He's creative director of 100% Design, but Tom Dixon's own products are as inventive as ever. Susie Rushton meets him
He wants to design toasters, is converting a concrete water tower into a new home for himself and is a leading light of the booming British design industry. When he joined Habitat as its creative director 10 years ago, Tom Dixon became one of the most influential designers in the UK. In design circles, his Jack light - an angular lantern that could sit on the floor or stack - and his S chair, produced by Cappellini, made his name as a producer of modern classics. And, unlike the overblown objects that count as designer furniture at the fairs in Milan and Cologne, Dixon seems to design with an unusual attention to practicality and broad appeal. Despite his mainstream success - and an OBE for services to the design industry - the former guitarist and keen biker is still routinely described as a maverick.
"I'm anti-Establishment, yeah, when I choose to be," he says, slouching on a sofa in his studio in Clerkenwell, in central London, a pleasantly cluttered double-height former workshop, "But I'm Establishment, too. I try to do things that other people aren't doing, 'cause otherwise it's pointless, right?"
Something that few other industrial designers would countenance is giving away their work for free. Last year, there were Primark- style riot scenes in central London when he gave away 500 polystyrene chairs to the public. They were all gone in seven minutes.
Next week, Dixon will repeat the stunt when he hands out 1,000 low-energy lights - white opaque pendants called Blow, fitted with a low-energy compact fluorescent bulb - to mark the beginning of both the London Design Festival and the 100% Design fair. This apparent act of benevolence was inspired by his attempts to find a new way for the industry to distribute its products beyond the design- converted.
"It could just be seen as a lunatic attempt to become popular," he admits, "but I've always been frustrated by how difficult it is to distribute furniture. The system is complicated and old- fashioned. You make things that are quite big. Chairs sit around in design shops for months while people debate whether or not to invest in them. I was reflecting on how we could be a bit more modern, like other industries. How we could be a bit more modern and give things away for free."
By putting advertising on giveaway design, he ponders, or by periodically offering for sale covers for those free chairs, there might be a way to make such an approach to marketing furniture profitable.
Dixon has always done things his way. Born in Tunisia in 1959, to a French-Latvian mother and an English father, he moved to England at the age of four. He went off to art school but dropped out after a few months, then started playing bass guitar in a band called Funkapolitan (and once appeared on Top of the Pops). After a motorbike accident, he learned to weld while fixing his bike and his first designs used his newfound skills in turning industrial scrap into furniture.
Despite greater demand for designer furniture and the myriad education and training options for nascent designers in the UK, Dixon doesn't believe that it would be easy for somebody to break through in a similar manner.
"In a way, it should be easier now to get started, because there are more people interested in design. London has become an epicentre of design. When I started it was the Eighties - Thatcher years, and culturally bereft, so I could build my own aesthetic. I could rebel against Memphis - that plasticky, pastel-coloured post-modernist stuff. Or chrome-and-black yuppie furniture. There was something to be the opposite of. It's hard to be anti-Establishment now. Everybody's trendy and radical now - even the big brands."
It was as creative director of …