New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Tom Dixon

Tuesday 12 October 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hello, is that Tom? 
 
Tom Dixon  
Indeed. Hi!
 
David Taylor  
How are you doing?  Thanks for sparing me some time. I wanted to talk about your new range that you've designed – your first bathroom range, I think, for Vitra, and your first bathroom range at all, as a design called Liquid. I read that it's inspired by Victorian plumbing and Victorian bathrooms in its ‘chunkiness’, as it were? Could you elaborate on that and tell me about any other inspirations that come to mind?
 
Tom Dixon  
Sure. I mean, that inspiration is kind of a departure point. But I think the longer story is that more recently there's been a lot of new possibilities of mixing specifically very thin ceramics that have become more possible in those kinds of architectural applications. And as a result, designers just naturally gravitate to what's new. There's been a lot of very square, very thin bathroom fixtures coming out. There's been lots of new materials like acrylic that allow you to do all kinds of exotic new shapes, but there was something about some of the more under-stairs Victorian furniture-ware which I still find very modern and very appealing. And, in some cases, are still in use. So, super durable. I think there of, say, the butler sink as the prime example of something which still is fit for purpose and that people have brought back in in a sort of ‘fashion’ kind of way, and are re-looking at those things. They can look both antique and contemporary, which I think is quite a good thing: something which has to last a long time. So, that was a kind of departure point. But at the same time, I think if you're designing something new, you've got to also make it part of the modern world. And so, you know some of that very round, very fat edge has got a kind of pop sensibility, kind of a cartoon aesthetic which I like because it feels softer. I think the last thing you want in the bathroom is hard edges. So those are partly where my inspirations were from, the initial era of sanitaries and ceramics and partly to do with Jeff Koons balloon dog. Partly to do with the space age look, but also to do with the flow of water and the fact that water prefers to go round in circles rather than... it doesn't do corners, water, you know what I mean? (laughs)
 
David Taylor  
Yeah! 
 
Tom Dixon  
So, there's a roundness about the flow of water, which seems appropriate; so that was that was really where it all came from.
 
David Taylor  
And am I wrong to see a little bit of nautical, a bit of maritime in the illuminated mirrors particularly? Like a porthole in a boat? 
 
Tom Dixon  
Ooh!
 
David Taylor  
Have you not heard that before?
 
Tom Dixon  
Yeah, you're completely wrong! (laughs)
 
David Taylor  
(laughs)
Tom Dixon  
But it's kind of encouraging. Whenever we have anything which is vaguely successful, it tends to be things that can be read in lots of different ways. 
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. 
 
Tom Dixon  
And, you know, I've noted that often, in my post-rationalization, people come along with an alternative reading of the object or an alternative situation for the object to exist in. And that's, I think, a feature of what we do. So: you say nautical, I would probably say Space Age 
 
David Taylor  
Yeah, sure. Barbarella…
 
Tom Dixon  
…windows in your spacecraft. But other people came along to the launch and said it's very Art Deco, and somebody else said 1950s… 
 
David Taylor  
Well, Art Deco, that's kind of with a maritime influence too, isn't it?
 
Tom Dixon  
…A sure sign of success is that it can be used in lots of different circumstances with lots of different kind of aesthetic caps on, you know?
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. 
How did this collaboration come about? And how long has this been in gestation, so to speak?
 
Tom Dixon  
Oh, my Lord. Well, I've had two failed attempts, so it depends how far back you want to go. But I'd say I started off with a European manufacturer, then a British manufacturer. What I really wanted to do was to do tiles, furniture, accessories, taps and toilets. The full Monty was really what I was after. And I think I exhausted the other two manufacturers with my insistence that I wanted to do a full set. As an interior designer I’d looked a lot at the complexity of specifying a bathroom. You know, you go to lots of different people at different times to build a bathroom. The plumber might influence your choice of toilet. You go to a tile shop for the tiles. The accessories, like the toilet brush and the soap dish you'd probably get somewhere else. The mirror might come from a department store, and all the trades arrive at different times and put in different bits and pieces. And it just seems fantastically inelegant. So, the idea that you'd look at it a bit more through a customer's eyes and provide a complete solution for a customer or somebody who wanted a predetermined solution, or something at least matched together was also another departure point. But actually, weirdly, I started off exactly opposite to where it ended up. I started off square (laughs). I'd had this kind of idea that I would base everything on a 10-centimetre standard issue white tile; a bathroom tile, and measure everything. Every surface. You know, toilet seat, the sink, the mirror - off that 10-centimetre grid. It was a very griddy kind of concept. But you know, halfway through the design, it was like, this just isn't working, because a lot of things had to be half a square, or a square and a third high, and trying to cram everything into this artificial grid was really compromising the functionality and the design of the thing. So, I kind of did a complete flip and went super round.
 
