Tom Dixon is one of the most prolific and exciting designers working today. Consider some of his recent work: The self-taught British designer has created scent diffusers that distill the aromas of London and Paris (so covetable that design fair goers were happy to lug weighty bricks around with them all day when they debuted at Maison & Objet); gorgeous Steampunk-like accessories; massive, monolithic furniture; an elegant coffee service; and a swanky joint in Atlanta billed as the world's most exclusive speakeasy. What unites his work is an obsession with manufacturing and how an item is produced.
Dixon was in New York last week for a preview of his latest collection called Iridescence, which was inspired by motor oil on puddles. Achieving a consistent finish was a challenge—he attempted it before on clay using paints and with color-changing materials—but the results were difficult to replicate consistently. He has since found a way to glass coating that produces the effect.
We spoke with Dixon about how he keeps his work fresh, what's bugging him about the design world, and how new modes of retail and production are impacting his industry.
Co.Design: You opened your first store in the United States this past November. Who's your target audience? Is it more for professional designers or regular consumers?
Tom Dixon: In general, we're moving in globally to half and half—half professional and half consumer retail. We do hardly any of our own retail, we're a wholesale company. My background is partially as a retailer. I've had small shops, I worked for Habitat—a big British retailer—for 10 years, and I'm fascinated by that direct contact [with customers].
I don't really make a distinction between design professionals and consumers in that way. I always think that they look very similar to me actually, even physically. They might get different discounts, but they're all consumers. It might just be students coming in who could be future consumers. The whole professional versus domestic categorization is slightly breaking down with new ways of buying things, like through the Internet.
What are your thoughts on the blurring of design for work, living, commercial, and hospitality?
Things have to perform to a higher specification if they're in a hotel or a restaurant. We have to produce to a slightly higher standard if the things are going to survive in hospitality or in food and beverage environments. But that's good for normal consumers—it's sort of a "Swiss Army knife" kind of argument. I'm happy that we have a professional market because that means we have to conform to a lot more regulations—electrical testing and what have you. But is it blurring? Yes, it is.
Where do you see your company moving? Are you more of a lifestyle company at this point—for example the bar that opened in Atlanta—or are you still primarily about product?
If you can find another word for lifestyle! Our main business is product and mainly wholesale, but we're doing more direct sales and more interior design as well. That's become a really important part of the business as well because it allows us to test ideas but also to showcase things in a much more pristine way that you could never do in a retail store.
A "stylish life" company, yes; industrial design, yes. We design for industry because we're very close to industry—we travel to all the factories to get things made. We do the engineering as well and the commerce. I think most product designers are divorced from all of that.
Fashion designers are familiar with the means of production, they're sewing stuff so they know how it's made. They stitch themselves, they cut the patterns, they'll know weaving and printing. They're also familiar with the other part, which is communication and commerce—the retail part of it. Most fashion designers have a much closer relationship with all of those parts of the chain than product designers.
All I'm doing is being a more complete designer who's taking on some of the more challenging parts of the job. Design is challenging enough, but add warehousing and marketing as well...
The entrepreneurial parts of the business.
You trade in freedom for a degree of control over your own destiny, really—that's the tradeoff. I've tried lots of different ways of being a designer, none of which are particularly satisfactory. There's always a downside. With this one, the downside is as you get bigger you have to express more about stock and make things in larger quantities. But compared to other designers who have more ability to decide how it all hangs together—I'm still jealous of them because they can just go work for any company (electronics or textiles for example), and they don't have to do the rest of it.
You're never really happy as a designer. You're always in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. That's my view and that's what makes a good designer: you want to improve things.
Aside from the phrase lifestyle, what are some of the things aggravating you in the design industry at the moment, and what's exciting you?
I think a big challenge for all of us is asking, is it legitimate to put more stuff into the world? It seems like there's too much stuff and that's something that frustrates me. What excites me is that we're in a revolution in manufacturing and distribution.
For a long time I was looking back, saying if only I could work in the 1960s or the 1920s it would be fantastic because there were new materials and new ways of living. But I think we're living in an incredibly challenging but exciting time from the perspective of industrial manufacturing and design. I think it obviously empowers people to do what I do. The cost of communicating or sending things or accepting money from all over the world has gotten to the point where anyone from the world can effectively set up their own label and get involved [in the design industry].
There are many ways in which designers are financing their work—like crowdfunding—and selling it—like Fab, Bezar, and One Kings Lane. Where do you think the future of design commerce lies?
Particularly for our business—which is an interiors business—the old model of a SoHo professional showroom is dead. Increasingly, it's harder and harder to justify retail stores as well. You have to find hybrid models.
I think collaborative models are very important, but it's also where Fab and these huge infrastructures are kind of fascinating. I'm more interested in the ability of a designer to get their goods to market without having to engage with the old model that used to involve huge batches of things made in low-cost economies. I think the Etsy and eBay shops offer the ability to instantly tell the whole world about what you're doing. It's is an extraordinary tool, but too few designers at the moment are using in an effective way.
There's a convergence of more digitized manufacturing techniques and proximity to new customers. The disadvantage for designers is anyone can do it so it becomes more competitive as a result. If someone's got an original idea, the ability to disseminate it for themselves has never been greater. The problem is knowing how to monetize it and how to position it.
What did you want the new collection to embody?
We don't have the full collection on view here, but the exciting stuff is the preview of the new finishes. New York is first and that's kind of nice because previously for us New York was always last because by the time ICFF [the International Contemporary Furniture Fair] came, it was so close to [the] Milan [design show] that we couldn't physically ship the goods.
We kind of changed completely the way that we do stuff in that we're trying to launch stuff in a less Europe-centric way. It's because America has been really good for us in the last couple of years and my observation has been you only get out of America what you put in. So what I'm excited about is that we're showing these new finishes in a place where normally you wouldn't see them for a year [after they debuted].
We're taking a better stab at not being just European. America is becoming more and more interested in contemporary design. It's been through a phase that was nostalgic, very shabby chic, very midcentury modern. I think it's keen to be modern again which is great.