Tom Dixon | icon 028 | October 2005

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Tom Dixon We’ve just moved the studio here from Notting Hill. It was just too small, and it was three times more expensive than the equivalent floorspace here. We were looking at Brick Lane, but because it’s become fashionable it’s almost more expensive further east now.

This was Ron [Arad]’s studio when he had his One Off shop in Covent Garden. I’ve ended up in Ron’s space! I remember visiting him here maybe 20 years ago when he was making things like the concrete stereo.

I was born in Tunisia. My father’s English, my mother’s half French, half Latvian, so I’m Euro. We moved from North Africa to Huddersfield in the early Sixties, moved down to London when I was six. Been here ever since; still trying to escape.

It was the early Eighties when I started [working as a designer]. Design seemed very distant to me; it wasn’t really what I was doing. There was a very official Design Council that had a showroom on Haymarket where you could go and see what proper design was. You know, Kodak cameras, Gillette razors, Rolls Royce engines – the industrial side of things. It just seemed to be something that put a stamp of approval on established designers.

But it didn’t feel like anything to do with me. There were a few people working on the fringes of officialdom – Judy Blame doing jewellery, Christopher Nemeth making clothes – this post-punk, do-it-yourself aesthetic where everything seemed possible. Officialdom didn’t seem to be there to help them.

But you didn’t need any authorisation to do it. Those are the rules I learned when I was doing music [Dixon played bass in a band called Funkapolitan] two or three years previously. In bands, you produced your own records, you did your own promotional activities – you set up your own business effectively.

It teaches you DIY commerce, which is something I think is unique to the UK: that self-propelled attitude. If I talk about my experiences in Thailand or Tokyo or even some countries in Europe, people seem to think you need some kind of professional development to get involved in something. That young entrepreneurship is something that still remains in the creative industries in Britain.

London is now an epicentre for all kinds of things, whether it’s the Russian mafia or finance, or immigration, or travel, or whatever. Where the finance goes, so does the art and design.

So, for me, the London story is this slow emergence of it as the only hypercity in Europe that can sustain the degree of internationalism that the globe demands now. It’s become a regional centre for everything. Transport – Eurostar, the emergence of cheap airlines, Heathrow and its five terminals – overlaid with the fact that English has become the dominant language in global culture, so people move here to learn English; people leave here to teach English. The food culture has gone from zero to world class in about 20 years. It’s a very close mirror to what’s happening in design. Why it doesn’t happen in fashion is beyond me.

Then there was the Blair government’s belief that the arts are reasonably important. It vanished with the Dome because it brought such bad publicity. I think the Dome really did knock the wind out of any kind of impetus that was starting to build up around the creative industries.

[Government support for design] is split between too many people and they only have a fleeting idea of what design is. The best example is the reception for the world’s ambassadors to celebrate British design that happened at St James’ Palace recently. The British design on show was a double-decker bus, a Concorde nose-cone, a red telephone box, a Dyson hoover, a London taxi – that was it. Where’s the new double-decker bus I say? Why are we seeing Mercedes buses in our streets?

The best moments in British design were because there was a belief that design could influence things. That design was needed in things like public transport and schools and other places. That’s where most money is spent. If the government believes there’s something in design it has to put its money where its mouth is. To see a stacking chair in a classroom that will last 20 years, rather than collapse after two years. It’s a big, big deal. It’s the same thing that Jamie Oliver describes in those TV programmes about school dinners.

But I’m suspicious of too much government aid. That’s what’s characterised British creativity – the hard times. I’d be worried about it going soft because it has it too easy, and I see signs of that already. You see it happening in places like Holland, where most of the fantasies of designers are fulfilled by government subsidies and exhibitions – but no real market for the stuff. You get a lot of conceptual designs as a result, a lot of navel gazing; things are approaching conceptual art. I’ve got nothing against it but that’s not what British design is about.

You’re forced to be politically correct and talk about British design but it’s quite clear to anybody on the international scene that London is what they’re visiting – not Britain. It’s a shame, but it’s how it is. Devolution is very fashionable, but the reality is if you’re a foreign businessman coming to do business in the UK you’re not going to go far beyond the East End to find your creativity.

London has become this phenomenon that’s completely out of control, unstoppable; it’s sucking in businesses from all the regions to become a place where people from all over the world are prepared to consider living – or at least to come here once or twice a year – despite its extraordinary expense.

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