Design: Ahead of the curve

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He's creative director of 100% Design, but Tom Dixon's own products are as inventive as ever. Susie Rushton meets him

He wants to design toasters, is converting a concrete water tower into a new home for himself and is a leading light of the booming British design industry. When he joined Habitat as its creative director 10 years ago, Tom Dixon became one of the most influential designers in the UK.

In design circles, his Jack light – an angular lantern that could sit on the floor or stack – and his S chair, produced by Cappellini, made his name as a producer of modern classics. And, unlike the overblown objects that count as designer furniture at the fairs in Milan and Cologne, Dixon seems to design with an unusual attention to practicality and broad appeal. Despite his mainstream success – and an OBE for services to the design industry – the former guitarist and keen biker is still routinely described as a maverick.

"I'm anti-Establishment, yeah, when I choose to be," he says, slouching on a sofa in his studio in Clerkenwell, in central London, a pleasantly cluttered double-height former workshop, "But I'm Establishment, too. I try to do things that other people aren't doing, 'cause otherwise it's pointless, right?"

Something that few other industrial designers would countenance is giving away their work for free. Last year, there were Primark-style riot scenes in central London when he gave away 500 polystyrene chairs to the public. They were all gone in seven minutes.

Next week, Dixon will repeat the stunt when he hands out 1,000 low-energy lights – white opaque pendants called Blow, fitted with a low-energy compact fluorescent bulb – to mark the beginning of both the London Design Festival and the 100% Design fair. This apparent act of benevolence was inspired by his attempts to find a new way for the industry to distribute its products beyond the design-converted.

"It could just be seen as a lunatic attempt to become popular," he admits, "but I've always been frustrated by how difficult it is to distribute furniture. The system is complicated and old-fashioned. You make things that are quite big. Chairs sit around in design shops for months while people debate whether or not to invest in them. I was reflecting on how we could be a bit more modern, like other industries. How we could be a bit more modern and give things away for free."

By putting advertising on giveaway design, he ponders, or by periodically offering for sale covers for those free chairs, there might be a way to make such an approach to marketing furniture profitable.

Dixon has always done things his way. Born in Tunisia in 1959, to a French-Latvian mother and an English father, he moved to England at the age of four. He went off to art school but dropped out after a few months, then started playing bass guitar in a band called Funkapolitan (and once appeared on Top of the Pops). After a motorbike accident, he learned to weld while fixing his bike and his first designs used his newfound skills in turning industrial scrap into furniture.

Despite greater demand for designer furniture and the myriad education and training options for nascent designers in the UK, Dixon doesn't believe that it would be easy for somebody to break through in a similar manner.

"In a way, it should be easier now to get started, because there are more people interested in design. London has become an epicentre of design. When I started it was the Eighties – Thatcher years, and culturally bereft, so I could build my own aesthetic. I could rebel against Memphis – that plasticky, pastel-coloured post-modernist stuff. Or chrome-and-black yuppie furniture. There was something to be the opposite of. It's hard to be anti-Establishment now. Everybody's trendy and radical now – even the big brands."

It was as creative director of the biggest of those British brands, Habitat, that Dixon became a household name. He remains a non-executive director at the chain today, consulting on strategy. "It was a big job," he recalls. "Six thousand pieces in a range and we'd change 40 per cent of that per year. That's a lot of design."

His eponymous brand was effectively on hold during that period, and Dixon jokes that its relaunch four years ago now makes him an up-and-coming designer. Alongside his own company, he has a stake in Artek, a modernist Finnish furniture company founded in 1935 by the architect Alvar Aalto, among others. And Dixon is keen to expand into new areas. First, interiors. He has just finished Shoreditch House, the five-storey private members' club that is the latest addition to Nick Jones's Soho House empire.

An interiors project on a rather more macro scale is his re-design of 100% Design, the trade fair at Earl's Court that has showcased British design for the past 13 years. As creative director of the fair, which is open to the public on its final day, he has updated the boring, boxy grid system to allow new and established exhibitors to create their own identities. "When it started, it was very small and nobody in London was really talking about design. Previously, all the fairs here had been about nostalgic 18th- and 19th-century decorating. The Americans used to come over, and still do, to get traditional textiles, Arts and Crafts, Laura Ashley stuff. The focus is on contemporary now and that's been speeded up by 100% Design, because it sets out to affect taste."

Dixon's own stand will present his new collection, called Metallic. Using cast iron and hammered brass, for its materials it recalls his first work with scrap metal. But pieces like his Beat light, a vessel similar in shape to the water containers carried by Indian women, are far from raw in appearance.

How does Dixon predict that British interiors will change in the near future? "I think there's going to be a reaction against the flowery, over-decorated everything that's going on at the moment. And that will be compounded by the fact that people will at some point realise that they have too many consumer goods, whether it's mass-market clothes or iPods and their chargers. I'm hoping that people will have a more selective approach. In terms of style thought, it's hard to tell because since we can access so much now, everything becomes legitimate. It's like music.

"Years ago, you used to be able to say, 'This person's heavy metal, that person's punk.' Now, everybody listens to everything. Interiors are still a mish-mash and I can't see how we get out of that – perhaps to a new type of purity? It's possible that the designers that survive are those who manage to define a specific identity and who have a small cluster of global population that recognises it. So yes, I think people will stop buying into so many different aesthetics and search for something a bit more pure."

What has he not yet designed that captures his imagination? "There are a thousand things I haven't designed yet. I'm doing personal projects that are interesting, too – like my own house, which is a conversion of a concrete water tower. But there's motorbikes and kettles and toasters and aeroplanes and all kinds of domestic artefacts. Toys that haven't been done – where do I start? Almost everything. There's almost a limitless world out there."



100% Design is open to the public on 23 September, at Earls Court Exhibition Centre, London SW5. Tickets cost £15 if you buy online at www.100percentdesign.co.uk (registration closes 14 September) or by phone 01923 690 633 (+£2 booking fee); they cost £20 on the door. Readers of The Independent can take advantage of a two for the price of one ticket offer by entering the code IP01.

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