Tom Dixon portrait by Timba Smits for Courier Aug/Sep 2016

Design Retail

Tom Dixon’s commercial blueprint

How did a bass player in a funk band become the
poster boy for British furniture designers?

4 Aug 2016

Tom Dixon’s £600 Melt pendant lights were the best-selling branded items at John Lewis in the run-up to Christmas last year. Middle England followed boutique hotels and upmarket restaurants in falling for Dixon’s products, which have become a shortcut for people looking for something vaguely modish.

Customers everywhere from Bromsgrove to Baku admire the brand (as well as countless copycats) but it’s the stunning success of the company at both ends of the consumer spectrum that’s even more impressive.

Despite mass appeal in 65 countries and contracts such as fitting out a Jamie Oliver restaurant in a shopping centre, Dixon continues to appeal to esteemed design magazines and is still ranged in the most desirable shops: Barneys in New York, 10 Corso Como in Milan and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong.

At Clerkenwell Design Week in May, Dixon took over St James’s church at the centre of the hoopla. The high priest of British homeware design – worshipped by aspirational consumers from around the world – loomed over the modest marquees and stands of other design brands.

For many of the attendees, the various pieces on show were rather less interesting than understanding how Dixon has managed to turn himself into a thunderously powerful commercial juggernaut. It’s a blueprint that leading figures within London’s design industry have been studying and are eager to replicate in their bid to create a sector composed of lots of Tom Dixons.

Retail mindset

At the epicentre of this slick operation is an elegant head office overlooking the canal in Ladbroke Grove, housing 100 staff. Among them is a commercial team carrying out a deeply disciplined strategy that, one person close to the business says, bears as much similarity to that of the artist Damien Hirst as to other homeware brands.

Hirst’s retail machine, selling everything from necklaces to wallpaper, a £50,000 bass guitar to a £9 mug (his ultimate ironic joke, perhaps) is remarkable. Dixon appears to tap into a retail mindset that marries the Hirst model with the ethos of a high-end fashion brand.

The product strategy has been shrewd, say many observers. ‘There’s the phenomenon where £150 Ikea beds are flanked by a £500 Tom Dixon lamp,’ says one person in the UK design industry. It hinges on the belief that a very small number of people can afford a top-end sofa or bed, but an outrageously expensive candle, bowl or stapler is still within reach  for many people.

And then there’s the marketing. Dixon’s Design Research Studio has been taking commissions from hotels and restaurants as well as big corporate and property fit-outs since 2002. It has grown into a lucrative business with commissions coming from around the world, making up nearly half of its revenue on the back of high-profile contracts, such as designing Shoreditch House when it opened in 2007, as well as The Royal Academy and the Mondrian London.

These contracts have spread a distinctive design identity into broader consciousness. A cluster of Tom Dixon lights in a restaurant or hotel lobby often appear as epic art installations. While they could never be replicated in a living room, they’re often the inspiration for buying a small lamp. 

Key meeting

Dixon is undoubtedly a designer with an appreciation for canny marketing, which he has learned with some help along the way. A major turning point for Dixon is thought to be the involvement of David Begg from 2002. Begg studied engineering, design and manufacturing, and worked for a top-tier management consultancy before coming on board with Dixon. 

With Begg as CEO and Dixon as creative director, the pair formed an umbrella group that aimed to provide the infrastructure to turn British designers into businesses. Begg emphasised things such as delivery times, batch manufacturing, structuring retail and distribution deals, and pricing strategy. But this ‘design incubator’ model didn’t take off and the Tom Dixon business needed cash if it was going to survive.

By 2004, it pulled in a modest £100,000 a year, so Begg and Dixon sold a majority stake to Swedish investment fund Proventus. Turbo-charged growth followed as the brand found sales multiplying year  after year, jumping to £13m by 2007. Proventus sold out to British investment firm Neo in 2013. Begg meanwhile ended his 13-year involvement with Dixon last year. 

Funk explosion

Neo’s expansion plan looks a safe one at the moment. And yet many who know Dixon privately say he has a curious and even slightly uneasy relationship with this kind of stratospheric growth. ‘He’s definitely a commercial heavyweight but he’s got a deeply rebellious soul’ says one. 

Dixon’s personal story is a fascinating one. He was born in Tunisia in 1959 to a French/Latvian mother and English father and grew up in the culturally rich and politically charged melting pot of Ladbroke Grove in the late 1970s and 1980s. He attended Holland Park school, famed for its mix of inner-city children and those from famous arty and lefty political parents. 

After putting on a few parties, Dixon played bass in a funk band called Funkapolitan that even appeared on Top of the Pops. It was during these years that Dixon discovered his calling while welding salvage furniture to create stage sets for live performances. He first experimented making chairs for friends and later opened a shop in Notting Hill.

Tom Dixon may seem an overnight success but it’s a rise that’s been 30 years in the making. Two designs (the S Chair in 1987 and the Jack Light in 1996) were pivotal catalysts that helped put him on the map, yet the two notable milestones were a decade apart.   

‘Anti-establishment’

Over the course of Tom Dixon’s professional life, things have moved at varying speeds at various stages. Like many who run an eponymous business, Dixon could be forgiven for some discomfort with the overlapping of his personal identity with that of what has mushroomed into a weighty corporate entity.

Dixon himself has made comments hinting as much in various interviews. Speaking to the Independent in 2007 he said: ‘I’m anti-establishment, yeah, when I choose to be. But I’m establishment, too,’ and, ‘it’s hard to be anti-establishment now. Everybody’s trendy and radical now – even the big brands.’ Speaking about his stint at Habitat, Dixon told the Guardian in 2013: ‘[Design] needs to be nurtured by design entrepreneurs rather than bean counters.’

Those who know him say the outsider spirit still flickers inside him despite the OBE, helming a company that has become a byword for big-brand design, being the go-to for corporate fit-outs and whose products adorn swanky city-boy pads. In 2006, Dixon launched a scheme to give away 500 polystyrene chairs he designed for free in what those close to him say was a sincere desire to take his designs out to the masses.

The design world still loves him, not least for how he has reconciled a swashbuckling global brand while cultivating a clear design identity from an HQ that has been his home since he was a child.

Meanwhile, two shiny new Tom Dixon shops opened in SoHo in New York at the end of last year, as well as a new store in LA, while a new shop in Hong Kong is rumoured. A collaboration with Ikea is also in the pipeline for later this year. The machine roars on.

This story first appeared in Courier Aug/Sep 2016.