When your design work gets recognized by British royalty, you must be doing something right. And in the case of home furnishings designer Tom Dixon, he’s been doing many things right for more than three decades. While he was awarded the Order of the British Empire back in 2000 for his service to the crown in the areas of Innovation and Design, his namesake line of furniture, lighting, and home accessories has only grown since then. His latest chapter? A retrospective installation on the 9th floor Chelsea Passage department of Barneys’ Madison Avenue flagship entitled, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” which introduces classic and new Tom Dixon wares to Barneys shoppers for the first time. We recently caught up with the designer to learn more about the incredible project.
“The ‘Yesterday’ portion has to do with the fact that we’re bringing back into the collection some of those objects that I began making 20 years ago, like the S Chair—which has since been included in the permanent design collections of MoMA and Victoria and Albert—or the Pylon Chair, which shows a bit of an engineered, homemade effect that we think is quite British,” he tells us, saying that the concept for the installation was just a tidy way to organize the works spanning his illustrious career. “Then the ‘Today’ is more the stuff that we’re selling at the moment and the things that have been successful for our brand. It’s mainly based on the accessories collection, including home fragrance. ‘Tomorrow’ is comprised of some of the pieces that we’ve just launched in Milan and that Barneys is carrying as a pre-release before it’s available anywhere else.”
While these pre-released pieces include the latest iterations of one of Dixon’s preeminent categories, lighting, there is also a brand new category that he’s never ventured into before: home textiles. “Historically, we’ve been much more metallic, much more masculine, and a bit sharper, so it’s nice finally to sink into much more comfortable velvets and other textiles, which serve as a contrast to the very metallic collection we’ve got at the moment.”
Speaking of what he’s done historically, Dixon’s own tale is almost as intriguing as the pieces he creates. He began his career in the music business, playing bass guitar for the disco group Funkapolitan, a creative outlet that he said involved, “a lot of nocturnal activity and allowed for a lot of time during the day.” After a motorbike accident, he began using that time to “fiddle about,” eventually landing on learning how to weld. It was this passion for welding and delving into how things were made that spurred his interest in design and eventually led to him building furniture. That skill comprised his first 10 years working in his own studio and designing pieces that were built by Italian luxury brands, then another 10 years working for British home goods super-brand Habitat—first as Head of Design, and ultimately as Creative Director. It was there that he added expertise in marketing, branding, and the business side of things to his already extensive knowledge of design itself, driving him to found his eponymous line fifteen years ago.
It’s been this namesake line, Tom Dixon, that has perhaps brought him his most acclaim and that is closest to his heart and his roots. “We like to think of ourselves as a British brand—that slightly no-nonsense approach to shape and functionality,” Dixon says, adding that Britain hasn’t yet enjoyed the same design revolutions that came to define Danish design in the ‘50s and ‘60s or Italian design in the ’70s and ‘80s. “We’re trying to reinvent what British design can look like.”
And so far, his definition has led to pieces that are sleek, polished, and modern. “We’re very interested in materials, and that becomes the departure point for any design,” Dixon says. “You’ll see a lot of brass or marble executed in relatively simple shapes that let the material shine. I’ve also grown more interested in surface finishes as well—particularly in the lighting. You’ll see a lot of translucence, iridescence, and reflectivity. A lot of contrast between the rough and the smooth.”
Returning to the collection specially curated for the installation at Barneys, Dixon is quick to point out that the project was a natural one, since working with fashion brands is nothing new to him. “I’ve always had friends in the fashion industry, and they were some of my first customers—the fashion client tends to be more aware of the new and of trends and is always wanting to discover a new concept,” he says. “My first-ever clients when I started doing metalwork were brands like Comme des Garcons or Paul Smith—they were wanting window displays or furnishings for their new stores. It’s always nice to come into a fashion-oriented retailer like Barneys. We’ve always felt a lot more comfortable in an environment that might not be the obvious place to show furnishings, and Barneys has always been interested in new ideas and in presenting things in a slightly different way. That’s where the overlap happens.”
The overlap doesn’t stop there, though, as we learned when asking Dixon what Barneys shoppers who aren’t as familiar with his own brand might discover through the installation. “Someone who knows Barneys but not Tom Dixon per se will still recognize this idea of a tightly knit collection of ideas that come from the same aesthetic and that hang together as a brand. They’ll be able to find luxurious pieces and things that are affordable, things that offer a larger sense of permanence like furniture and things that are great gifts—much like what they already love to find on the top floor of Barneys.”
“Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” is installed on at Chelsea Passage on the 9th Floor of Barneys Madison Avenue and is open now through May 2017.