White Noise
Made in White City

The Streetscapes and Salvage That Shaped Tom Dixon's Designs

An industrial designer, self-taught welder and unrepentant tinkerer, Tom Dixon is one of West London’s most celebrated creatives. You can find his lampshades in Liberty, his chairs in the Design Museum and, until the end of February, his light installation outside Television Centre as White Noise's first public realm commission.

His early work was intimately bound up with the landscapes of Hammersmith, Westbourne Park and Fulham in which he worked. Through the lens of four works, here's a tour of Tom Dixon's West London.

WORDS - Alice Cicolini
08.02.2017

Born in Sfax, Tunisia, Dixon has been a permanent West London fixture ever since the family returned to Hammersmith when he was six. A student at Holland Park and, briefly, Chelsea College of Art, he grew up in the West London music scene: as the guitarist for Funkapolitan, supporting Ziggy Marley and The Clash, and running nightclubs in Soho, Berkley Square and Chelsea. His earliest connection to the site at White City was a Funkapolitan appearance on the legendary Top of the Pops filmed in Televison Centre's Studio 2. 

When a serious accident all but ended his music career, Dixon turned to welding scrap metal into chairs – and the rest is history. But the creative energy of his music career had a longer-lasting impact. The lessons of independence from an era of rebellion gave him, he says, “a license to create – without certificates, university courses or parental approval.”

Dixon describes his early childhood as messy, characterised by the obsession with drawing and making that he would sustain throughout his career. “I have a strange disease,” he says, “I can’t go for a bicycle ride or see a cloud formation without thinking: Oh, now wouldn’t that make a fine table, chandelier, shelving unit. So when people are talking to me and it seems I’m not concentrating, which is most of the time, I’m actually thinking quite hard about making something.” 

Tom Dixon Television Centre White CityCatch Tom Dixon's Television Centre installation a two-minute walk from White City tube station until the end of February. Photo: Jack Johnstone.

This observational approach resulted in his early career in work that pays specific homage to his immediate surroundings. A life lived in West London was played out in a series of objects that were directly inspired by context, literally made from the streetscape, and created in opposition to the dominant aesthetics of the time – Mies Van der Rohe-inspired retro Bauhaus, and the mock Victoriana of Laura Ashley.

Drawing on the rebellious attitude of punk, Dixon developed a Postmodern design language with the salvage that surrounded him, from the scrapyards of Chelsea Harbour to the Chinese cookshops of Soho, whose woks and ladles he transformed into chairs that were as radical as they were sinuous. 

Trellick Tower, Kensal Town, gave shape to Tower Storage

Tower Storage Tom Dixon

“Tower blocks are universally reviled in the UK, but the most monumental Brutalist examples still give me a small frisson, transporting me back to my first job (a paper round at 12), which involved two such blocks, often with broken lifts, meaning I had to clamber up the 22 floors.”

The Trellick Tower is now one of London’s most iconic Brutalist buildings, the apartments so sought-after that they appear on architectural estate agencies like The Modern House. Tower Storage (2002), inspired by the Trellick, pays a wry nod to this transformation, wrapping the formerly loathed tower structure in golden Formica.

Now visit: Goldfinger Factory. This fantastic social enterprise located at the base of Trellick Tower takes its name from the building’s architect, Ernő Goldfinger. It retrains aspiring local artisans and young people failed by mainstream education in woodworking and finishing, as well as housing an organic kitchen that helps people to relearn healthy eating patterns. Restored furniture is available for sale, including many mid-century finds.

West London's scrapyards, Chelsea Harbour, provided pieces for Throne of Sorts

Throne of Sorts Tom Dixon

“What is now London’s upmarket Chelsea Harbour used to be the most beautiful urban wilderness that went on for miles and miles, the habitat of birds and scrap merchants. There were huge piles of industrial waste in which you could find engines and machine tools, steel bolts and cast iron radiators: all the offal of London’s vanished industry.”

Dixon’s early pieces were welded together from the “flotsam and jetsam” of home improvement: 19th-century Victorian manhole covers (which he stole and swapped for his own more prosaic equivalents), sections of iron railing, steel plates, bathtub legs, firebacks, gateposts, sections of clutch box. His first ever solo show was hosted by none other than Ron Arad at his store called One Off. Throne of Sorts (1985) later sold to LA luxury boutique Maxfield, and then, legend has it, to Janet Jackson.

Now visit: Although many of West London’s scrap merchants have long gone, there are still some to be found, from the curated treats of Retrovius, to the hunting grounds of Willesden Salvage.

A kinky rubber-wear shop, Hammersmith, clothed Pre S-Chair

Rubber S Chair Tom Dixon

“There was a kinky rubber wear shop opposite my studio in Olympia, West London, called She’N’Me Fun Fashions. They were good neighbours and I thought it might be clever to get one of their rubber dresses made for the S-Chair.”

The S Chair is one of Dixon’s most famous pieces, now produced by Cappellini in what Dixon describes as his first proper encounter with conventional industry. By the time Cappellini took on production, Dixon had covered the chair by turns with sheepskin, rubber inner hose, and Norfolk reed. He was no stranger to seeking out inspiration from unrelated industries, famously creating a chair for Patrick Cox out of plumbers' copper elements that promptly collapsed, and a collection entirely from air conditioning duct, none of which had sold.

Now visit: Soho remains the best place to get coated head to toe in rubber, but Kensington's gay superstore Clonezone can also help you out with that.

Designed on All Saints Road, the Jack Light is an iconic form

Jack Light Tom Dixon

“There was a bicycle shop across the road from my studio on All Saints Road, which gave me an unending supply of bent bicycle forks to repurpose into chair legs and candelabra. Lightweight, ultra-strong and beautifully tapered, it was also free.”

Many ideas emerged from Dixon’s studio on All Saints Road. Some early pieces were made of bicycle tube, but Jack Light was created with rotational moulding techniques more familiar for producing traffic cones and animal troughs. The Jack was an instant hit that still occupies lamp space in homes across the world. Its geometric form a popular theme for Dixon, it also allowed him to explore the possibilities for creating beautiful design for affordable prices that ultimately took him to Habitat in 1998 as Head of Design UK.

Now visit: Dixon's studio has now moved, but the bicycle store still remains.

Tom Dixon’s biography Dixonary, published by Violette Editions is available at Lutyens & Rubinstein, Notting Hill and other good booksellers. The quotes and photos above are extracted from this work. Photo at top: iStock.

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