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Tom Dixon has a crumpled face that is hard to read. Even when he is talking, he can be inscrutable. There are times during lunch — a small salad (it is his second lunch meeting of the day) — when it feels like we are on an awkward blind date, politely going through the motions until our plates are cleared.
The maverick-turned-mainstream furniture designer, whose chairs are in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is guarded about his private life. (He has a long-term partner, two daughters, a home in west London and a weekend one in Brighton but he will not discuss them, not even the interiors.) Shyness partly explains his reticence. Displaying his wares on Instagram may be part of his sales strategy but he resists personal details leaking out. “It’s not me, it’s not British,” he says.
That is at odds with the fact that Dixon runs an eponymous company. Naming his brand after himself, he says, was important when he started making chairs with a welding torch in the 1980s. It was integral to keeping control of his destiny — although this has since been diluted as the company is now majority-owned by Neo, a British investment firm. “It’s my own name but . . . it’s not really my name,” he says. Nonetheless, it can be awkward to hear employees say something is “not very Tom Dixon” within his earshot, he adds.
To elicit a connection, I ask him — thinking it extremely unlikely — if he remembers a former boyfriend of mine who worked for him. He does, vividly. Which is surprising: few bosses remember minions they hired 20 years ago. Later, I talk to a designer who has worked with him and describes him as an “inspiring creative leader”.
Today, Dixon oversees a small empire at the north end of Ladbroke Grove in west London. There is the furniture, lighting and home accessories operation, selling wholesale and increasingly to individuals; and his Design Research Studio, which creates large interiors, installations and architectural design, and was responsible for the coppery ocean-liner interior of the Mondrian hotel on London’s South Bank that opened in 2014. We are in the Dock Kitchen, a glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the Grand Union Canal that he designed and eats in every day. Despite the rough brickwork and pendant metallic lights, it has a jewel-like warmth. He employs about 125 people, the vast majority in London, with a few in Hong Kong and New York.
At the moment he is gearing up for Milan’s annual Salon Internazionale del Mobile, the furniture design industry’s premier event, which takes place this year from April 12 to 17. About 300,000 visitors are expected to attend the exhibition, which Dixon describes as more of a marketing carnival than furniture fair. It is, he says, harder and harder to make an impact, so this year he is taking over a former cemetery and deconsecrated church, in which his team will create a restaurant. This, he hopes, will get visitors to slow down and experience his creations, rather than just passing through as if on a conveyor belt. He is, though, starting to regret being so ambitious. “At this point I’m like, why . . . did I say I’d do a restaurant? Why on earth? Why do I never learn?”
In 2010, he brought out his entire workforce to Milan, only for Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull to erupt and ground them in Italy for two weeks. They were delighted; the finance director less so. “Every year you’re like, let’s give one last roll of the dice and see if we can do something even more extraordinary. It’s terrifying.”
Milan has much to offer in any case: the coffee’s good, spring has arrived. Plus, Italians love design. “They believe it’s important and they love talking about it, and they treat you like you’re important — you’re bringing a lot of commerce into their godforsaken city. The Italians are struggling.”
Travelling is part of the job. “You can complain about airport security or jet lag but travelling is the big benefit of the job. I get very privileged access [beyond] the tourist hotel . . . a unique insight into Germany, Lithuania, China, India.”
Chinese counterfeits are a problem, however, says Dixon. “There’s an avalanche of fakes and that makes it very difficult.” But also big department stores in the UK, he says, sell copycat versions of Dixon lights and chairs.
He is unperturbed by recent ructions in global stock markets. “I started in a recession. When I went to Habitat [as creative director in 1998] there was a recession. Then I started my own business just after 9/11. The good times always seem a bit suspicious to me . . . quite ugly, just overpuffed up.”
In the pre-crash bubble, he says there was extravagance, gold, showing off. In the recession, tastes veered towards the utilitarian and “a rugged, more hard-times aesthetic”. He tries to find a chameleon-like style that endures swings in taste, objects that can be interpreted as both “bling” and “engineered”.
While Dixon does not see himself as particularly numerate, he is interested in the business side, he says. “Working with my own hands, making stuff and having a hand-to-mouth existence means you are aware of what people will pay and what something’s cost you.”
This January, Steve Howard, head of the sustainability unit at Ikea, the Swedish furniture retailer, caused waves when he said: “In the west, we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff . . . peak home furnishings.” Dixon admits a sense of guilt. “For a long time, we’ve had far too much stuff.” However, he believes that his products have a long shelf life. “People do consume it a lot slower, particularly the bigger pieces, so the things don’t really have a fashion life cycle.”
Dixon, who speaks French fluently, was born in Tunisia in 1959 to an English father and half-French, half-Latvian mother. After moving round north Africa, the family settled in west London in 1964. He left Holland Park comprehensive school with a ceramics A-level and did a six-month foundation course at Chelsea School of Art. Then, however, a serious motorbike accident forced him to tinker with different interests at home. Being self-taught was a blessing, he insists, believing some of his peers are too theoretical about design. “My studio was a coal cellar when I started, so if I didn’t sell that chair I couldn’t make another one. Then people started buying it and to me it was like magic: ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
It was Habitat, where he worked between 1998 and 2008, that was his “university” education. It taught him manufacturing, pricing and market research. “I found it fascinating to know what people would pay in Spain versus Iceland and seeing your stuff actually take off or fail because it was priced wrong.” Friends had advised Dixon against making the leap into corporate life. “For me it was a radical move because it was unexpected,” he says.
For now, he is unsure what to make of his company’s new owner (Neo bought it from Swedish investment group Proventus last June). It is, after all, he says, still quite a new relationship. Dixon found the acquisition intrusive — lawyers probing contracts and accountants poring over books — but insists you only really discover the mettle of your investors when things go wrong. “They’ve been very hands-on during the [purchase] and now there’s a bit of calm.”
Emma Jacobs is the FT’s Business Life writer