Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


The long and winding path into design’s hall of fame has never been conventional for Tom Dixon. He is a self-trained designer and a self-made man, who emerged from the Eighties disco and nightclub scene with a welding torch and a bright spark of creativity. His early work spliced a DIY, hobby craft quality with artistic energy, imagination and a raw, anti-establishment aesthetic. And yet later on there was also a long period as the creative director of Habitat, a much-loved high street institution at the time. Now, as the head of his own design studio, Dixon is firmly established as one of the most original, innovative and distinctive voices in his field.

‘I am atypical as a designer in as much as it’s not the only thing that I’m interested in,’ says Dixon. ‘Design was never a thing on its own for me – it exists as a catalyst that affects other worlds. Really design is my hobby and I’m very fortunate to have my hobby as my profession. And it’s fantastic to have a hobby that you can “monetize”. It’s always astounded me that I have the ability to make something I fancied and then somebody else might want to buy it.’

Dixon’s considerable but thoughtful ambition has certainly led him down many different avenues. His work combines a passion for design and invention with a strong entrepreneurial streak. As well as exporting his furniture, lighting and home products to 60 different countries around the world, he has also established a mini-empire called The Dock, just off Portobello Road, that not only contains his studio and a Tom Dixon store, but also a successful restaurant – The Dock Kitchen – where he occasionally does a shift himself, whenever he can find the time.

His understanding of running such a complex business and operating his own restaurant has given him a particular insight, which has helped Dixon win a series of recent interior design commissions for eateries and private members’ clubs both in the UK and Paris. It has also served as useful experience for Dixon’s most high profile project to date and certainly his largest in scale: London’s new Mondrian hotel at Sea Containers House on the South Bank.

‘With an 80 cover restaurant at The Dock I do know what it’s like to be an operator and can speak that language if I need to,’ Dixon says. ‘It was never my intention to use the restaurant as an advertisement for our understanding of how to be a restaurateur or a hotelier, but it does mean that we can speak the same language and really understand what the brief is. Also, it stops me being arrogant. All too often designers will say it has to be like this or that but the reality is that there is a business to be run. It’s more than tough – it requires things to really work and I have learnt a huge amount through chopping vegetables in the kitchen.’

The new Mondrian marks the first foray into London for the Morgans Hotel Group since they commissioned Philippe Starck to design the Sanderson and St Martins Lane nearly fifteen years ago. Looking out over the Thames, with open views of London’s rapidly changing skyline, the Sea Containers building was originally designed as a hotel by the celebrated American designer Warren Platner back in the 1970s. The building, next to the Oxo Tower, always had a maritime influence with echoes of a great cruise liner berthed on the river’s edge. Yet the oil crisis and rampant world recession of the early Seventies stalled the idea of a hotel and it became an office block. Until now.

‘I didn’t know that much about Platner before we started this project, apart from his famous wire chair, which we have used in many projects,’ says Dixon. ‘It’s a chair universally loved by designers but almost impossible to make, with this very complicated shape. But then through working on the building I started to discover all these other bits and pieces about Platner that make him interesting in a London context. He designed a couple of the Stena Sealink cross channel ferries, which were these mad boats with clashing patterns that I used to go on as a kid, with an inbuilt disco and crazy geometric carpets.’

It’s not hard to draw a few parallels between Dixon and Platner that make their ‘collaboration’ on Sea Containers so fitting. They share a love of geometrical pattern, statement lighting, exposed concrete, brass and metallic finishes and something of a glamorous, Seventies disco-infused aesthetic, applied with a sophisticated touch. One of Platner’s most famous creations – beyond his wire furniture produced by Knoll – was the Windows on the World restaurant at the Twin Towers in New York, which fused so many of these elements.

Dixon’s design for the Mondrian takes inspiration from the period, the brutalist architecture, Platner himself, the riverside setting and the idea of a Trans-Atlantic hotel that combines the best of Britain and America. Dixon’s work here encompasses a restaurant, bar and lounge overlooking the river, a basement spa, a crafted midnight blue screening room with brass detailing and 360 bedrooms with a calm, crafted, cabin-like quality. Stand out spaces are the rooftop bar and the dramatic reception hall, featuring a sweeping copper-clad hull that holds the reception desk. Nautical influences pervade the hotel – including a collection of model ships in the lounge, salvaged from the building before work began - but are never too overt or overpowering.

‘Our proposal was really about trying to find the best of America and the best of Britain and applying them in one space,’ says Dixon. ‘The more we developed that story, that narrative, the more fun we had and it really justified the idea of an American hotel in London.

‘ Our challenge was to find a way of giving it a broad appeal while also creating a boutique hotel. In American hotels you don’t spend so much time in your room – the important thing is the lobby, the restaurant, the lounge and rooftop bar. It’s about having informal meetings and then living it up until late at night, which is what this hotel will be like. British hotels traditionally have had a very calm existence in the lobby, with afternoon tea and butler service. But American hotels are more about the party so here huge amounts of effort are going into getting those communal spaces right.’

There’s no doubt that for Dixon and Design Research Studio – the division of his company devoted to interior architecture and design projects – the Mondrian represents a big shift in scale. Other projects have included Shoreditch House private members’ club and the Paramount restaurant and bar at the summit of Centre Point, as well as a new brasserie called Eclectic, which sits within the freshly reinvented Beaugrenelle shopping centre. Yet the sheer scale of Mondrian takes Dixon into a very different league.

‘It’s monumental,’ says Dixon. ‘We are designing so many different kinds of spaces in the hotel at the same time – some that are supposed to be hard wearing and functional, others that are supposed to be more sexy and alluring. It’s been a university of professional interior design and every day we learn a new skill. And we were told in now uncertain terms that it wasn’t to be a Tom Dixon showroom full of my existing pieces, which is fair enough. So everything has been designed from scratch and at the same time it should be a mix of old and new, the borrowed and the blue to make it exciting and give it a patina and history from the beginning.’

