by Luis Valdizon | Tom Dixon inconspicuously entered the design world as an art school drop-out in the 1980’s while trying to repair his post-accident motorcycle with no technical training. His works have since been collected by some of the world’s most top museums, including the London’s V&A, New York’s MoMa and Paris’ Pompidou. Just two months ago he was the recipient of the prestigious Maison et Objet Designer of the Year award. I was fortunate enough to chat with Mr. Dixon on the last stop of his North American lecture tour. The evening, hosted by Gastown’s Inform Interiors on March 3rd, was lively and tightly packed by a handsome crowd of design enthusiasts. What follows is the transcript of my conversation with Dixon and a gallery of photos from the evening.
Can you share some details surrounding the night in Milan when you slept on a public park bench, which resulted in the inspiration for your first season with Adidas?
It was my first visit to the furniture fair. I thought that I would be able to find cheap accommodation quickly and that just wasn’t the case. I had no idea of the scale of the fair. Sleeping on the park bench is not something that I can recommend. It’s never comfortable and the temperatures drop substantially in Milan. It wasn’t a great experience. I’m just hoping not to do it again without my own sleeping bag.
I think it’s funny that these sort of things still happen in Milan. Only two years ago there was the Icelandic volcano eruption and everything stopped. There were about a couple hundred-thousand people stuck in Milan and very quickly they didn’t have hotel rooms or residences. For the benefit of my own interests, it could easily happen again, so it’s better to be prepared.
Your release with Adidas has an unmistakable editorial presence in its packaging and presentation. What inspired this?
There’s no point in me trying to be a fashion designer. It’s not what these collaborations are about. What it is for me is sort of entering a new universe without any preconception. There’s a lot of fashion that’s very poorly explained compared to product design. It’s not very normal to give a lot of information on the packaging. I wanted to bring my experience in other trades to the fashion business rather than become a fashion designer. The graphic sensibility and the information on the pack is really about trying to communicate a bit more in a way that they don’t in the fashion business. I get very frustrated, for instance, when I go to a museum or an art gallery and I see this amazing stuff and I want to know more and they don’t tell you. I try my best to reinvent those trades in a way that best suits me. The collection addresses my inability to pack efficiently; so, it’s a personal problem. I think I design with myself as the customer in mind rather than try to be like a proper designer that should be solving problems for other people. I’m a-typical like that.
You shared an idea of being “a proper modernist” for the first time through your collaboration with Adidas. What did you mean by that?
Modernist? Did I say that? I think the advantage with massive companies that are experts in what they do is that they have access to many more resources, and everybody wants to work with them. It’s an opportunity to work with futuristic textiles and new manufacturing techniques. They are cutting edges in their respective trades in ways you’d never get the chance to if you were doing it in a conventional manner.
Can you speak on the role of mathematics in your design?
I went to a very bad school in the 70s where there was a lot of experiments in education going on. There wasn’t a great deal of discipline. There was very bad teaching, and I found the whole thing very frustrating. However, there was one short-lived period that I had a really great math teacher and it opened up this tiny little window in this other magical world which I’ve never been able to access since. There’s something about the beauty in everything matching up and everything being logical that I’m still inclined to seek. There’s something quite nice about geometry because it is perfect. It appeals to everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Muslim and like Islamic art, or whether you’re a scientist interested in DNA, or if you’re a child building Lego; geometry is always there. It’s underpins everything that’s constantly around us. There’s something rather fascinating to a designer about that, and if you do use geometry in your work it you often find that it appeals to other people as well.
You blur the line between the artist and the entrepreneur with little very backlash in comparison to, say, Damien Hirst. Why do you think that is?
Because he’s much richer than I am (laughs). I’m sure the backlash will come when I get really, really rich. For me, what was kind of nice about commerce – and I think that too few designers are interested in the kind of trading aspect of it – is that it’s what has allowed me to become a designer. The fact that I could think of an idea and the people would spend their hard earned cash on buying it off me seems like such a perfect way to make a living, right? It’s like alchemy, where you can turn something into gold. It’s not like I’m a super successful business man. I really like the idea that I’ve created a platform to have an idea and if that idea is good enough people will just buy it. It’s a great way to live.
What is your first memory of an encounter with an object that influenced your design aesthetic today?
I went to an exhibition at the V&A museum in London and I saw a video of an Alvar Aalto stool being made. It was plywood…pressed plywood with the glue oozing out. And it was that that sort of sparked something. I’ve always been more interested in the manufacturing rather than the actual objects. I don’t think it was the design objects that appealed to me. What appealed to me was the manufacturing process, so when I found welding and I learned how to weld then suddenly this whole world where one could create structures very quickly and very easily became apparent to me.
Did you grow up in a design-minded home?
My parents were design aware but they weren’t designers. One was a teacher and one was a BBC newscaster so they weren’t really involved with anything to do with design. Now that I think about it – and even your last question – it was a pottery teacher at my old school. The school was not exactly academic. It was a big school, but it had the luck of having a proper ceramics department and also life drawing class, which is quite rare in secondary schools. The combination of enjoying drawing and actually getting my hands stuck into the wet clay and turning pots and such was really the moment the form-giving and the practical element of design really got me interested.
You’ve talked about having a “child-like enthusiasm” in your design philosophy. How has your relationship with your children or experience as a parent influenced you?
Funny enough, my kids are even more conservative than me. I spend a lot of time trying to get them to try to be more child-like and they constantly try to get me to be more conventional. They’d really like to have a trad Dad. That’s what they want they want, a trad Dad, not a crazy Dad. I guess it’s kind of role reversal in a way.
Despite two accidents, one of which ended your music career, I hear that you still ride bikes?
Yes, it’s pretty much a daily occupation. We’ve had a rough winter so I put them away. I’m a bit more fair-weathered now. By the time I get back, the spring will have started and I’ll get moving again. Fact is that in London traffic is so bad and the city is so big that honestly it’s the only way of getting on in your day.
With your latest venture into scents and now again with music, your design seems to want to cover all the human senses…
The beauty of music is that it allows you to communicate with people without using language. Previously when I was doing it in the beginning; that was my job. You had to go around with eight sweaty boys in a transit band and tour the country, but now I can do it for fun. Music really is superior fun.