The British creative mind whose work is featured in the MoMA and V&A talks about how his multifaceted life influenced his new book, Dixionary.
Tom Dixon OBE is an award-winning, self-taught designer. After school in London, he played bass guitar for the band Funkapolitan, and appeared on Top of the Pops. He then ran several nightclubs. Having learned to weld, his first furniture designs were made from found objects like bits of scaffolding and old grates. In 1992, the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased his S-Chair for its permanent collection; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, followed suit. He is the former creative director of Habitat and a partner in the Dock Kitchen restaurant in Ladbroke Grove, west London. His new book is Dixonary, a collection of “illuminations, revelations and post-rationalisations from a chaotic mind”.
How did your book start its life?
I wasn’t sure there needed to be a book until I was dead. It started off as a book-end. First, I thought I’d do a metal cover with some content inside it. But then I thought: well, if it’s half a book, it might as well be a book.
You went to Holland Park school, the huge, famous comprehensive. What impact did it have on your creative career?
I’ve got an ambivalent relationship with it. It was a poor experiment in education in the 70s, and it feels like I was slightly robbed. I never learned any grammar or anything. On the plus side, it was a proper comprehensive, with properly rich people and properly poor people. There was huge diversity. No other school would have had a big enough art department to have proper pottery classes, and life drawing, and I gained from that. I’ve got pottery A-level at grade A– that’s my only qualification. [Laughs] You’re the first person ever to be impressed by that. [Laughs again] Actually, I’m thinking of going back to it. I bought some clay from a potter who was doing a demonstration.
Your band Funkapolitan toured with Rita and Ziggy Marley, the Clash and Simple Minds. It’s an extraordinary jump from bass player to designer.
I don’t think it is. Everybody was in a band then, just like everybody is a DJ now. I did more than dabble, though, because I spent two years as a professional musician. It was OK until we signed up to a record label and then it went rapidly downhill. I haven’t moved very far: one of our first gigs was in a Wimpy bar at Notting Hill Gate. [Dixon is now based just up the road in Ladbroke Grove.] The music business taught us how to be self-propelled. You made up your own tunes, and generated your own places to play, and I used to make the posters. It was all self-production. When I started making things and selling things, it was a direct extension of that experience.
When you started welding did you think: ah, so this is how I will make my living?
Not at all. I was in clubs by then. We had a club in Meard Street – Monday nights at a strip club called the Nell Gwynne. The club had a stage, and we had to fill it with stuff, and I learned welding really because I thought it might be good to do some live welding on stage. Then I started making things as ideas suggested themselves. There were people in the club like [the photographer] Mario Testino who wanted to buy things, and a hairdresser let me do a mirror for him. The furniture-making took off quite quickly.
The mid-80s and early-90s were quite a naff time for British design. Didn’t you feel isolated starting out?
In retrospect, that was a good thing. I had something to rebel against. I’ve got a theory that it’s almost impossible now to be countercultural because everything is endorsed. Look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show on punk. There’s nothing that isn’t authorised. Everything in fashion and in furniture has become super-legitimised. By the time it’s out there and blogged, it’s over.
Was the onus on you to design only things that have the potential to be considered classics?
Classic might be the wrong word. I want longevity, and I want something to be anti-fashion.
How did you feel when the V&A bought your S-Chair?
I’ve always been a bit dozy about these things. The Museum of Modern Art was the big tick, but even then, when I got the letter from the curator, I just thought they bought lots of chairs. It was only four years ago – when I was working with Audi [on the launch of the A8], and they said that what they aspired to was to get something in MoMA – that I realised how important it was. I thought: oh, I’ve got one of those.
Is it frustrating to work with big corporations? Do you feel like you’re selling out?
You only sell out if you sell out. You can work with big corporations and stay relatively pure. If it was BAE Systems and I was doing a tank then it might be difficult, but usually it’s mutually beneficial. The advantage of big corporations is that they have specialists; you can piggyback on their infrastructure. I see it as catalytical.
Do you ever go into Habitat now?
No. Habitat has been in the wrong ownership for many years – it needed to be nurtured by design entrepreneurs (like Terence Conran) rather than bean counters. I’m hoping it can come back. Polly Dickens [the creative director, formerly of the Conran Shop] is doing a good job. She might be able to resurrect it.
Is it a cliche that the British are uninterested in good design?
Yes. There was a generation that went through tough times: the miserable experiences of the postwar years. But the change has been phenomenal to watch. There is a new British sensibility. These things are cyclical. I’m sure the Victorians were the epitome of taste at the time. America is a good example. In the 60s and 70s, everything was colourful, new and fresh, and where is that now? It’s Martha Stewart. It’s nostalgic, in the way we used to be with Laura Ashley.
What’s your home like? Do you practise what you preach?
I’ve got an old water tower, but I’m not allowed to live there; I have to rent it out. The women in my life want to keep me in a Georgian house. [He and his wife have two daughters.] They see that tower as a male fantasy, which it kind of is.
What about your furniture?
Well, the cobbler is always the least well shod. I’m a lighting manufacturer, but there are naked light bulbs. There are quite a lot of family heirlooms. My grandmother’s 18th-century black lacquer French furniture, and the Moroccan wardrobe she had carved. A jumble sale of memories. It’s nice to leave this part of life and recharge with things that aren’t my design. I don’t “do” my house. Other people live there. Things have a resonance, or a reason for being there, but none of it is matched. And I like things to change rather than to be static.
Is there a particular design you envy, or covet?
Now I’ve got this water here [he is based by the Grand Union Canal] I wouldn’t mind a boat. But I’d want to build it myself. I’m not a covetous person. I never intended to do this, I’ve done better than I ever thought I would, and it’s still getting better. This feels like the beginning. My book is only volume one. So I’m full of the joys of spring, really.
• Dixonary is published by Violette Editions on 24 June for £35. You can buy it at the Guardian bookshop for £25 here