When the acclaimed British designer Tom Dixon was five, he was left alone, parked in a tiny French car, a Citroën 2CV. Since this was the 1960s, there were no child safety seats or laws against the practice. No doubt, Dixon was bored and curious, so he pulled on a lever, which happened to be the hand brake.
Parked on a hill, the car began to roll, and it didn’t stop until it crashed into something.
Dixon tells me this story now, quickly shrugging it off as a story within a story—”It was different times,” he says—before reaching his point. The Citroën 2CV has stuck with him since. It was a clever, low-budget car, which used a light tubed frame as its base (more like planes of the era than cars), covered in a thin veneer of stamped steel panels. Its hood in particular is ridged with curves that distinguish it from the VW Bug.
Today, Dixon is debuting his latest chair, dubbed the Hydro. It, too, is an efficiently built product, leveraging metal-forming technology from the auto industry, that undulates with its own unique flare—a spiritual nod to the hood of the 2CV, sure. But even though the chair itself was inspired by a childhood trauma, Dixon readily admits that it looks like a cross between a plastic garden chair and a Jeff Koons balloon dog.
And I was relieved that he said it before I had to.
The Hydro looks like a unique chair because it is produced in a unique way. It’s 100% aluminum, and its name is a nod to Norway’s Hydro, the world’s largest aluminum producer, which partnered with Dixon on the product. Instead of being molded (shot as hot liquid into a shell and left to cool) or stamped (pressed into shape from a single piece of metal), the chair is produced by an auto process known as superforming. Molten aluminum is sprayed onto a one-piece mold instead of being squeezed in a sandwich. Then it peels off as a very precisely made object.
“You get a lot less scarring on the metal, and it can go into tighter radiuses,” says Dixon. “Which allows you to make the structure.”
(If you want to know what the Hydro would look like if Dixon stamped it instead, you sort of can. In 2012 he produced a Stamp chair that’s playing with a lot of the same ideas.)
While Dixon explored many forms of the chair, including some based upon tight triangles, he settled on these ballooning arches because their geometry gives the chair more strength and rigidity with less material. If the chair were flat, Dixon estimates you’d need three to four times as much metal inside it to hold up. Instead, the design allows each chair to be a little under 8 pounds. He lifts the chair effortlessly with one hand to show it off.
Even so, the chair is not quite capable of being superformed as one piece. So the legs are actually glued on, using an industrial adhesive from the auto industry. “The advantage of working with car companies is they have more advanced everything,” he says. (An auto supplier in Montreal that creates parts for Tesla is fabricating the chairs.) “The furniture business is lagging behind in ergonomics, material science . . . all sorts of stuff.”
Seen from head-on, it’s a gorgeous chair. “I wasn’t attempting to make something that had such a pop sensibility. It’s quite recognizable, I think,” says Dixon. “I was seriously trying to think of an economical way of getting soft edges and strength into the sheet.”
But walk around the back, and it’s no longer a balloon animal. It’s precisely the opposite. It’s an inverted version of the chair because of the way the chair was made. It’s quite surprising to see the reveal for the first time, as if you are looking at the skeleton of a balloon dog. However, this inverted shaping helps the chair to be stacked. And it’s light enough that a restaurant or other large venue could stack them in piles of five or six.
Now, I agree, it’s hard to imagine stacking a very limited-edition chair, priced at $2,775. Only 60 of these will be made during this week’s 60-year anniversary of the Salone del Mobile design fair, making them an extreme collector’s item. But after this first limited-edition run, Dixon knows the production process can be scaled for a wider release, and the larger it scales, the cheaper the Hydro could get.
It’s also a 100% recyclable design, and Dixon teases a circular buyback program he’s trying to build, which would guarantee someone could trade an old chair in for the price of the raw aluminum, so the chair could be disposed of, but also melted into a new one for another customer.
“I think it’ll be used a bit more in museum cafeterias and car showrooms . . . but my hope would be, if we can get it to the right price . . . it would be a great chair for prisons and kindergartens as well,” says Dixon. “It’s very indestructible.”