Tom Dixon, one of Britain’s leading designers, is making his mark on Greenwich Peninsula. Edwina Langley discovers how he’s ensuring British heritage plays a role in one of London’s most forward-thinking developments…
Anyone interested in time travel should visit Greenwich Peninsula on a Monday afternoon. Minus the crowds, the sheer feat of architecture and design packs a powerful and futuristic punch. It’s not just the size of the O2 Arena which, with its protruding crane-like antennae, still manages to look like it’s under construction; nor is it just the clash of shapes – the straight, solid lines of the stainless steel Peninsula Spire, and the canopied curves of the Gateway Pavilion.
Nor is it just the fact that this must be the only place in London where the sky is busier than the ground: choppers and planes buzz overhead while the Emirates Air Line glides over the river. It is a combination of all these things that creates a sense of having unwittingly arrived in the future, yet your feet are firmly planted in historic Greenwich.
Perhaps this is why Tom Dixon, a British designer celebrated for his love of British heritage, has been brought in to oversee aspects of the Peninsula’s rejuvenation – to inject a sense of tradition into this very forward-thinking project, branded ‘one of the most exciting regeneration projects in Europe’ by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.
Dixon’s involvement in the £5bn Greenwich Peninsula development, led by Knight Dragon, includes designs for some of the residential areas and London’s first new park for 100 years, plus Craft London – a cafe, restaurant, bar and food shop, set up in collaboration with Stevie Parle (whose Dock Kitchen in Ladbroke Grove, Dixon also designed).
Sitting comfortably across from NOW Gallery inside the Gateway Pavilion, Craft London’s cafe (the part open thus far) does indeed combine the past with the future. Inside, the warming pizza oven, primary colour-glazed bricks, sacks of flour and potted plants draped from the ceiling, are reminiscent of eras past. Against the metal mini metropolis outside, they add a reassuring, aged and agricultural element.
‘I wanted to bring back a sense of geography,’ Dixon said of the project last autumn. ‘The Peninsula has a long and chequered history. I was trying to bring back the past with the fruiting trees [of the park]; an echo of the days when the Peninsula was a market garden.’
The Peninsula has a long and chequered history. I was trying to bring back the past
Born in Sfax, Tunisia, in 1959, Tom Dixon spent his early childhood in North Africa, before moving to England with his family. Following a stint in Huddersfield – ‘on the edge of the moors with an outside toilet and no running water’ – his parents moved to west London, and Dixon has remained there ever since. ‘I spent a lot of time in the V&A Museum and the Science Museum as a child,’ he said, ‘so I still feel soaked in that history. I am interested in things that are aesthetically inspired by Britishness.’
Dixon attended the famous Holland Park Comprehensive, thriving in life drawing classes and pottery; he once claimed his only qualification was an A grade in pottery A-level. A six-month stint in Chelsea School of Art followed, but Dixon admits to having loathed it. ‘Art was too conceptual for me,’ he has said, ‘I liked making things.’
Owing to a motorbike accident – which left him in hospital for three months and resulted in a gold tooth, which he still sports today – Dixon dropped out of education. To fix his bike, he took up welding and, in 1980, became bass guitarist for Funkapolitan. At the time, as the story goes, Dixon and some friends ran Monday nights at the strip club Nell Gwynne on Meard Street.
‘I learned welding, really, because I thought it might be good to do some live welding on stage,’ he said. ‘Then I started making things. There were people in the club like Mario Testino who wanted to buy things, and a hairdresser let me do a mirror for him. The furniture-making took off quite quickly.’
Dixon’s self-taught, unique style of DIY design suited the post-punk early 80s; he rebelled against its popular chintz. ‘For me it was a considerable advantage [being self-taught],’ he told the Design Museum in 2006, ‘as it allowed me to experiment with no constraints and make my own mistakes. As a result I developed my own attitude.’
Arguably, it was this attitude that led him away from in-vogue designs, enabling him to develop his own style: an appreciation for traditional techniques, reusing old materials and creating objects made to last.
By the late 80s, Dixon had found work under the skillful Giulio Cappellini, head of renowned Italian furniture manufacturer, Cappellini. It was there, in 1991, that Dixon designed his most famous creation to date, the S-Chair – a curved, flame-like seat which owes its origins to a doodle Dixon once drew of a cockerel on the back of a napkin.
Having secured himself footing within the upper echelons of the design set, Dixon founded Eurolounge in 1994, a plastic lighting manufacturing company. That same year, he developed Jack, a polyethylene ‘sitting, stacking, lighting thing’, which propelled him into the public domain. With Jack (inspired in shape and name by the ancient game, Jacks) came the Millennium Mark Award in 1997, and the light was soon snapped up by the V&A Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collections.
From Eurolounge, Dixon progressed to head of design at Habitat in 1998. He thrived on the challenge of turning the company, which had flagged in recent years, around. He went on to become creative director in 2001, the same year he was awarded an OBE by HM The Queen. He launched his eponymous brand in 2002, but stayed on as a consultant for Habitat until 2008. Acclaimed designs such as the Mirror Ball light collection and Copper Shades have established Tom Dixon, based on Ladbroke Grove, as one of the world’s foremost design studios.
But Dixon’s USP remains the same: British designs that last. He once labelled his work ‘anti-fashion’, hoping it would always escape the transitory trappings of ‘fads’: ‘Back in the 60s, it was probably OK to design products that were about newness for the sake of it,’ he said. ‘I like to think my own work is more about durability and permanence.’
Just looking at the mindfully designed Craft London confirms this sense of permanence; it’s as if it has been there for years. Taking a trip to the future is to discover that Tom Dixon has arrived in Greenwich – and he’s here to stay.