Designer Tom Dixon Turns Over A New Leaf

Words by
Emma O'Kelly

5th July 2022

How one of the UK’s most revered designers took advantage of the pandemic pause to explore fresh avenues — and learned to love the countryside.

Tom dixon designer

During lockdown Tom Dixon took refuge in a greenhouse in Lewes. Not gardening or planting, but experimenting with scraps of aluminium, broken glass, bamboo sticks, heating pipes from derelict houses, local flint. 

“There’s a lot of stuff lying around when you look for it,” he says from his headquarters in London’s King’s Cross:

 “I went back to my beginnings, making things with my own hands just for fun. I had no tools or workshop. It was great.” 

He acquired the 1,000-sq-ft greenhouse from a friend who owns an orchid business that supplied Princess Diana’s wedding and stately homes. It was a luminous, spacious playground, he says, one of the many empty Victorian and industrial greenhouses around Lewes that serviced the orchid business:

 “Now we can buy orchids in M&S for £15, growing them is not viable as a business unless it’s on an industrial scale.”


wine glasses

Economies of scale is something he talks about a lot, and there’s not an industry or manufacturing process about which he isn’t well informed. Topics range from the archaic structure of interior design versus the nimbleness of fashion, hydro-powered aluminium production in Norway, mycelium as an ecological packaging alternative, the joy of cork as a sustainable material.

You see them all in his showroom, a 17,500-sq-ft former coal warehouse next to the Regent’s Canal. On the ground floor, the elegantly curated collection is on sale, among them the Wingback chair first designed for Shoreditch House, his iconic Melt chandeliers, perfumes, candles and glassware. They are accompanied by descriptions of how they’re made and what they are made from. It feels less like a boutique, more like a gallery where you learn something and can afford to buy it.

This year, Dixon celebrates his 20th anniversary, and to mark the occasion he is launching Twenty, an exhibition of 20 new and old pieces. After launching at the Salone del Mobile in Milan in June, Twenty will return to UK for the London Design Festival in September and travel to Shanghai, Paris, LA and New York. Highlights include a gigantic Mirror Ball chandelier, a Bird chair made from eelgrass from Denmark, a latex S-Chair and giant mycelium sculptures, and they chart his journey from unfocused, untrained school leaver to global design superstar.


designer chairs

Dixon rose to prominence in the 80s as a maverick with a line in welded salvage furniture. In 1998 he became creative director of Habitat and turned the brand around, an achievement for which he received an OBE in 2001. “Habitat was at that time owned by Ikea, so I was exposed to a more democratic price point and to producing things in multiples. I have socialist parents so I’ve always felt uncomfortable working just at the luxury end.” Do they give him a hard time about making stuff and selling limited edition pieces at auction with hefty price tags? (In 2021, Phillips sold his Victorian chair for £7,560 and a pair of Crown chairs for €10,000.) “No, but those principles are just ingrained.”

Over the decades, Dixon has managed to walk the tightrope from low to high design, from auction houses to Ikea, without losing credibility. How? He pauses. “Number one, I’ve never made a distinction between commerce and creativity,” he says. He’s frustrated by the lack of business nous displayed by the student he lectures. “I talk to them about commerce and ask: ‘How much will that cost? If you make 500 can we buy some? Where?’ And they don’t know, they don’t know, they don’t know.’” When he was a visiting lecturer at Royal College of Art between 2005 and 2007, he made students do a car boot sale to expose them to the cold rock face of selling. “It’s not just about design. The tough part is making things with prices that people will buy.”

Now 62, Dixon belongs to a canon of design legends that include Marc Newson and Jony Ive, but he says, there’s plenty of talent in the next generation. “I have a lot of time for (British designer) Max Lamb’s attitude to making, and (French designer) Philippe Malouin too. There’s lots of talent and great ideas, but it’s more difficult for young designers to have the same a career that I had. Everything seems more fragmented.” To work for him, they need to be good with computers and engineering, and also have experience at factory level, in production. Jonathan Levien, one half of London based duo Doshi Levien, along with Nipa Doshi, recalls: “Tom kick-started our studio when he invited us to work with Habitat in 2000. He really champions young designers. I’ll never forget some advice that he gave me as a student. I asked him if I should protect a lighting idea that I had, and he said: ‘Only if it’s the last idea you’re going to have’.”



Sustainability is a hot topic now, and greenwashing is pervasive. Dixon is smart enough not to play that game (his bestselling Melt chandelier has plastic shades). Instead, he says, he does what he can. “At the studio, we know where everything is made, we visit factories and see the conditions for workers and systems. We are rigorous over the chain of custody.” This spring, he is piloting the Mirror Ball chandelier in 100% recycled polycarbonate, which is “more expensive and looks shitter.” Will people pay more for something with the right characteristics? We will have to wait and see.

There’s almost no material he hasn’t experimented with, and, having explored the surface of the earth, he’s going underwater, to grow a kind of “naturally occurring concrete, lime scale, calcium substance that is a bit like the fur in the kettle.” It grows on shipwrecks in warm waters and running an electrical charge through the metal accelerates this growth. South Africa and Indonesia are using a similar technique to regenerate their coral reefs. In 2010, Dixon piloted Biorock production in the Bahamas, and he is now planning an underwater factory in Bali. It won’t be solid enough to make fully functioning chairs, but it’s not hard to envisage limited-edition pieces that will seduce the art world.

The spell in the greenhouse has nurtured an unexpected love of the countryside, something the self-confessed city boy, who still lives during the week in Fulham, never thought would happen. Claudia Nella, his wife, and Florence Dixon, one of his daughters, run the sustainability-oriented boutique Tidy Street General Store in Brighton and dad goes to Sussex every weekend. It’s a volte face for the rock ‘n’ roll designer who’s into motorbikes (currently three) and playing the bass (next gig, Copenhagen). “I didn’t know how to be in the countryside,” he confesses, “but I’m now keen on a town and country existence. It’s good to see villages and coastal places coming alive again. Zoom calls, working rom home, hobbies like dogs and baking, and cheaper rents, along with concerns about food security and provenance, point towards a more local approach.”



He thinks it’s too early to say that the pandemic has changed everything. “Cities are bouncing back, but it’s important to keep that momentum, making whole country thrive rather than just bits of it. We need to be more aware of what an amazing country we have.”

What’s his greatest achievement? “Having been able to make a business out of my hobby and employ 100 people. I left school with literally no idea what to do and drifted into it.” What about the OBE? “I love it but I don’t have much chance to wear it. Recently, it vanished and eventually turned up in the Christmas decoration box.”

In 2015, Dixon sold his holding company, Design Research Group to private equity. “My name belongs to other people, and their focus is on growth,” he says, a little ruefully. “It’s less possible for me to have exciting ideas. People want more of the same. They know we do lots of lights and furniture, so it gets more difficult to innovate in my own platform.” It sounds as if he has done some soul-searching during the pandemic. “Yes. The greenhouse has given me new energy. Like a snake, I need to shed my skin and start again.”