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Q&A: Tom Dixon on the constant struggle of staying original and the power of Instagram

Self-taught British designer Tom Dixon barely needs any introduction, especially for those who know and love beautiful interiors. We caught up with the man during the Hong Kong leg of his worldwide tour following this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan — where he was conspicuously absent as an exhibitor after a 27-year streak of bringing stellar installations and events to the fair.

Soft-spoken but quietly whimsical, Tunisia-born Dixon speaks and regards things carefully with a glint in his eye, as if he’s always harbouring an amusing secret. With his unassuming demeanour, it’s hard to place him as the British design hero with the stacked CV: From working for a decade as head of design and then creative director at UK’s furniture retailing behemoth Habitat, to the global expansion of Dixon’s eponymous brand; and all along collaborating with the world’s most eminent brands from Hennessy to Ikea, not to mention having his pieces collected by the MoMA New York, the V&A and the Centre Pompidou.

During an intimate lunch and subsequent sit-down chat, we spoke with Dixon about his latest work, his constant concern with maintaining originality, and the changing tides of the Instagram-fueled industry today.

Tom Dixon

A lot has been happening recently for the brand: you didn’t present in Milan this year, was this because you’ve also just moved premises in London?

It’s very hard for any brand to go at the speed at which journalists and consumers want you to go. It’s not a fashion business, it’s a business where you buy things that are more permanent. So this year was really about looking after our network. We decided to skip it and invest a bit more in the places we call home: Here in Hong Kong; in London, where we’ve just moved to a new studio in King’s Cross; and in New York, where we moved to a new premises in SoHo. It’s been a huge amount of work and investment, so I’m very glad we didn’t do Milan. I got the opportunity to go to Milan as a tourist. Normally you spend a lot of money only for five days maximum, where you’re competing with everyone else, and it gets harder and harder every year to make an impact. We manage it, but it almost feels like you’re doing it more for entertainment purposes than proper business.

We sell in 65 countries now. Some of our best accounts are in really odd places like Casablanca or in Turón, or in Reykjavik or in Lima. The idea of doing a world trip was partly for my own pleasure (although that’s getting a bit painful now, because of the amount of flights and the carbon footprint) but also because these people have supported us for so long. Those are the people that count, not the 450,000 people who come to Milan just for entertainment purposes.

Can you share a little bit about what’s new?

A lot of thinking has come from our interior design section, which is atypical of product brands. It’s a really valuable feedback loop for us to have an interior design arm as well as product design. For instance, you see these surface lamps — lamps that can either be put on the ceiling or on the wall — have really come from our experiences with new condos and apartment blocks where the ceilings are very low. We’ve made a lot of our reputation on pendant lamps that hang from high ceilings, but most people just don’t have that.

Tom Dixon - Spot Lights

The new colours are to do with the fact that even in our own shop it becomes very much an Aladdin’s cave of copper and gold; so we chose crisper, fresher colours such as glossy, pearlescent black. This also came from an experiment we’ve been doing for a long time on luminosity and what lights look like during the day and at night.

Tom Dixon - Hong Kong flagship

This Top Pendant is an interesting lamp, because it’s based from a coffee filter factory: you can see the heritage of the coffee filter there with the very small holes. They appear like solid bits of metal during the day, and transparent at night. It’s the same as the new Melt lights, they appear like a black pearl when they’re off, with an internal luminosity when they’re on.

You’ve worked in and travelled to so many cities across the globe, what do you find attractive and interesting about Hong Kong compared with the rest of the globe?

It’s the way it nestles in the landscape. It’s a kind of high-rise capital; its denseness but being within the contours and the waters make it a really exciting landscape. It’s quite rare. It’s a shame that the airport’s left the middle of town — which was one of the most exciting things, flying in. That was thrilling.

Are you ever inspired by your travels?

Yes, but more by the people or the factories that I see. More recently, we did go around South America and it was very inspirational to see the museums and the artefacts and the culture, you don’t really learn much about the Spanish or Native American experience in English schools.

