John Jervis looks at the design that propelled Tom Dixon to world domination – and earned him the grudging admiration of his peers
Tom Dixon was awarded the London Design Medal, the highest accolade of the annual London Design Festival, at the 2019 event. Here, John Jervis explores the history of one of Dixon's most iconic designs: the mirror ball pendant lamp.
It’s risky mentioning Tom Dixon among designers, often eliciting a backhanded ‘I admire what he’s done, but it’s not quite my taste’. What he’s done is to become enormously, internationally successful, garnering critical acclaim for early DIY efforts and collaborations with Giulio Cappellini, many now to be found in the Museum of Modern Art, the V&A and the Pompidou.
Then, via Habitat, Artek and an OBE, he launched his own eponymous brand in 2002 – an unattainable, enticing, lascivious fantasy for many designers, often the same ones condemning it as the move of a sell-out. Tom Dixon Limited thrives to this day – its turnover north of £40 million – and he is one of the few British product designers today who is a household name. Alongside brand collaborations and interior consultancy, the firm boasts a 600-strong product range – now expanded from furniture into copper cocktail shakers and crocus-scented candles – reaching domestic and contract markets via a new HQ in King’s Cross, hubs in New York, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Tokyo, and, as of April, a restaurant-cum-showroom in Milan.
But the early fuel for the firm’s rise came from lighting, and the Mirror Ball Pendant of 2003 in particular. It was ‘the foundation of the business’, said Dixon in a 2016 Dezeen interview. ‘Without that as a hit object, I think we would be in a very different place now.’ It’s a strikingly simple blow-moulded plastic globe, coated internally with a fine layer of highly reflective aluminium. It comes with a little anecdote, worn thin by repetition and of somewhat dubious credibility: ‘Sometimes your biggest failures could be your biggest successes.’ Apparently Dixon, exhausted by the travails of Habitat, wanted to create an anti-design product, an invisible, elemental form that would disappear into its surroundings, but ended up with an attention-grabbing disco ball for the bling era.
The super-shiny surface is achieved by placing the polycarbonate globe in a vacuum chamber, sucking out the air, then vaporising pure aluminium with a massive electrical charge to generate a delicate mist. This settles on the plastic in a layer just a few micrometres thick, creating a perfect mirror. Dixon says he adopted this ‘vacuum-metallising’ technique from the sunglasses and space helmets of the optics industry, omitting to mention its more thought-provoking use for stiletto heels and lipstick cases. Manufactured in Germany, over 1,000 Mirror Balls are sold a month – generating a significant chunk of Tom Dixon’s turnover. Most of them now hover over velvet banquettes in darkened bars or in great clusters in the lobbies of boutique hotels.
Dixon admits that swank has been vital to the Mirror Ball’s success, but there’s a lot to commend it as a piece of design, whether in terms of simplicity, practicality or innovation. With its perfect form, it duplicates equally flashy 1920s lamps by Marianne Brandt and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, offering comparable zeitgeist and a rather more reasonable price tag. Its polycarbonate shell is light, durable and highly recyclable, producing a soft, embracing pool of light. And its development exemplifies Dixon’s deliberately open-minded, almost naïve approach to repurposing manufacturing techniques from other industries, which has led to the extruded plastic of the FAT chair, the rotary-moulded polyethylene of the Jack light and the acid-etched aluminium of his geodesic Etch range. The enterprising mindset of the business also extends to logistics – to digitisation, customisation and decentralised manufacture – in pursuit of both immediacy of production and (slightly) increased sustainability.
So why the disdain? As with much of Dixon’s recent work, it’s partly a matter of aesthetics. His unabashed visual opulence, his embrace of highly polished marbles, semi-precious metals, ultra-reflective glass and angora wool, challenges contemporary sensibilities, whether the profitable design austerity of corporate neo-modernism, or the pricey, moralistic rawness of the makers’ movement, for whom Dixon’s less folksy brand of materiality is fake news. Nor has Dixon had much truck with what he calls ‘art masquerading as furniture’, dismissing Memphis as ‘patterned Formica with an intellectual narrative’ in one of his many tomes.
And then, of course, there’s jealousy. Here is a self-proclaimed ‘untutored, self-propelled amateur’, an ‘untrained, uncertified designer’, who adopts a bored drawl when addressing design dogma, concerns himself with ‘what people might actually like enough to spend their hard-earned cash on’, and has the unfashionable belief that to achieve success, your works need ‘maximum personality … working as domestic sculpture at the same time as a practical piece of furniture’. And, in the great game of design, he’s won.
But would I want the Mirror Ball in my house? Probably not, even though sales figures suggest that many would disagree. It’s not quite my taste, but to return to the world of cocktail shakers, I’d much rather fondle the comfortable curves of Dixon’s glossy copper torso than the impractical machismo of Arne Jacobsen’s tubular stainless-steel shaft, any day. As the musical polyglot Percy Grainger once said, ‘The world around me is dying of “good taste”,’ and personally I’d much rather enjoy life the Dixon way.
This article originally appeared in Icon 196, the London issue. Get your copy here