A s Milan celebrates the 60th anniversary of its venerable furniture design fair, Salone del Mobile, renowned British designer Tom Dixon is marking 20 years of his global business empire with a two-venue exhibition in the city. The choice of Milan, is, for this London-bred designer, obvious: “Milan is a place that really believes in design, from a creative, economic and industrial perspective,” he says.
Twenty, hosted at Sotheby’s Milan headquarters, the Neo-Classical Palazzo Serbelloni, offers an intriguing overview of his career through 20 hitherto unseen objects. Some have been inspired by Dixon’s most recognised collections – the blow-moulded, vacuum-metalised Mirror Ball; the poetic Melt LED pendant lights, here represented by a gigantic Melt dichroic chandelier; and the moulded foam and metal Fat chair range; others update earlier designs – such as a sexy latex S-Chair (sometimes called the Bird Chair) made of eelgrass from Denmark; and embryonic experiments, such as giant mycelium sculptures, point to the future.
The second venue, The Manzoni, Tom Dixon’s restaurant and showroom, will be showing the full range of the brand’s best sellers.
Material has always been at the core of Dixon’s creativity. He recalls his London comprehensive school, where he hid in the pottery department. “The experience of converting slimy, slippery mud into objects was formative. In fact, my A-level in pottery is my only formal qualification.”
During the Covid lockdowns, clay returned as an obsession and Dixon has just bought a kiln.
The first real trigger for his maverick career, however, was the discovery of metal-welding, in a friend’s car body workshop, in the 1980s. At the time he was playing bass guitar with Funkapolitan, an eight-piece pop-funk band, while running hip-hop club nights in Soho at weekends with singer Nick Jones. Mark Brazier-Jones joined Jones and Dixon, introducing cut-up scrapped cars to their underground club/gallery scene.
Welding has come to be what Dixon calls his superpower. “It was hypnotic, joining metals with flame, making strong bonds really quickly,” he says. “I am not one for precision and I get bored easily. I like to work unplanned. These pieces of salvaged scrap – old Victorian railings, tread plate, cars – already had form, character and patina.”
“Milan is a place that really believes in design, from a creative, economic and industrial perspective”
The other advantage of scrap metal is that it can “improve through experimentation, through practice”. The material is cheap and by definition recyclable. “Hands-on experimentation is underestimated in design education,” Dixon says.
"Esteemed British auctioneer Sotheby’s was incorporated in London in 1744 – almost 50 years before Palazzo Serbelloni was built. Italy has been an important part of Sotheby’s operation since 1968 when it first opened offices in Florence – and whilst there have been many successes in Art, Fashion and Jewels, this year see the very first Design sale in what is uncontrovertibly the global epicentre of design. I am particularly happy to be arriving as prequel to this important sale, given the importance of Milanese creative and industrial power in my career to date. The innovative minds of the architects , engineers and designers represented here have all been instrumental in building the reputation of the city as a creative hub for the latest thinking in interior products and ways of living. The elegance of Gio Ponti, the radical thinking of Sottsass and engineered approach of Borsani represent the multifaceted approach to creating the future that Milan has been the home for over many decades."
His first inspirations were sculptors such as Constantin Brâncuși, Pablo Picasso, Julio Gonzalez and Isamu Noguchi. In 1984, Dixon, Jones and Brazier-Jones’s Creative Salvage studio held its first furniture exhibition, in a closed-down hairdressers in West London. Dixon recalls “What really impressed me was people wanting to buy - being able to amuse myself in this way and then people seeing value in that.”
Dixon’s love affair with Italian design, and Milan in particular, began a decade later, in the 1990s, when the adventurous manufacturer Giulio Cappellini walked into his studio and asked to license the S-Chair. “This exposed me to a hidden world of international distribution,” Dixon explains, "and also to a mindset where design really mattered". Although Cappellini was an international company, it was still a family affair, “with a vast amount of respect for creativity – even the grandmothers would be interested in the latest designs,” Dixon remembers.
He had the opportunity to work with some of the early radical pioneers of Italian design – Achille Castiglioni, Enzo Mari and Anna Castelli Ferrieri – in his first collections for Habitat later that decade.
Since founding his own company in 2002, Dixon has been a regular exhibitor in Milan during Salone, and has organised ambitious exhibitions at the Museum of Science and Technology. For despite his hybridised career as a global design impresario, restaurateur and interior designer, process and material still matter to Dixon. “The ideas often come from visits to manufacturers and artisans,” he says.
His company’s most recent experiments have been with cork and mycelium (fungi) and recycled plastic, but Dixon has also been inspired by LEDs, which have liberated lighting design.
What carries through all of this? When asked what he sees as his central skill, he suggests an ability to see order in chaos. “I think I like to throw things up into the air and see where they land.”
Twenty is on view at Palazzo Serbelloni, Milan from 7–12 June. Salone del Mobile 2022 is open across the same dates
Photos: Courtesy Tom Dixon