Work / London Design Festival 2011

Tom Dixon

In 2009 Tom Dixon OBE decided it was time for a change. Now in its third year, The Dock in Portobello is a new kind of design destination. We spoke to him to find out why festivals must evolve, and why the London creative scene is an international affair.

Even down the phone, the change in Tom Dixon’s tone is noticeable. After politely answering questions about the nature of design in the UK and London Design Festivals past, I want to know what he has got planned this year at The Dock – his game-changing concept design hub just off Ladbroke Grove.

“Given this is our home town it’s nice to have somewhere I can really control the whole experience people have when they get here, rather than a trade show which is someone else’s space and we are just renting,” he said.

“We are opening up our home to our friends – that is what it feels like – inviting friends in who are doing interesting things to use it as their own platform. It’s an opportunity to broaden it out a bit and not just talk about ourselves.

“We are trying to do things differently so we have a big ramp that cars can drive up where Aston Martin will be showing some of their most famous models, we have got the water so Max Frommeld and Arno Mathies will be testing their flatpack fold-up boat.

“If I could I would have trains, planes and automobiles but we have boats, bikes and cars so it’s not a bad start,

The enthusiasm is audible – clearly this is a man who likes to test himself, to try new things, not so much pushing boundaries as ignoring them. It may be the fact that he was self-taught, rising to become the artistic director of high street chain Habitat and Finnish furniture giants Artek before striking out on his own. The Dock seems to be an extension of his impatience to innovate.

“It was not really a conscious decision to move out from just doing the trade shows, we just found a piece of land that was very good for events. People can spot a cynical promotion a mile off, they want to make a day out of it.

“There are other festivals springing up like mushrooms, in places like Brazil and Yugoslavia, so we have got to offer more. Look at the Milan Furniture Fair – it’s a proper festival like Rio or something, rather than a dullish trade fair.”

But having said all that, Tom is not squeamish about the reason why LDF really exists – to make money. He will be launching an energy efficient oversized lightbulb, a new scaled-down version of his Void series and an etch light at The Dock this year, while Print Club London will be selling one-off prints and postcards and Ariane Prin will be offering pencils made from Dixon studio sawdust.

“We need to have people there making things, selling things. For some people that element is almost embarrassing – they do not want to think of it as commerce at all, like it’s impure or something. There are lots of conceptual designers with an RCA background – which is all valid and fabulous – but at some point we need to be talking about making money.”

And although he is bullish about the strength of our creative education sector, he warns against pigeon-holing the London design scene as British.

“London has become a platform or an interchange of ideas. All nationalities have come and studied and people have gone out and exported design – the clever kids will be off seeking fame and fortune in Brazil or Taiwan.

“I do not remember there being any jobs when I started out – people went to Germany or Japan. And people we claim as our own now like Zaha Hadid came from other places – that is the nature of London.”