Out of Africa
I was born in Sfax, the second city of Tunisia. My father was a teacher: he’d just graduated and went to teach English in a university. That’s where he met my mum, who was half French.
I spent my first four years in North Africa – Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Suez – and then we moved to Huddersfield (in northern England), which was a bit of a culture shock. I went to what was at the time a fairly rough comprehensive school, Holland Park. It was famous as an experiment in education. Kids were going wild and there wasn’t a great deal of teaching, but there was a great art department. That’s where I took refuge.
Ceramics provided my first encounter with the transformational nature of design, without my even realising it. Somewhere in that couple of years of mucking around with clay, I got the idea that you can transform materials into something more precious. That’s still what I do.
School of Funk
I left school not knowing what to do. I spent six months at Chelsea School of Art, which didn’t agree with me at all. I had a motorbike crash and broke my leg. I was in a band (funk-disco group Funkapolitan) – at a time when everybody was in a band, like everybody’s a DJ now – and we became local celebrities in London. We signed a record deal and went on tour as a supporting act for Simple Minds, The Clash, Ziggy Marley …
We’d been to New York and we’d seen the beginnings of hip hop. We bought a load of records and started playing them in a club. It was a great way of making a living just by doing Friday and Saturday nights, and it left the days free for other things. One of those things was welding. From that grew a whole business.
I didn’t even realise I was a designer at the beginning. But being in nightclubs is a superficial way of knowing a lot of people, and those people are hairdressers, fashion designers, photographers, theatre designers who all want or need stuff. It started from there.
I’d learned that you could create your own business from doing music – you picked up an instrument, you learned to play it, you made your own sound and then suddenly you had a recording contract. I transferred some of that do-it-yourself mentality to what we were doing. It was never a plan, it was just an evolution. But it’s always turned out slightly better than I expected, so that’s possibly better than having a plan.
From the beginning I was making things and selling things. So the commercial aspect was never separate from the design aspect. If I couldn’t get rid of something, it was sitting in my studio, I couldn’t make anything else: I had no money or space for materials. The transactional aspect of it gave me the confidence that it was worthy, and then allowed me to make the next thing. I’ve never separated out the business and the work, unlike a lot of proper designers.
PROCESSING THE PROCESS
I still struggle to think of myself seriously as a proper designer. I have ideas and I like to see if I can bring them to fruition, and then if people buy them. Those ideas might be banal or exciting, but a lot of the process is to do with the hard slog of getting something at the right price, or finishing off the invisible details, or getting the finish right, or making it fit into the right box and then transporting it around the world.
I defined my own style, which is harder and harder for other people to do. Everything’s so public right now. It’s much easier to get out there internationally, but to actually develop a body of work that is significantly different is difficult. You just publish it on your Instagram before it’s even ready. If you do something interesting people pounce on it: extended visibility means things become stale very quickly.
"The furnishings industry isn’t like having a hit record. There’s no moment when you know you’re number one" – Tom Dixon
MORE INSTINCTIVE THAN CEREBRAL
The furnishings industry isn’t like having a hit record. There’s no moment when you know you’re number one. People buy furniture very slowly, so you never see that flipping point where everything’s different. When something’s a success, it can often be read in different ways. There are lots of objects that I’ve made that are called either feminine or masculine, even though they’re the same object. I see that as a success, somehow.
I like a narrative, just like everybody else, but often they are post-rationalisations. I guess I’m slightly more instinctive than cerebral in that way. Doing design – instead of art or sculpture – gives you a formal framework. It’s expected to have a degree of function, and I feel more comfortable with a certain restriction. It’s got to hold you up, it’s got to pour, it’s got to illuminate.
EXOTIC JIMI HENDRIX
Even in the beginning, the people interested in my stuff were Japanese or German, they were hardly ever English. So it was always going to be slightly international when I started my own label. Often you’re more exotic abroad than you are in your own country. Like Jimi Hendrix, you have to go somewhere else to become popular at home. The inspiration I get from Asia is the manufacturing. Korea’s amazing – it’s a country that is big now, with a massive shift from copying stuff to creating their own intellectual property.
There’s a whole new industrial revolution happening without anyone really noticing, driven by digitisation. It’s not as instant as other types of revolution but it’s definitely going to make it easier for people to make stuff from their laptops. 3D printing is everybody’s obsession, and it’s OK, but it just produces little bits of plastic. The really creative brains are working on a less tangible or a microscopic scale. I think there’ll be another revolution soon: bioengineering, nanotechnology or synthetic materials that are not petrol-based.
UNDERWATER FURNITURE FARMING
I’ve got a project with Ikea, a David-and-Goliath thing where they’re interested in me for one thing and I’m interested in them for something else. I’ve got a lot of time and respect for them. They’re the only company that’s transformed the furniture business.
I’ve got another project in the Bahamas, where I’m growing underwater furniture. It’s a half-conceptual, half-sustainability project. I discovered a 1970s scientist who tried to grow artificial coral to make cities that floated underwater. It never worked, obviously, but I’ve transferred the idea into an underwater furniture farm. That’s something I’m fiddling around with.
Tom Dixon was interviewed by ADAM WHITE for South China Morning Post in Hong Kong at the ALTO Bar and Grill.