I don’t think the influence of travel is literal. I mean, people ask me whether I’m inspired by where I’m born, saying “Ooh, I can see the North African over here, the geometric lines is definitely North African” but honestly, I remember camels, and I’m not sure how much camel-related stuff I’ve got in my work; it’s not like I’ll take something from my travel and put it in a collection like a fashion designer wanting to do a “Marrakech feeling” this season. It’s not like that, but travel broadens the mind for sure, and ultimately gives you a sense of context and how people use things in different ways, how they react to different colours and smells.

How do you typically organise your thoughts for a new design? Do you focus on the room? Function?

Oh no, I’m more chaos theory. I tend to find a pattern emerging out of a few things which I think are interesting, but I don’t think I draw from a specific theme or from my travels, unless that’s from a factory visit, which is still a very influential way of moving to the next step, where I learn what’s possible to make. It could be a new technology, or a misuse of existing technology, it doesn’t need to be new, but you need to think of new technique or fresher ways of doing something people have been doing for many years.

Tom Dixon - Top Pendant Lamp

Do you use a lot of digital work in your day-to-day?

We already do use digital technologies. Take these pendant lamps: the patterns are created digitally, the process is then digitally etched, and the models where we draw up these lamps are parametric as well. We’ll make 300 of that lamp, but we can just distort the lamp and make a new version of it, because of the models that generated that lamp — each panel, each corner is tweakable. That overlap between digital and craft is what’s going on now. And it gives many more designers access to quite high industry, high technology tools, which previously was impossible to manipulate as a young fresh designer like me.

Having begun very hands-on in furniture design with welding and ceramics, do digital methods frustrate you?

No not necessarily, when I talk about digital being a tool to help design, it doesn’t even necessarily need to be in manufacturing or drawing. It can be a method of communication or accessing customers, right?

You just have this much bigger toolkit to take matters into your own hands. Even if you’re weaving by hand, you can set up a PayPal and a WeChat account and access people all over China and get paid for it, which was not possible even 10 years ago. The proximity between creators and consumers is much closer, which is a great thing, but also a confusing thing, because everything’s possible, and there are more and more people trying to inhabit that space. But if you’re talking about Snapchat, yes, it’s really annoying and I can’t be bothered.

The fact that I’m running five Instagram accounts is embarrassing, but I don’t spend a lot of time on them. There’s too many platforms, for sure, you’ve got to decide what you’re interested in.

Tom Dixon

You now have a very versatile collection of homeware that includes home fragrances and textiles. Do you still have the same enthusiasm and attachment to metalwork and the objects you first started out with?

Lighting is still the space that is the easiest to innovate, because it’s being constantly updated with the new bulbs, new engineering and new possibilities inherent in technology; but also because customers seem to be more able to digest newness in lighting for some reason compared to a table or a chair. So it remains at a very satisfying place.

What materials, shapes, rooms, forms or functions are you most interested to explore next?

I’ve not gone out to the garden. I’ve not really done the bedroom.

Which room in the house do you spend the most time in?

I don’t like to get stuck anywhere; I’m not good at favourites. I like misusing rooms: the kitchen’s quite good for doing sculpture; the bedroom for reading or doing work; the living room for eating…

Speaking of misuse, how do you feel about the recent controversy where a chef used your cast aluminium shoe door stop to serve chocolates in a diplomatic dinner between Japan and Israel?

I was really elated. I thought it was genius. It shows up in media for being really crass, because ultimately there are much more important things to discuss in the Middle East right now than who was served what in a shoe; but it was kind of interesting to see how a silly story becomes viral. It was astonishing how quickly it spread.

Tom Dixon - Cast Shoe

And on that note of food, can you tell me a little bit about your new space at Coal Drops Yard, at King’s Cross? I hear you have a new restaurant opening in July.

