I DON'T THINK TODAY'S ATMOSPHERE IS CONDUCIVE TO GOOD DESIGN - EVERYTHING'S FOR THE FASHION FAD
Will Hunter Your design company Tom Dixon merged with Finnish furniture label Artek in 2004. What interested you in its heritage?
Tom Dixon It was effectively a furniture studio for an architectural firm set up by Alvar Aalto to widely distribute his work, partly encouraged by the British pre-war enthusiasm for Modernist furniture. Finland is a very young nation - created in 1917 - so Aalto is its only internationally-renowned hero and Artek's furniture has a national heritage. In a way we were British people messing with their crown jewels. They wanted everything to remain the same because they'd sat on the furniture since kindergarten.
Will Hunter So how have you moved that forward?
Tom Dixon We introduced interesting colours, which we thought were uncontentious.
Aalto loved drastic colours, but it becomes an issue if we do it. Architecturally, we're at a very primitive stage of researching [at-pack housing] kits for international consumption with some of Finland's larger industrial groups.
Will Hunter What drove this and last year's designs for Trafalgar Square?
Tom Dixon Things like trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records [for the longest sofa] or giving away 500 chairs for free are shameless attempts at reaching broader audiences rather than constantly talking to our peers. There seems to be a rapprochement between culture and government that means that places like Trafalgar Square are no longer unavailable to people like me. Ken [Livingstone] has always been quite keen on events, but you can also see it happen elsewhere: people recognise the value of events as a generator of commerce, whereas previously they were seen as elitist.
Will Hunter Does design make cities better?
Tom Dixon At its best design improves things, but it's often chaotically applied without a serious strategy or social underpinning. Look at the Routemaster versus the bendy bus: how do you get to the point where design is applied with quality at the very highest level, rather than just as a bit of tarting up at the end?
Will Hunter Yet it seems odd that Livingstone - who appears so interested in design - replaced the London-specific Routemaster with the generic bendy bus.
Tom Dixon He made that really scathing comment about 10 years ago which was something like 'anyone who gets rid of the Routemaster would be an uncultured moron'. But it's not just the bendy bus, it's the fact that previously there was a programme of public transport that was thought through from every nut and bolt - there was investment in the whole infrastructure supporting them. I think what's missing now is designing things for the long term. I don't think today's atmosphere is conducive to specifying or even doing good design - everything is for the fashion fad. I'm guilty of that as well, but I think that in the sphere in which I work things do become collectable and increase in value - they're not disposable, that's for sure.
Will Hunter Does London still inspire you?
Tom Dixon Yeah, Samuel Johnson was correct. It's been in a state of evolution since I started working here. London now has a critical mass; its magnetic pull is hard to get away from. It has transformed into an international city from a very, very British city, becoming a global centre for so much. When I was starting out everything was chintz. People were very retro and Victoriana interiors were fashionable. It has taken 70 years for Modernism to come back, despite attempts by Terence Conran in the '70s and yuppie furniture, which was slightly Modernist. In the mid-'80s London was an art desert; there really wasn't anywhere to see anything that wasn't antique. Now the Saatchi Gallery, Tate Modern and the Frieze Art Fair are powering along, and it seems unstoppable. It must be really gutting if you live in somewhere like Frankfurt - it's all back in London.