A Brit Above

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 25 June 2010
British designer Tom Dixon brings his glam rock style to Hong Kong

It isn’t often a designer has to rein in his vision for Hong Kong’s high-end club scene. Yet as Tom Dixon surveys his latest landscape, he has a few lingering regrets. Tazmania Ballroom in SoHo, the latest nightclub from the creators of Dragon-i, already boasts geometric wall buttresses, clustered globular chandeliers and brass pool tables, with imitation book shelves in white plaster that give it an ironic scholarly tone. Yet, “I was thinking water dripping down granite, and moss on the walls”, Dixon laments. “And there was going to be a small fish and chip shop. But there wasn’t enough room.” It’s a unique notion of high style – and one that may well have had Hong Kong hipsters faltering a little in their skinny jeans.

But that’s kind of the idea. Dixon has been cheerfully pushing the boundaries of British style since he was first discovered in the 1980s, as legend has it, as an untrained art-school dropout in London, welding bits of scrap metal into furniture. Despite a string of commercial successes, he has managed to keep his work fresh, blending a feel for solid craft with a curiosity about technology and the unexpected ways it can be used.

His knack for showmanship hasn’t hurt either, and whether giving away chairs for free in Trafalgar Square, or custom making them from molten plastic on stage, Dixon has always been able to command a good headline, at home and abroad. His aesthetic services to the empire haven’t gone unrecognised: along with various product design awards, Dixon received an OBE in 2000.

Yet Dixon has found it hard to relax completely into his successes. While most top names in product design hold contracts with a handful of different firms and collect the royalties, he has found the model uncomfortably limiting. Since leaving the helm of British homeware store Habitat, the designer has been striving to build a platform for his work on his terms. Now, under the umbrella of his Design Research Group, Dixon has his main furniture and lighting label, Tom Dixon, and part owns small interiors arm, the Design Research Studio and modernist Finnish furniture manufacturer Artek.

Although he lists about 400 regular clients in 52 countries, none has a direct say in what he designs or how his work is produced or distributed. “It’s more like a fashion brand in that way – and a unique model in the design industry,” he says. “Very few people are doing what I’m doing, weirdly.”

But the creative responsibility weighs heavier this way. The pace of change is faster and the competition is growing rapidly. Thanks to digital technology, products can be made more cheaply, in smaller quantities, and closer to home. So just as aspiring writers can self-publish their books online, young designers can now make a sketch on their computer, convert it into a digital file and find a local factory to send it for production. It’s a concept that Dixon explored in his latest furniture and lighting line, Industry.

“This is from a factory that makes filters and the mesh on speakers in cars,” the designer says, gesturing to a suspended geometric lampshade in sheet metal, punctured with delicate patterns; it can be flat packed to the size of a paperback book. “It’s from a digitally controlled printing process, so if I wanted to make a hundred of them in a floral pattern, or with a different geometry I could do it easily; you just send off the file and you know what you’re going to get back. Product design now is about finding places that do techniques that haven’t been used before in domestic goods. Made-to-measure products are becoming a lot more possible and it’s fascinating in terms of industry.”

This has led him to wonder why design innovation hasn’t yet exploded on the mainland, where turning a blueprint into product is cheap and relatively easy. Dixon travels often to the mainland to have things made and to visit vendors such as Design Republic in Shanghai, and he still marvels at the speed and ease of production.

Tazmania Ballroom, for instance, features fittings that he could never have had affordably made in Britain, he says, like the heavy brass pool tables that can be winched into the ceiling to create dance space. “You’d imagine that Chinese designers would have developed a clear aesthetic and their own consumer brands by now that are recognised over the world, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet. But I’m sure it will. All of the tools are at their disposal right here.”

As his own boss Dixon has allowed himself to take on a range of low-yield passion projects. He works with artisans in developing countries, helping find ways for them to preserve their skills and compete with cheap industry. One project with the British Council in Jaipur, India, inspired Beat, his popular series of hand-beaten brass lamp shades.

His Finnish connection has prompted a different kind of deliberation. Artek is apparently considered a national treasure by the Finns, who are protective of its reputation and its designs. Some of its furniture mainstays haven’t changed since the company was founded by architect Alvar Aalto in the 1930s and it has had Dixon thinking hard about notions of legacy and longevity. His latest preoccupation is creating items he can sell with a 1,000-year guarantee.

In the meantime his interior projects are allowing him a little more room to play, while pushing his British design agenda even further. The Design Research Studio fashionably reworked the language of stuffy members’ clubs for London’s Shoreditch House a few years ago, sending design ripples globally, and the Tazmania Ballroom is likely to inspire tributes to its mischievous mix of study, pool hall and James Bond-style bling. Trendy young Hongkongers may not find moss on their walls this summer, but they may still be served chips on the side of their whiskey sodas. It seems Dixon’s services to Britain’s global street cred remain secure.

Young at art

For a man who assembled “the Kitchen Chair” in his early years from random, welded metal objects, Tom Dixon’s body of work has grown in sophistication, although it can’t perhaps be called completely grown-up. Below are some of his landmark designs, most of which put a hefty dose of fun back into function.

1988: Dixon’s slender, avant-garde S-chair is put into production by Cappellini, bringing good posture to the masses.
1989: With its iron wire frame, in orange or white, the Pylon chair takes an architectural approach to sitting.
1991: The Bird chair presents an unusual combination of rocking chair and chaise longue.
1994: The multifunctional light/seat Jack Light proves that British manufacturing is still affordable.
1997: Jack comes stacked under Dixon ‘s former company, Eurolounge, before making a comeback, solo once more, earlier this year under the Tom Dixon label.
2001: First produced on demand and on stage at furniture shows, the Fresh Fat chair (below) brings a new glamour to extruded plastic.
2004: Launched during an “anti-design kick”, the best-selling Mirror Ball is a failed attempt to create something that has no identity of its own.
2007: Beat vessels become Dixon’s tribute to tradition, with each hand made by craftsmen in northern India.
2010: Easily flat-packed and made from discarded wood, Offcut is an exercise in eco-consciousness.
2010: Void lamp is designed in patriotic reference to Olympic medals.