He’s cool. He’s British. He’s Mr. Tom Dixon! And I got to interview him when he was in the Netherlands recently – how do you like them apples? Tom talks about what it’s like to run a big company as a designer and the biggest temptations young designers face at the moment. Let’s find out what he has to say, okay?
Oh, it’s just me and Tom Dixon hanging out (photo by Elisah Jacobs of Interiorjunkie.com)
I understood that you have almost one hundred people working for you at the moment. That must be pretty stressful.
Yes, and they’re all pregnant at the moment! We’re different from most design companies, we do both product design and interior design. What makes our company unique in its constitution is that we do everything ourselves. We’re designers, manufacturers and distributors.
Was that your ambition when you started out in the Eighties?
When I started out in the Eighties I had no intention of doing this at all. It’s been an amazing series of extraordinary events. I’ve had no intention to do anything more than enjoy working with my hands, but I’ve learnt many other things along the way. I’ve gone from mainly being a craftsman, artist and metal worker, to working for high street brands as Habitat. I’ve thrown all my learnings into one pot and what I think has happened as as natural result is that I’ve got something that is very different from what all other designers do. It’s madness to manufacture all of your own stuff! I realize now why so few designers do this. It’s intensely complex.
How do you make sure that everyone stays on brand?
Well they don’t always. Sometimes in a meeting people say,’This is not very Tom Dixon!’ And nd then I go, what did I hear? It’s a funny situation.
If you look at other designers, how do you judge their work?
It depends on who it is. I’ve got a lot of respect for people who are my contemporaries. The Bourroulecs, Konstantin Grcic and the rest are doing amazing work. But I’m always a bit skeptical of the design business. I’ve always thought it’s a lot of serious work for something that is very ill-defined. One-hundred years ago my work would have been described as decorative arts on the one hand or engineering on the other. So I find it very hard to pin down what the job is. I make shapes and sculptures and I take it very seriously. But in the end it’s the engineers who do the hard work of getting everything into production. I’m still skeptical that I am even a designer myself.
In Dutch Design there’s a lively discussion about whether design should focus on functionalit or aesthetics – or where the line between art and design should be drawn. What do you think?
I kind of avoid all these questions. I’m involved in commerce and having ideas and seeing if I can realize and sell them. I see my work as an unbroken chain. At Habitat, I learned as much about design as I did from freight rates from China.
It keeps you down to earth as a designer, is that what you’re saying?
I don’t know about down to earth, I just think it’s a more realistic view of all the skills that you need along the way. Designers are being a bit conned by the brands they work for. The reality is they’re used a lot for marketing and communication and very little for industrial production of the goods – particularly in furniture where people are very conservative in what they buy. What they buy really is cupboards and kitchens. The designer is there to get the the front cover of the magazine and telling a story for people to blog. And if we were paid for that rather than being paid for the royalty for the product then it would be a different story. More money is spent on marketing instead of design.
Do you reckon your own designs would look different if you didn’t have to keep all the packaging and marketing and stuff in mind?
What I almost lost in the process of trying to create my own infrastructure is the freedom to just go and explore an expertise like electronics. I try as much as possible to have one ore two projects a year which are completely outside of things, like the collaboration with Adidas I did recently. These project keep me alert to the possibilities. I’ve taken ten years to build my company but now it allows me to play outside a bit more. I’ve a core which is quite recognizable and obviously things would look differently if I wasn’t constrained by the problems of making things at a certain cost in some place and selling them in fifty-five countries in the world. Then again these restrictions are what you work with and define your style and I think as a designer you’re always fighting restrictions anyway.
You’ve never taken any formal design training yourself. Do you think designers need training at all?
Training is good. I know that some kids relish formal tuition and others fight it. We all have different needs. It’s never been a better time to be a designer because you have access to the whole world whether you’re in Peru or Indonesia. At the touch of a button you can create a your own market on eBay or Etsy. You can also manufacture things a lot more flexibly than I ever could. And from a publicity point of view, if you’ve got a good idea it gets blogged about immediately. The most difficult thing for young designers is to retain a uniqueness, to be anonymous for some time and to develop your own aesthetic. The temptation is pretty big to just slam your renders on Dezeen and show them to the whole world before there’s any chance to for them to be commercialized or manufactured – young designers are going to have trouble actually defining their own style. The most important thing is to get to a place where you have your own uniqueness. As soon as something is online it belongs to everybody and not to you anymore. There’s a benefit of being able to publish your stuff before it’s sold – but it’s also the biggest danger.
So, what do you think about Tom Dixon? Let me know in the Facebook comments section below this blogpost!