 500 EPS chairs and last year 1,000 Blow Lights, both in Trafalgar Square), the next he's designing the interiors of exclusive members' clubs. Shoreditch House was Dixon's brainchild, as is the club in London's Centre Point, opening soon. Perhaps "maverick" means defying expectation. Multiple pursuits are his stock-in-trade. "I find it too restrictive when people want to know what's your inspiration," he says. "I like to be able to change my mind. If you're a fashion designer you can change your mind every season."

Saying that, he is just about to publish a book about his inspirations, entitled The Interior World of Tom Dixon, but the selection of images (shown left) he has chosen range from a sketch of a rhinoceros to a photograph of unemployed teens building a boat in the Netherlands, and everything in between. "It's about trying to avoid preconceptions about what design is and what good taste is," he says. And there are other, more personal reasons, for this. His family, for a start. "I have socialist parents so at one point I was feeling quite uncomfortable about making very expensive things for rich people," he explains, about his attempts to democratise his designs in big giveaways. "But I can do both. I think it's difficult to maintain that, because people want you to be either a radical anti-consumer person, or an eco-person or a luxury business, with a certain way of acting. I've kind of resisted that." At the same time, he's fascinated about process. "I've certainly learnt a lot through Habitat; it's a huge empire. And I'm interested in how you make things more affordable as well as phenomenally expensive. Sometimes I can combine the two."

This approach makes sense of his involvement with Artek, the cult Finnish company, and brainchild of the legendary architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). Artek's furniture has been made with the same design since 1935 – Dixon, who says he was always too impatient to work with wood himself, is now learning a lot of patience, and not just in terms of production techniques. Artek is the equivalent of Finland's crown jewels, and – he says – everyone including the taxi driver who meets him at Helsinki airport has an opinion on how he should steer the company. Artek, originally conceived as affordable design, has furnished the interiors of public institutions and homes for years now, so innovation is tricksy. But Dixon has started a fascinating process of buying back original Artek pieces from schools and hospitals and replacing them with new versions; the institutions want the update and collectors are delighted to buy the originals, which come complete with their life-story. It has added to Artek's cachet but that was not entirely Dixon's plan – he was also interested in sustainability. He wanted to keep it quiet. "By publicising it, you're reducing your availability of stock, so it's a catch-22 situation," he says, grinning as he realises the paradox of even talking about it.

But then, paradox is what Tom Dixon seems to revel in, so there's nothing odd about that.

'The Interior World of Tom Dixon' (Conran Octopus), £60. To order a copy at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897; Tom Dixon is at 5 Cromwell Place, London SW7 this month

Bright young things: Tom Dixon picks five designers to watch
Words by Charlotte Philby

Oliver Bishop-Young, 22

Who are you? I'm a design graduate from Goldsmiths. My design won't change the world but it tries to inform those who can.

What are you making now? Skip conversions. Skips provide a scene, in which something can happen. I collect material from skips and let that inspire a situation or a public event. I might take an old bench from a skip, repair it, and put it back in the skip, in a public space where people can engage with it. In an urban environment, a skip can occupy a space in whatever way I see fit. It is a way-finder or a beacon for a bigger idea.

Where do you come from? Newport, a small town in Pembrokeshire. The transition of moving to the city made me appreciate things one takes for granted in the countryside. In London you don't have space and time. And materials differ too. Here, there's waste. "Rubbish" has a lot of potential.

What is your design mission? To create sustainable outcomes, and alternative ways of living within a public environment. My ideas are audience-based, which is itself a way of testing ideas. Feedback helps me progress, while raising awareness for important issues.

Who are your design heroes? Jurgen Bey. His work poses questions about – and finds simple solutions to – sustainable issues, through well-integrated, and very beautiful, contemporary design.

The future of design? It's about meeting the challenges we face, such as climate change and the limit on resources. Design is a language and these days it's very expressive. It has become more than just about functional processes.

www.oliverbishopyoung.co.uk

****

Ben Wilson, 32

Who are you? I am an industrial designer, and studied wood, metals, ceramics and glass at Manchester Metropolitan before doing an MA in design at Royal College. My first degree gave me a fantastic grounding in making objects and understanding materials. I felt I wanted to focus on design rather than the final product. Good design is about understanding industrial processes, thus making objects more affordable. Now I run a design company in east London, where I have a small studio. We do everything, from very industrial product design to one-off objects for installation pieces or exhibitions.

