Tom Dixon has the career that every designer, whether a starry-eyed d-school grad or a mid-level creative director with Clients From Hell on the bookmarks bar, would kill for. He has his own shop in London. He runs his own product- and interior design firm. His tentacles reach into everything from slick restaurants and bars in London to hotels and boutiques in mainland Europe, Russia, and Asia. If design is an industry built on bootblacks — and surely it is as any of the aforementioned creative directors will tell you — Dixon is the rare guy who doesn't shine anybody's shoes but his own.
Now, he's looking into designing the interior for a large ad agency in the U.S. (yet unnamed), which could go a long way toward boosting his brand from major European player to transatlantic superpower. We caught up with Dixon at the International Furniture Fair on Saturday to talk about expanding his business in the United States; how his latest work represents a campaign against all things bland; and how designers can make it on their own as he did — and why they'd better bring a gym towel.
Designers must be envious of your career. You're pretty much at a place where you can do whatever you want, right?
I know it's very frustrating to be a position where you can't really control when your things come out and what things are showing where — you don't really control your destiny at all. It's fine if you're really successful and more powerful than the manufacturing companies. But it's rare. There are maybe five who can work wherever they like. Their brand is bigger than the manufacturer. And even they struggle to put together a complete package of their work and show it in a way they intend. Inevitably, you get mixed up with the assets and the story of the company and all the designers working for the company. I?m in the fortunate position where I don't really have to design for clients. I've made my own structure so I can avoid having to design to a brief.
How did you get to that point?
Designers have little control over their own destiny. So I set out quite consciously to regain it.
I've tried lots and lots of models, from making things with my bare hands to the very filthy work of managing a factory of my own. I've worked for very big companies, like Ikea — pretty much the biggest furniture company in the world. So I've tried being tiny and being huge. I've tried also working for the Italian luxury brands. Ultimately, product designers have very little control over their own destiny. So I set out quite consciously to regain some degree of control. Ultimately, I?m lucky to have had all these disparate careers and influences which have allowed me to elaborate my own model. Which is more like the fashion industry, where a designer will retain his own communication, marketing, and means of production and distribution as much as he can.
Is there a rough model for how to make it on your own?
It's 95% perspiration. You've also got to be interested in how you make things. I always was. In some ways, I was more interested in that than in the design world. You've also got to know how to look like yourself rather than like someone else's company. That's the hardest battle because you're always being pulled into many directions. You've got to stand out. Then again, it's easier than ever to reach the world. It's not difficult to publish you work.
Do you have a larger business plan for...
Global domination? Yeah. Sure [laughs].
Well, let's start with the United States. You're relatively young here. Do you have a plan for expanding into this market?
Ultimately, in Europe, the thinking goes that you can just show up and sell things. When, in reality, you get out of it what you put in. Just like any rock "n" roll band: You've got to tour, right? Us being here is part of that. We have an office here. It's very small. We're now looking into an interior design project for a big ad agency. Us having a presence here and a warehouse here and building up distribution block by block and coming to the Javits center [for the International Furniture Fair] even though it's not the most inspirational place in the United States — we're doing the hard work you need to put in to succeed. Then, of course, as you see, there's very little competition. The Italians have dominated for so many years. American big players are only interested in big contracts. From a timing point of view, we feel that it's right.
Is there a theme to what you're showing at ICFF this year?
I?m working on something I?m going to be running with for the next year or so called extremism (which is just an anti-blandness campaign, not a terrorist cell). It's about making sure that what we do isn't middle of the road. Some things are extremely cheap and some things are extremely expensive. Some things are large and some things are very practical. So it's about that.
Tell us about some of the pieces in the collection.
The furniture industry shows prototypes that aren't available. But we're interested in speed to market.
There's the Bulb Chandelier. Everybody is being pushed to use energy-efficient bulbs, and it's a good thing. But obviously from a decorator-designer point of view, they're pretty miserable. Not only their light quality but also that they're trying to mimic an incandescent bulb. So it's really just a personal problem, and I figured other people would have the same problem. It's just one of those things I notice. Also, the Etch lamp is something we designed six weeks ago, then brought to market very quickly, because we've got to be fast. Because we get copied fast and people's attention spans are short. The furniture industry does this thing of showing a prototype, then it isn't available for a year. It's not good business. We're interested in speed to market.
How were you able to push it to market in six weeks!?
It uses traditional manufacturing. It's a universal technique, a digital process. You can make them in the 10s or the 100s. We can make them in London or in Italy. And rather than using a furniture fair as a place to sell wholesale, we use it to sell directly to the public. We make it compact, so that you can transport it easily in your bag and assemble it easily.
You mentioned that your business model is similar to that of a fashion company. Fashion works fast. Is that a strain: Producing as much as a fashion house, but making stuff that's semi-permanent — that should last?
I don't see it as a strain. It's a pleasure to be able to produce new ideas. It wouldn't be interesting otherwise, would it? So from a creative perspective, it's good that [furniture design] is approaching fashion cycles. From a reality perspective, people just can't buy this stuff like they do clothing, because they just don't have enough space. You can't hide it in your closet. And people are quite conscious of how long they're going to keep a sofa or chandelier or side table or whatever. They know they'll have it for 10 or 15 years. So from a sustainability point of view, we have to be very careful about sticking things into the world. In that sense, we're deliberately anti-fashion. If things age too quickly now, you'll fail.