Milan Report: Design's Most Valuable Player

Five reasons why Tom Dixon will triumph at this year’s furniture fair.

Next week, at the Milan Furniture Fair, the world's premier modern furniture show, all the talk will be about the design field in crisis. Who can save it? It won’t be Philippe Starck, the bloviating Frenchman who has loudly declared his intention to retire from design, which he now regards as irrelevant and wasteful. It’s won’t be Marcel Wanders, the clown prince of Dutch design whose baroque follies will now look badly out of tune.

dixon photo

I’m going to make the case for Tom Dixon, the versatile and trenchant British designer, as most likely to play the role of design hero and badly needed anti-designer. In fact, there’s something Obama-like about Dixon. Here’s my reasoning:

club chair and sofa by tom dixon

1. His modernism grows gracefully from the past. Dixon’s new work, like the club chair and sofa above, are comfortable in their own skin. He never produces needless reiterations of existing trends. They are unmistakeably contemporary, but also mindful of what came before: these pieces were made with George Smith using joinery, hand-sewing and other techniques passed down for more 250 years.

glass pendant by tom dixon

2. His work appreciates honest materials. Dixon’s design training began when, as an art student, he learned to weld his motor bike in a friend’s garage. His first design work came in 1983 at Titanic, a London nightclub, where he performed on-stage by welding scrap metal into seating. That sense of craftsmanship--and showmanship--has stayed with him, as you can see from the pressed light pendants above.

interior worlds

3. He democratizes design. In his new book, “Interior Worlds,” published this month by Rizzoli, Dixon treats design as a pursuit we all constantly engage in by selecting clothes, books and other everyday surroundings. "It's about trying to avoid preconceptions about what design is and what good taste is," he told The London Independent.

chair giveaway

4. He subverts conventional business. Three years ago he delivered 500 injection molded chairs to Trafalgar Square in London and gave them away to passersby. (It took seven minutes.) The giveaway pleased his sponsor, the Expanded Polystyrene Packing Group, and hinted at a new way of selling. “The Great Chair Grab was a think-through of how old-fashioned and lame the furniture business had become,” Dixon told The New York Times. “What if furniture could be a modern business the way Google is?"

2nd cycle

5. He’s an original thinker on green issues. As creative director of Artek, the Finnish firm founded by the architect Alvar Aalto in the 1930s, he led a campaign to recycle furniture: two years ago the company began buying back its own chairs and stools from flea markets and junk shops and, to reduce the waste stream, resold them with all their dents and blemishes intact.

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