The hotel represents a transitional moment for Morgans, who are breathing new energy into the Mondrian hotel brand and expanding rapidly. Sea Containers is bound to become a key destination within a revitalized South Bank and Southwark ‘village’ that is fast becoming one of the most vibrant parts of London. But it is also a landmark moment for Dixon himself, pushing him onto a fresh and bigger stage. His Design Research Studio began, in 2007, almost as a sideline to furniture and product design but has more than fulfilled the goal of pushing Dixon and his work into new arenas and has now become central to his international visibility as a multi-facetted designer and to ‘Tom Dixon’ as a global brand.

It is, in a way, the culmination of an extraordinary trajectory.  Dixon was born in Tunisia to an English father, a teacher, and a half French and half Latvian mother. The family moved from Suez to Huddersfield and to Blackheath and then to South Kensington, where he went to Holland Park Comprehensive. The arts courses at the school were good and Dixon walked away with an ‘A’ grade in pottery – ‘my only design qualification and it has served me well’ – but felt cheated by the lack of academic learning on offer. Dixon started a foundation course at the Chelsea School of Art but dropped out after just six months after breaking his leg in a motorbike accident.

‘It was actually an advantage for me not to have gone through the academic route,’ Dixon says. ‘I was a shy and retiring boy and my subsequent impression of art schools was that too often all those tutors and all those crits would knock any creativity out of people. For some it might be the best years of their life, but I found it restrictive.’

He found a job as a technician, also at Chelsea Art School, and developed both an affection for the machinery he found himself surrounded with and a distrust of the students. He played bass in a band called Funkapolitan for two years in the early Eighties, achieving some success and recording an album before the band imploded. There was a spell working in the nightclub business and gradually Dixon started making rough and ready pieces in his studio, mostly through welding.

‘I learnt to weld in a friend’s garage under the pretext that I was going to repair my fleet of vintage motorbikes. But I ended up discovering this passion for building and making things and people started buying it relatively quickly. I knew people who had needs – photographers who needed sets or fashion designers that might need a window display. Those kinds of people were also buying my early designs. I learnt on the job and I’m still doing that.’

Dixon was spotted – along with Marc Newson and Jasper Morrison – by Italian producer and manufacturer Giulio Cappellini in the mid 1980s and he put a number of Dixon’s most marketable designs into production. They included the curvaceous S-Chair, which also found its way to the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York. Cappellini helped bring Dixon’s work to a larger audience. The ensuing work spliced a sculptural quality with a love of engineering, making and industrial manufacturing processes, sparking occasional comparisons with another original British design voice, Thomas Heatherwick.

Yet there was also a fascination with retail, with selling and marketing the work, lifted by an entrepreneurial energy, suggesting other comparisons with Sir Terence Conran. ‘I was selling stick insects to my co-pupils at junior school,’ says Dixon. ‘I have always had a trading mentality. And there weren’t really many avenues for people like me who were self-tutored. There were jobs for proper industrial designers but that wasn’t me. I was just somebody who made things and sold them, mainly on the international market and to my own network of clients.’

In 1998, Dixon surprised everyone by accepting the post of head of design at Habitat, becoming creative director three years later. He stayed with the company – founded by Sir Terence Conran but then sold into a series of more corporate hands – until 2008. The company was already in decline and despite Dixon’s best efforts he was not able to throw the business into reverse.

‘Ultimately I didn’t have as much power as people thought I did,’ says Dixon. ‘The power really rested with the people who controlled the money. Jumping into a high street chain was super radical for me and going from managing 15 people to having a big team of professionals was an amazing new platform. But I needed to put myself in a more dangerous position so jumping off a quite comfortable job was dangerous but felt right, just like joining in the first place had felt right. There was a point at which I thought if I ever need to do something interesting in design then I need to own the joint again.’

Dixon had already been multi-tasking, as he generally seems to do, and had already established his own design house in 2002. Like a fashion label, Dixon has a backer in the form of the Swedish investment house Proventus. It is a relationship that seems to work well for him, allowing for the steady growth and expansion of the brand and Design Research Studio.

He shares a period house with his partner Claudia, an osteopath, and also has a converted water tower across the road from The Dock that is used by visiting friends. His daughter Florence runs Tart – a café and bakery at The Dock – and his other daughter is studying at university. Dixon has a self-deprecating charm, a sense of modesty and humour – he is engaging as well as mutli-talented. But there is also the feeling that his attention span has its limits, that he is always eager to move onto the next thing, and one can’t imagine that he suffers fools gladly. For many years he was often to be seen in the company of Molly, a toy poodle. After her recent passing at a grand age, a poodle puppy called Elsie has now arrived at The Dock.

For the future, there are new projects in France and London, including a park in Greenwich, a fishmongers plus a greengrocers in Paris and ambitions for a stronger retail and studio presence in New York. There’s an ongoing tie up with Adidas, producing a capsule clothing range. The multi-tasking seems to be more accomplished and wide ranging than ever. And after the opening of Mondrian in July, new offers are bound to come Tom Dixon’s way.

‘’Even people like Philippe Starck, who have an amazing international visibility, have done a lot through hotels,’ Dixon says. ‘It is like a cruise liner and that analogy works really well for me in terms of the scale of all the different things that go on in that building and so people will be able to consume a bit of what we do just by going there and having a coffee or going to the restaurant. And I don’t think Morgans would have come to me in the first place for something that doesn’t have a real signature.’

Tom Dixon –
Mondrian London –