Tom Dixon‘s Fat America Tour is pretty much what it sounds like: The Tunisian-born, self-taught London-based designer (and former member of the band Funkapolitan) is stopping at select cities throughout the country to present an improvised music performance with his friends from Teenage Engineering, a Swedish firm that designs pocket-sized synthesizers that make both design enthusiasts and millennial musicians go wild. The aim of the ordeal is twofold: To preview Dixon’s 2019 collections—his FAT seating range and OPAL lighting collection—ahead of their formal debut at April’s Salone del Mobile design and furniture fair in Milan, and to meet his supporters the old fashioned way (read: in person).
Tom Dixon’s OPAL lighting collection and FAT chairs.
He kicked things off in Portland on Tuesday, and yesterday, was hanging around Seattle’s Inform Interiors while his team set up the stage. (Some pieces had gotten stuck in the mail due to recent snow storms, but staffers were working around that.) He’ll hit Vancouver, Los Angeles, Austin, and other cities before ending in New York next week. GRAY sat down with Dixon, who flashed his signature gold tooth as he discussed the vintage Gibson guitar he bought in Portland and the restaurant he’s furnishing in Milan, opening just in time for Salone.
Typically, America isn’t the first to see your work. Usually it’s debuted in Europe, and comes stateside much later. What made you decide to preview your collections here this time around?
It’s been my observation that you get out of America what you put in. We’ve spent the past few years doing changes of studio, trade fairs, moving our shop on Greene Street in New York, and into our new place in London. So it’s been remiss not to come and spend time with the people who look after us. We used to get on the road quite a lot, and I wanted to see a bit more of places I haven’t been to—[yesterday] was my first time in Portland; it’ll be my first time in Austin. And I’m kind of inspired by a romantic view of the rock-and-roll business, in which you get on the road and play the small venues until you become known. A lot of European brands think that you can just chock up product to the U.S. and people will buy it. But Americans have so much choice. It makes sense to go out and meet your customers.
Are there any logistical hurdles to bringing your work to the U.S.?
We normally launch a year later in America because of certification, which is burdensome and expensive. Typically we test things out in Europe, and if they work, transfer them to America. Now we’re trying to do the opposite.
Last year you were famously absent from Salone for the first time in ages, as you opted to focus on your new HQ in London’s Coal Drops Yard and the world tour you’ve embarked on. But you’re going back to Salone this year. What role do you see design fairs playing in your brand moving forward?
With Salone, you get trapped into a rhythm of trying to be more extraordinary every year. It becomes a burden, not an opportunity. Last year marked a recognition that I don’t want to be doing [Salone] for pure entertainment. It was a lot of pressure for me, particularly from the press, to make something that only lasts five days. People don’t consume that way. I’d rather invest in something that lasts for years.
This year, we’re putting that thinking into Milan. We’ve found a restaurant partner, and are investing our time and furnishings into the space, which will be there for us to use and nurture over the years.
Will the FAT and OPAL collections be part of that space?
Yes. That’s the plan and I’m sticking to it. I only have six weeks left.
The FAT chairs have been tested in our restaurant [at our London HQ] so we’ve been, on the sly, making sure they function in the way we want them to. They’re a response to very specific needs. There’s a comfortable bar stool, which is almost impossible to find. I slouch and wriggle around in dining chairs, so I made one that you can sit on in different positions. There’s also a lounge chair. It’s quite unusual to find three levels that [use the same proportions] as these do. It’s not rocket science, but it’s difficult to do a chair that is simple and has a recognizable character. In this case, it’s the fatness of the components.
The collection comes out in a year that’s the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. I’ve never been a form-follows-function kind of guy, but they feel a bit like that. They feel a bit ‘60s, and look inflatable too. That kind of thing is what’s successful for us, when you can read the object in a lot of different ways. I think it’s going to be a hit.
What about the OPAL lights? Are they made of blown glass?
They’re made of plastic. One piece is a massive cantilever floor lamp, and you wouldn’t use glass there because there’s no way you could balance a 50-centimeter globe on its tiny little stick [base]. OPAL is all about reductionism, and making sure they give off a good light output and really illuminate. We’ve been guilty of making lights that are more decorative.
You collaborated with Teenage Engineering on an installation at your HQ during last year’s London Design Festival. Why are they with you on the Fat America Tour?
The link is that our HQ, a 1950s building that has had many lives, was once a nightclub. I had in mind that I didn’t want—[puts hand over mouth and whispers] a dusty furniture store—because retail is dying and contract is a tough game, and ultimately, it’s hard to drag architects out of their offices into a space So we [made our HQ] to have food and activity with designers working in public spaces, where we prototype things in small batches.
Teenage Engineering shares the kind of attention deficit disorder that I’ve got. They’re prepared to collaborate and play. They’re inviting people to the events that they’ve never played with, and we’ll just improvise on stage. I’ll probably join in as well. I bought a vintage Gibson [guitar] in Portland yesterday I can use. It might be hellish, but it’ll be more interesting than me drowning on about furniture.
I saw Marfa, Texas, on your tour list. What are you going to do there?
I thought we’d hire some motorcycles and drive there from Los Angeles. But it turned out it’s several hours on the road, and then it ended up that you have to drive back, so it’d be [more than a day] on the road during our single day off. So Marfa will have to wait for another time.
Whenever I go to a different country, there are specific things I want to do that I can’t do at home. What’s on your bucket list?
One has already been done—buying a vintage American guitar. I am seeing Texas for the first time, and have a romantic notion of Texas. The main ambition is to see all the people who have been interested in us. The further out you go, the more interesting it is and the more original the conversations are. Our last tour was in South America, and it was extraordinary. It’s different than when you’re in New York or London or Milan, where people are overwhelmed with opportunities to see stuff and become lazy as a result. For me, this tour is actually quite joyful.