Weirdly, it’s a chef from Jerusalem, but he won’t be using any shoes. It’s now Middle Eastern, with a new chef, new idea. It’s in a much better location to have a restaurant. The space is surprisingly similar in terms of the constitution of elements. It’s still a Victorian brick building, it’s on three or four floors; it’s got a terrace and it’s sitting on the canals, but it’s much bigger and more luminous, so we’re allowing people much more into some of the more officey sales areas. There’s less separation between the design and the customers.

Tom Dixon - The Factory

The Factory is around 900 sq. ft. of production space, where in principle, we’re testing out small batches of production and we’re prototyping in front of the public, so we’re getting a reaction back a lot faster. Our product development cycle now is two years, which is slow and gets me very bored. Ever since we’ve got our own shop, we don’t need to do that anymore. It allows you to be more proactive and to be more in charge of the outcome rather than sitting around being processed. I want to get back a bit to the enthusiasm for ideas.

Tom Dixon - The Factory

What is your number one priority when you first set out to design your pieces?

Each object has its own story or evolution, even in different stages of the business, I still tackle things in different ways. I essentially still do things almost for pleasure of it rather than to crack a fundamental problem, but maybe that will come soon anyway: because as you get bigger, the structures that you inhabit and the business model you’ve created suddenly becomes a machine you have to feed. It gets harder and harder to do something truly outside of that box, because you’ve set up a whole load of people to develop products; with certain factories that make things for you, with a certain expectation from people who sell the stuff.

My daily battle is how to remain fresh when thinking of new ideas in that self-imposed framework. The hardest is to do something that hasn’t done before, trying to be authentically original, authentically innovative. Maintaining individuality and originality. It’s increasingly difficult even to tell what is your idea and what’s come from other people, because you’re just assaulted by imagery and inspiration every day.

You used to play bass in a band -- do you still play? And how important or influential has music been to your career?

Not seriously enough to have a permanent band, but sometimes I put together bands for events. In my day, everybody played in a band, it’s not that surprising or uncommon in London. These days, they’re all DJs aren’t they? Or maybe everybody’s a digital influencer. It definitely had a liberating effect on a lot of people that worked in that world.

Would you ever be keen to do some kind of collaboration in that field?

Something sonic? Yeah, definitely. I’ve been thinking more about speakers, and sound quality in spaces; sometimes with interior design, sound tends to be the last thing people think about. People are more interested in the colour than the sonic qualities.

Can you name one thing you can’t live without (not counting phone, wallet, keys)?

I’d be perfectly happy to live without most things that I have. I guess I’d like a toolkit, because then I could make things.

Can you tell us something about your past that people might find unexpected?

My first job was actually colouring in cartoons, when cartoons were coloured in by hand. I did that for a year. I appreciate the animators’ art, and of course, now there’s a completely different way of doing things. The amount of creativity that goes into those films is extraordinary. They’re seen as films for children, but they’re quite inspirational.

Tom Dixon - The Factory Pop-up

You started out with not really knowing what you were going to do, you’ve mentioned before that you sort of became a designer ‘by accident.’ Is the industry still as open and easily accessible for young talent?

I think it’s a lot easier, when you can learn the basic tools of the trade yourself: you can download things from the internet, you can research manufacturing techniques, you can set up your own business so much more easily. Even having a party to launch a product, back then you still had to write envelopes and put stamps on them, that used to cost money. All of those barriers to setting up a business or creating stuff have vanished.

The only problem now is that it’s a much more crowded market, with many more options. As soon as people have an idea they publish it, and it goes around the world, and suddenly they’ve got to think of their next one really quick. It wasn’t like that for me, I was completely unknown for a really long time, and even then, I was only known to a very tiny group of people. It gave me time to find my own aesthetic and do my own thing, and it’s harder and harder for talented kids to do that, because there’s immediate public ownership. But I don’t think by increasing the pool of talent you get lower quality, you get more possibility. The biggest challenge as a designer is how you get a recognisable identity, to have a really original voice.

Q&A: Tom Dixon on the constant struggle of staying original and the power of Instagram

Evelyn Lok

Managing Editor

When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.

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