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Tom Dixon on life after lockdown and London Design Festival

WORDS BY CHRISTINA DEAN

After having his 17,000 sq ft headquarters in Coal Drops Yard, and much of the wider estate, almost to himself during lockdown, the designer is seeing his space fill up again as he prepares for London Design Festival.

Speaking to Tom Dixon a few weeks ahead of London Design Festival, it’s hard to believe that there were ever any doubts over the event at all, though the reality is that the entire festival, one of the mainstays of the capital’s cultural calendar, may not have happened at all. Normally encompassing hundreds of activations spread across the city, this year’s LDF is going ahead but on a much smaller scale and with many virtual events added to the programme.

For Dixon, a showcase for the festival was always on the cards, even if he has had to cut down his invite list quite substantially. “We're blessed with this 17,000 square foot space so if I wanted to invite one person per room and send them a swipe card to get in I can do that. So we were always going to do it and we were always going to be quite careful about over-promising on parties,” he says. “We got 33,000 people in last year so we knew we couldn't do that but there is something about having a more personal conversation and speaking to people in a more intimate situation.”

The installation for this year is called OCTAGON and it’s essentially a larger version of a show that has been used to give a 360-degree representation of the brand. “When it travels it's a sort of flat pack octagon shape structure, which shows a bit of history, a bit of new products, a bit of our best sellers and a couple of partnerships and then suddenly you've got eight stories without even trying,” says Dixon. For King’s Cross it’s been scaled up to eight windows, “which are kind of huge and ludicrous”, and includes a pop-up cocktail bar, a perfumery lab, a disco with lighting from the brand and audio equipment from Spiritland and Teenage Engineering, and an S Chair museum to honour the design’s 30th anniversary.

"Your experience of a place is not or ever has been mono sensory”

As well as trying to create a hand sanitiser in a matter of weeks for the festival, there are two new product ranges being presented that Dixon is particularly excited about. The first is MASS, “a series of bits of furniture that are made out of one brass extrusion, just showing what you can do with a single element multiplied, so it has tables, it has storage, it has consoles, it has a lamp”, and CODE, “which is a collaboration with a track lighting manufacturer in Austria, which is really a celebration of LEDs. It's like a Meccano set. With two components you can make a whole world of illumination.” 

Just like last year’s LDF activation, OCTAGON is a multi-sensory experience and that’s something Dixon himself has made a point of cultivating with his brand. “As I get more and more involved into interior design I realise a lot of the impressions you get into spaces are not just about the colour or the comfort. You can have your experience ruined by somewhere which is still smelling of the bleach of the washing of the floor from the night before, a beer in the carpet kind of thing."

"There are a lot of places I remember because I couldn't hear anything because it was too noisy. I was speaking to a lady of a certain age the other day and she was telling me, ‘before I go to a space I look on Instagram to see how flattering the lighting is’,” he laughs. “You know your experience of a place is not or ever has been mono sensory.”

As much as LDF is a showcase of what the brand has been doing and the new products its launching, this year it’s had a secondary purpose in that it’s injected more life into the company at a time when most are working from home.  Dixon explains, “I think it causes a very fragmented company with very little energy when people don't have a headquarters. I guess London Design Festival is going to be a bit about trying to regenerate that kind of solid core if you like.” There’s no doubt that lockdown was disastrous for the business, as it was for most of the country, but it also threw up some interesting opportunities and helped Dixon realise some old ambitions. 

"It's quite tempting to just say, 'well all we need is a computer now' but in interior design nothing beats inhabiting a space”

The Coal Office restaurant and furniture shop flipped into the Food Hub during lockdown, a greengrocers selling fresh produce supplied by Natoora as well as pantry items, wines and a selection of cooked meals from the restaurant. The retail and restaurant spaces have totally reopened but the Food Hub is staying put, and not just because it’s making money. “Sales per square foot, it actually does better than the furniture,” says Dixon. “It’s also something that we intended to do when we opened the shop but we kind of lost our faith in that possibility, partly because Coal Drops didn't have the footfall, partly because it was quite intensive in terms of equipment, so we didn't do it at the beginning. I'd always wanted to mix the food and the furnishings and the accessories and the design services a bit more.”

That mixing of departments looks to be staying too. I think what will happen with the net impact of the virus is that we have to be more flexible. Even the distancing is actually kind of interesting in a way because it forces us to multi use the space. You know the restaurant can expand into the shop now for instance and the office can expand into the restaurant when the restaurant is not being used. You know in my dream I had a kind of 24-hour headquarters which was really kind of sweating that asset as it were. The behavioural changes that we are going to be forced to do, in terms of flexible working, in terms of distancing and all of that actually pushes a bit more what I kind of originally intended,” says Dixon. “ It's kind of interesting that there are possibilities in all of that and there's always possibilities when people change their behaviour.”

One shift that Dixon is less keen to embrace is the move to a totally online way of interacting. The restaurant for example offers a level of engagement you’d be hard pressed to achieve in a shop let alone from behind a screen. “In a restaurant you've got people that are really with you for 2 hours and able to experience what the lighting feels like, the comfort of the chair, the functionality of the tableware,” Dixon explains. “For me that place is also a test rig. Does this furniture work if you sit on it and pummel it in a restaurant situation? How do people react to this? What do these lights actually do at night? What do they look like? Those things you can't really do if you're just doing everything virtually. It's quite tempting to just say, 'well all we need is a computer now' but in interior design nothing beats inhabiting a space.”

The days of the big design fairs will surely return but for the moment, with travel restrictions in place, physically presenting products to an international audience is a bit tricky. Dixon’s solution? Take the show to the people. “The plan really is to get on the road and going to visit people because I think people are scared to come to us, so we're going to be brave and go to them.,” he says. It’s all lockdown dependent of course but in the near future you may very well see him and his furniture on the road in a pick-up truck.

OCTAGON is on at The Coal Office HQ in King's Cross from 12th - 20th September 2020.

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