David Taylor  
And presumably the Liquid name came, after that, so it wasn't around when it was a square configuration? Did it come from you, the naming?
 
Tom Dixon  
Well, I mean, we suggested other names, which got rejected for a variety of reasons – some of them belonged already to other bathroom manufacturers. But actually, it has ended up being again in a kind of post-rationalization kind of way a pretty good name because like I say, it allows you to talk about the shape; it talks about the movement of water. It talks about also the way that ceramics are made, which is slip casting; the raw material comes in a creamy liquid substance and is poured into the mould. And then when the thing is fired then the glaze itself is also liquid before it is applied. So, all the way through the process of the manufacture and then the use of the object indicative is the kind of key departure point.
 
David Taylor  
Which piece are you most happy with and why?
 
Tom Dixon  
I quite like the tall cylindrical sink unit because it feels kind of font-like. I mean, it does sort of does epitomize what we were talking about earlier, which is the idea that it could live in any circumstance, and it feels like it could be a baptism font. You know, holy water or something. It could also sit in a science lab without looking out of place. But I'd quite like it in my house because it hides all the pipes and it's also from an engineering or manufacturing point of view quite a difficult piece to succeed in. I mean, all of these things are kind of interesting to me because you're hiding quite a complex series of channels and tubes inside this seamless experience.
David Taylor  
And there's a sort of pleasing sense of longevity and long-lasting solidity about all these pieces. I mean that's on purpose, presumably, and also ties in with a kind of sustainable vibe, does it?
 
Tom Dixon  
I think it's pretty much the only, well I mean, the most important thing you can do in our trade, and luckily our trade now from furniture, through to things like this is one where permanence is a good thing and handing on for generations is a good thing. And obviously, listening to sustainability is not making anything at all. But I think in terms of eco footprint, clay is widely available, and we're sitting on a massive block of it here in London, for instance. And increasingly, kilns are electric anyway, so that's potentially long-term sustainable. And then you know, having something which doesn't go out of fashion – because you know, durability in the objects is important but so is kind of unfashionability. And so, when I talk about these things being able to exist in in lots of different styles it also means that if you're clever and you can strip back enough for it to not be fashionable, but to be of its time, then there's a good chance the thing will survive. I haven't painted any of them avocado colour, for instance…(laughs)
 
David Taylor  
(laughs) So last question, what's next for you? What are you working on now?
 
Tom Dixon  
Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?
 
David Taylor  
(laughs). In which sphere are you working, are you concentrating?
 
Tom Dixon  
Well, you know, we've got an interesting project for Kew Gardens at the moment, so there's a bit of horticulture going on. We still continue to progress our interest in food. I quite like the things which take me out of the obvious design world and expose me to other trades. The music business, the food business - we have a restaurant here
 
David Taylor  
Yeah, a very good one. 
 
Tom Dixon  
And what's been great about the bathroom adventure has been going back to the ceramics; my only qualification is a pottery A level at Holland Park Comprehensive.  So, I don't actually even have another A level. And that's it. I haven't really done any since. But that's been really nice, and so possibly I'll be looking at ‘here's one piece, which is a piece of furniture which is a stool, which also points to the possibility of using ceramics in other ways’. So yeah, I mean, I think food, music, and more pottery would be what I'm looking at now.
 
David Taylor  
Lovely. Well good luck with all three of those. And thanks for sparing me some time,  
 
Tom Dixon  
And horticulture, did I say? Plants.
 
David Taylor  
Yes, you did. Thanks, Tom. 
 
Tom Dixon  
Not at all
 
David Taylor  
All right. 
 
Tom Dixon  
Bye

NLA Nights at VitrA

Tom Dixon's Liquid range will be on show at VitrA's showroom at our next NLA nights on 19 October.

Located in the heart of Clerkenwell, VitrA London is a beautifully designed, experiential space offering two floors of design-led bathroom products, co-working areas, specification support and exhibition space. The ground floor shares VitrA’s designer ranges, created in collaboration with world-renowned designers including Ross Lovegrove and Terri Pecora. There is also a dedicated specification space downstairs with displays showing their wide range of staple bathroom products, including a working display of their toilets and shower toilets.

Hear from VitrA’s Managing Director, Levent Giray about how the space is designed as a place for the whole design community to gather and enjoy a range of events, exhibitions and talks.
Book your place here

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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