Design Superstar Tom Dixon Talks Travel, Honky Tonks and Danish Mod
Renowned British designer Tom Dixon shares some of his travel dos and don'ts and what design trend he says is "overheated."
A globally acclaimed British designer who has masterminded furniture, hotels, nightclubs, even perfume, Tom Dixon, 59, recently took his show, literally, on the road. Premised on a multi-city band tour, Dixon’s recent Fat America Tour hit cities from Austin to Atlanta (where Travel Channel caught up with him at modern design shop Switch Modern) and introduced American audiences to his new 2019 line of FAT furniture and OPAL lighting prior to its official debut at Milan’s Salone del Mobile. Each tour stop featured a lecture and then Dixon jamming (he used to play bass in Funkapolitan, a band that once opened for the Clash).
Dixon’s S-Chair (in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art) and Void pendant light are high-end design icons but Dixon has also gone mass market, designing a line of furniture for Ikea and even $20 "washing up" soap. A self-taught college drop out, Dixon has risen to the ranks of one of the design world’s brightest stars with a creatively omnivorous bent, creating supremely elegant objects that seem to distill his cosmopolitan sensibility with an irreverent, maverick snubbed nose to the ordinary way of doing things. Up next: a show garden “Gardening Will Save the World,” for London’s floral Olympics, the Chelsea Flower show featuring features of a wild garden and a city farm.
Your Fat America Tour is modeled on a band tour. What’s your favorite aspect of the band tour you wanted to bring to design? Illicit substances? Lack of sleep?
It’s definitely not security checks at the airport, that’s for sure. My observation [with this tour idea] was the further you go, the more welcomed you are, you know what I mean?
If you make the effort, people are happy to cherish you.
Is there anything you look forward to in visiting America? Food or some phenomenon you don’t get in Britain?
I try to pop in and see a little bit of culture wherever I am. I definitely try and get into the nightlife. We’ve just come from Austin and did exactly what you should do in Austin which was go see a country band playing in a disreputable bar. It was amazing. That kind of thing really refreshes you and reminds me of a whole other side of America that I don’t often get a chance to see.
What’s the best trip you’ve ever taken?
We based [Fat America] on a tour of South America we did maybe four years ago, which was a real adrenaline rush; Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile and then Brazil. Suddenly something which from a distance appears homogenous—Latin Amercia—you suddenly start to see the distinctions in personality, character, architecture and food. That was great.
What essentials do you need to feel comfortable when you travel?
A soft pillow. I think for me that’s the only thing that counts; everything else is superfluous.
What do you think too many hotels get wrong when it comes to design?
It’s the switch. Lights and automated systems that people have got now are just beyond ridiculous. In the wrong position, where you really don’t know how to get everything working. I think they’re thinking, ‘oh the customer has to have all of these options.’ But you’re in a position where you arrive and you’re trying to switch off the light that’s under the coffee table and you can’t do it, you don’t know how to. So that’s very frustrating.
Are you going anywhere on this tour where you’ve never been before?
I am, I’ve never been to Austin and I’ve never been to Portland.
Any favorites in either city?
The vibe in Austin is a thing, the kind of kooky nature of it which is not what we expect of Texas. We went to the Museum of the Weird, it was a big contrast to the Ellsworth Kelly [editor's note: the minimalist painter's final work and the only building he created resides in Austin].
What do you think of this whole Marie Kondo trend?
You watch these trends float by and then we move on to something else. We just saw it happening with hygge which is just a means of selling more. I watch them with mild amusement.
Do you have a Tom Dixon design mantra?
For me, it’s when you buy stuff it’s going to be around for a long time. So save up and make sure you love it.
How do you tend to kill time on a long flight?
Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I always think I’m going to spend two hours deleting crap from my inbox…but I end up just watching a couple of movies. I saw Studio 54 which was kind of interesting. And I watched Colette.
Is there something you haven’t had a chance to do in design that you’d love to do?
Oh God yeah; I’ve never done electronics; I’ve never really done vehicles; bridges or tunnels and I’ve only done one house. It’s unlimited. It feels like the beginning.
What was your most formative trip as a child?
We traveled a lot. My mother’s half French, half Latvian, and I was born in Tunisia…so I could see the UK, where I come from, from the outside as well as from the inside.
I guess spending the summers in France would be the thing that influenced me the most in the slightly more sensual aspects – the smells and the tastes. Food in the UK at the time was really disgusting.
What is your most British characteristic?
What is the current design trend you’re sick to death of?
I don’t like disrespecting other people and other things but modern Danish is certainly overcooked at the moment, isn’t it?
Why did you decide to do this tour and show these designs in America first, instead of Europe?
America has become our biggest single market. And you get out of a place what you put in. There’s an element of coming in and learning. You are more welcomed when you make the effort.
Who is the most fascinating person living or dead you wouldn’t mind sitting next to on an international flight?
I do think Buckminster Fuller would have been an interesting person to sit next to.
Do you have a favorite hotel for design besides your own?
I think it’s more about being personal. I like tiny little hotels that have got a person running them with the vision of the one person. Ett Hem Hotel in Stockholm is a cute one done by Ilse Crawford, you’ve got lots of detail in it.
If someone wanted to dip a toe into the Tom Dixon design universe what would you recommend?
Come and visit us in London, and have a coffee in our restaurant. That would be 3 and a half dollars, thank you very much. You can wander around, you might meet me or one of the designers.