What are you making now? We just finished a project for VW, moving modular furniture in 3D pieces. Also, we're doing three bicycle projects; the manufacturing, engineering, ergonomics, and the styling. It's quite an ambitious project. I'm working as a consultant as well, on a furniture project for collaboration with Eley Kishimoto.

Where do you come from? I'm from Barnet in north London. A lot of my brand-based work fits in with where I was brought up and the things I did growing up: skate-boarding, BMX-riding and listening to hip hop. Understanding those cultures has helped me hugely.

What is your design mission? To create objects that work really well and excite; to make things that people would like to use and to cherish for years to come, and will even pass down to future generations. I don't want to produce something that will then become obsolete. Fundamentally, everything I make has to be fit for purpose, and to do the job it's supposed to do.

Who are your design heroes? The French designer Jean Prouvé, for his amazing will to go out and manufacture his own projects, and for his understanding of materials and processes. The Italian designer Bertone is also incredible. Some of his styling for jobs with cars are among my all-time favourites.

The future of design? As a collective, we need to reprise the old mantra: less is more.

www.benwilsondesign.co.uk

****

Gernot And Jan, 32

Who are you? Two industrial designers from Germany. We studied at Stuttgart University and became friends. We ended up working in the same studio in London for designer Ross Lovegrove. Last year we started working together. Now we only work as a team.

What is your design mission? We are influenced by the Bauhaus, and the idea that form follows function: the right material for the right product and right usage.

Who are your design heroes? The German designer Konstantin Grcic; and people like Naoto Fukasawa, whose work is minimalist and functional, but in a poetic way.

The future of design? The way we live and work will change completely. By using computers, design becomes more visual. The image of the product is elevated to a greater importance than the product itself. Take a chair: millions of people may have seen an image of the chair, online, or in a magazine, but they have never sat on it. While you are designing now, you start to think about the image as an end result, not necessarily how the object will be used.

www.platform-net.com

****

Paul Cocksedge, 30

Who are you? I'm a Hackney-based product designer, but I also delve into other projects. I studied at the Royal College, under Ron Arad, where I met my business partner, Joana Pinho, and started a company called Paul Cocksedge Studio.

What are you making now? We just showed at the design show in Milan. Swarovski commissioned people to find new ways of experiencing their crystals. The piece I did was called Veil. It was a curtain of 1,500 identical crystals, four metres high by three, suspended in the air. The effect was transparent, elegant and simple. About 2 metres away from the veil was a mirror. A pool of light on the floor drew people into the room to see what was going on, and inevitably, they'd then look in the mirror. You would see yourself in the reflection and behind you, an image would appear on the curtain, only visible in the mirror. When you looked directly at the veil, the image was gone. The idea was to make a strange and magical experience, like a fairytale.

Where do you come from? I'm from north London. London creates restrictions and blocks, but I like that. It's nice to have a small amount of tension in the design process, it pushes me to find new ways to do things. Life here is unsettling and uncomfortable, and I try to use that.

Who are your design heroes? I'm really into the process behind particular products and pieces, rather than specific designers. The fibre-optic cable is an amazing invention. It has a magic to it, because glass shouldn't bend and twist.

The future of design? There is more pressure on designers now than ever. There are huge factors to consider. If I'm planning a piece that would use a whole tree, I have to think about the implications of that. I'm also aware of the power the internet has. People know more and see more images, so tend to compare work more. Lots of designers have to work a lot harder to stand out. The pressure is on.

www.paulcocksedge.co.uk

****

Ceciliemanz, 36

Who are you? A Danish designer, now based in Helsinki. I am quite old-fashioned in some ways, and still believe in minimalism, even though it's not so trendy any more.

What are you making now? I'm working a lot with textiles, porcelain and glass. My work tends to be quite classic. I enjoy colours, but often things have to be white or grey. Every piece needs character, be it a shape, texture or colour. These details make things interesting. I pay a lot of attention to detail, even when the end result looks simple.

What is your design mission? I want to make improvements to existing items, even on a small scale. There needs to be reason for designing something. People don't need more objects, so the things I produce have to be extremely beautiful, or very functional, or to make daily life easier.

The future of design? Designers are beginning to see that we have a responsibility. We still need new objects and nice stuff, but we need to think twice instead of just thinking once.

www.ceciliemanz.com

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