The partnership between British designer Tom Dixon and Proventus, stretched over a decade and was characterised by ideas for sustainable production and progressive business development, that greatly influenced the international interior and furniture market. In 2004 the Finnish furniture producer Artek was the last remaining company from the dismantled design group Art & Technology by Proventus (1997-2003), and Proventus had set out to find a new creative director for it while also exploring meaningful ways to engage with the design industry. As it so happened, Tom Dixon would become the answer to both of these objectives.
Tom Dixon began his career in a garage where he welded salvaged scrap metal into sculptural one-off furniture like the Swivel Office Chair (1982) – made out of a cast-iron drainage plate, wrought-iron railing, steel nuts and bolts. His work introduced a new aesthetic that attracted the attention of taste makers in London’s art circuit, and it made Dixon a part of an emerging generation of do-it-yourself designers. The stepping stone from a rebell with a blowtorch to a certified international designer came with Dixon’s breakthrough piece, the S-Chair (1989) for Italian manufacturer Cappellini. This occurred at a time time when England was not known for its contemporary design scene, nor its designers. But in the “Cool Britannia” era of the 1990s, prime minister Tony Blair effectively used pop culture to rebrand the country, and design became an area of national interest and Tom Dixon one of its biggest names. Another design icon, Terence Conran (1931-2020), had kept English households well stocked with quality goods and furniture since founding his retail chain Habitat in 1964. Habitat had however gradually lost its compass after it was bought by IKEA in 1992. So to get a fresh start, Conran appointed Tom Dixon as Habitat’s head of design in 1998 and here Dixon learned the realities of big scale commerce, sourcing and margins. The newly acquired insights about consumer behaviour pared with his passion for local industry and craft making, motivated Dixon to take a step few of his peers would or could do, to become his own producer using his own name, and the brand Tom Dixon was launched in 2002.
Up until Finnish architect Alvar Aalto’s demise in 1976, Artek had been operating on the experimental credo of its founders. But since then the focus on promoting the legacy of the products had come at the expense of neglecting its ideological heritage. Proventus, having stepped in as majority owners of Artek in 1996, was looking for a new strategic direction and new energy. When the historic bank crisis in Finland began in the early 1990s, Artek was already under financial pressure and the owners of Artek reached out to Proventus, to see if they could turn the tide together. The restart had taken time and proven difficult, but in 2004 Proventus was determined to define and locate a designer that once again could reconnect Art with Technology (Artek). Proventus CEO Daniel Sachs flew to London for a meeting with Tom Dixon and the scheduled one hour, turned into four. Sachs recognised in Dixon what Proventus had been looking for, and Dixon was intrigued by Proventus longterm commitments in the arts and industry. An agreement was reached where Proventus became majority stakeholder in the newly founded company Tom Dixon, and Tom Dixon became creative director and minority stakeholder in Artek. And to suport these two companies a holding company was set up, named Design Research Ltd.
The effects of Proventus decision could be felt immediately. At Artek, Tom Dixon together with the new managing director Mirkku Kullberg, launched several projects that kept design media on its toes. Alvar Aalto’s iconic Stool 60 was reintroduced in the vintage colour Petrol Blue in 2005, followed by the release of the stackable Bambu chair (2006) by danish designer Henrik Tjærby – a bold move since birch plywood traditionally was used for Artek furniture. Bambu was however a material of the future, strong and fast growing, and it reflected Artek’s new ideas for sustainable production. Years before it became mandatory, Artek now became one of the industry’s most outspoken producers on sustainability and it was demonstrated in experimental projects such as the Artek Pavilion, made in recyclable paper pulp at the Milan Furniture Fair (2007) – designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. The ingenious move to repurchase vintage Artek furniture and sell them back to customers through the 2nd Cycle project (2007), showed the world what “timeless design” really was. This model of course meant that no resources at all were used to provide products to sell, and all vintage pieces that were sold carried a smart RFID label that could be read with a mobile phone, revealing its history and letting new owners upload information about its current use.
Just like Artek, the brand Tom Dixon flourished creatively, and during Proventus ownership it expanded from a local to a global affair. For international consumers the Tom Dixon brand became synonymous with contemporary “British Design” with its distinct industrial aesthetic which Dixon had cultivated since the beginning of his career. The designs were often made in brass, copper or steel, and made with the latest and oldest technologies available. The collection included different furniture typologies, but it was the lamps that became trend-setters, like the mega hits Copper Shade (2005), Beat Lights (2006) and Etch Light (2012). In 2009 Tom Dixon set an example in sustainable production when launching the Offcut stool, made of discarded scraps of oak wood, and that same year the first showroom opened in London, followed by showrooms in Hong Kong (2010) and New York (2013).
The next step from a business perspective was for the brand Tom Dixon to offer entire interiors. So in 2007 the Design Research Studio was created, the new interior design branch of the brand Tom Dixon. The studio focused on hospitality and public interiors and immediately received high profile assignments such as the Paramount Bar (2008) that occupies the top three floors of the London landmark building Centre Point, and the Tazmania Ballroom (2010) – a pool bar in the central district of Hong Kong. In 2009 Tom Dixon left Artek to focus on the expansion of the Tom Dixon enterprise, at which point Artek had truly become rejuvenated. Artek was sold in 2013 to the Swiss design company Vitra, and in 2015 the Tom Dixon brand was sold to the British investment company Neo. At the time of the sale, Tom Dixon and Daniel Sachs stated;
“Proventus has been a steady and wise partner, and as we move on, I will always be grateful for the support and belief they have given to my crazy ideas,” Tom Dixon.
“Incidentally, the break marked the end of Proventus’ period of actively owning and developing product-centric, or design-driven businesses”, Daniel Sachs.