When neo-baroque and neo-antique were in full flood (April 2005) and his contemporaries (Wanders, Urquiola, Boontje) were into lacework, crochet and marquetry, Tom Dixon was swimming against the stream with his reductionism.
“Am I the only one to have had his fill of flowers and decorations?” asked Tom at the presentation of his new collection in Milan. “I love botany, I don’t disdain fashion and am attracted by virtuality, but I’m becoming a fundamentalist. In this new season my studio proposes laying objects bare, stripping them of artifice and the superfluous to get to their substance, explore their vital sap and identify their souls. So what you see are the nude skeletons of aluminium chairs and bubble shaped copper-plated lamps concealing a normal light bulb… Reductionism does not mean depriving objects of their character and emotional force. It does mean concentrating on the indispensable – in both materials and technology. Reductionism is a far cry from minimalism. Reductionism in fact accentuates the expressive thrust of objects since it approximates their very essence”. You have to be strong to come out so decidedly against the mainstream and dare use such succinct words when everyone else is indulging in rhetoric. But Tom is strong, say his admirers, a “vertebrate”, in contrast to most designers who are “invertebrates”. Convinced his ideas are good, and while waiting for a British firm to call him, he pointedly adds, Dixon decided to go it alone and create his own brand. He found a manager-partner, David Begg, who believed in him, and a visionary investor, the Swedish Proventus. Dixon’s philosophy is clear and ethical: to reconcile technological and material innovation with design simplification. Tom’s design process starts from within his objects, their structure, materials, and manufacturing technology.
The design is nothing more than a result. Nothing need be added, if anything, something has to be taken away. His famous Mirror Ball lamps, for example, in no way strive at classicism. They came about from Tom’s love of “blown” objects, metalised-finish plastics and archetypal forms.
Tom arrived at this concise vision of design after a long – not in the metaphorical sense – road. Born in Tunisia in 1959 of a British father and French-Lithuanian mother, he played bass guitar in a rock band, was no stranger to nightlife and by day did a series of odd jobs that taught him to use his hands and develop a craft. “I made objects from scrap, especially scrap metal just for the pleasure of it”, he says. “When people started buying them, I understood they had a special alchemy”. Success convinced him to explore the possibilities of serial production. And so his reputation grew. Giulio Cappellini contacted him and 1989 saw the birth of the S chair, today part of the permanent collection at the New York Moma. In 1994, he created Eurolounge, design pieces manufactured by rotomoulding, a fascinating innovative technology that produces finished products in just a few minutes from polyethylene granules. The first product was Jack Light, a standard lamp cum stool in coloured polyethylene, that quickly became a designer icon. Fascinated by plastics extrusion processes (“fresh flat plastic”), Dixon produced a whole series of objects made from what appear tangled masses of spaghetti. The magical machine that spits out the multicoloured plastic spaghetti was in a Selfridges window display for two months in 2002, spewing out objects demanded by customers who went home with them, still warm.
This year during the London Design Festival (September 19-30, 2005), Dixon bettered his Oxford Street Selfridges show putting an injection moulding machine developed by Arburg right in the middle of the department store and inviting people to help manufacture Snap, a multi-facetted lamp made up of 60 identical facets fitted together, coming in eight brilliant colours developed by Gabriel-Chemie, a longstanding colleague.
This was not the only performance by Tom who proved the real star of the design festival. From September 19-22 he laid out “The Bombay Sapphire Stretch” right in the middle of Trafalgar Square: seating in metal and light blue elastic trim some 80 metres long from which Londoners could sit and admire the restored frontage of the National Gallery opposite, and contemplate, on its temporary plinth, the controversial white marble statue by bad artist Marc Quinn of Alison Lapper, a pregnant, handicapped friend of the artist. An excellent way of gauging public appreciation! Again in Trafalgar Square, the lounge of the hotel of the same name was fitted out with the new Elastic Band Chair and the Mirror Ball Lamp. At 100% Design at Earls Court, Dixon launched his new products: the Slab Table, the Soft System, the Tall Chair, the Copper Shade... and the Stretch Band Chair, a slender metal frame clad in light blue elastic bands of the kind young people wear as bracelets. “I used rubber bands”, say Tom, “because I am familiar with them. They were part of my childhood. I used them to tie up my books, as a belt to hold up my trousers and on my model airplanes. Girls would tie their hair up with them. Today they come in lots of colours, even as bracelets with messages on them or as a sign you belong to a particular tribe. They’re also ethical products: latex comes from the sap of the rubber tree; it’s a recyclable renewable material”.
The Stretch Band Chair, Tom Dixon’s latest addition to his collection, is also his most complete manifesto of “Reductionism”. Just a piece of tubular steel and elastic bands, it is light, comfortable and great fun. Fascinating yet familiar, it presents the flavour of a well know experience in a wholly new object.