Tom Dixon: a designer’s view of Finland

Tom Dixon

Tom Dixon: “For a small country, Finland punches above its weight.”

About a year ago, Nokia asked me to interview some people for a new book that Gestalten were publishing on Finnish Design.

I talked to Finns in Brighton about their love of Iitala glassware and gin in a tin, and interviewed designers Jasper Morrison and Wataru Kumano about a chair they were making for Finnish furniture company Nikari. And I toddled along to Tom Dixon’s headquarters on Portobello Dock to interview him about his work for Artek, the renowned Finnish furniture manufacturer.

Tom Dixon is known for his inventive lighting design

Tom is known for his inventive lighting design

Tom was a delight. He talked at length about his experiences of working in Finland, and his appreciation of the country’s stripped back aesthetic and fresh approach to design. All the time his gorgeous white poodle, Molly, was tucked away inside his jacket. (Btw see Molly with Tom in this Nowness video.)

Fast-forward to May 2014 and Out of the Blue: The Essence andAmbition of Finnish Design is published. The upside: it’s a beautiful book, awash with wide-eyed ceramic owls, bent plywood and saunas. The downside: the planned section on foreign designers inspired by Finland is nowhere to be seen.

But maybe you’d like to know what Tom Dixon thinks about Finnish design nonetheless? If so, you’re in the right place. Here’s the interview.

Tom Dixon: a life in design

Tom Dixon studied at Chelsea College of Art, and began his design career by welding metal onstage at a London nightclub. He focused on lighting and chairs, creating the iconic ‘S’ chair in 1987 and his stackable ‘Jack’ lighting in 1994. From 1998-2008, he worked at Habitat, first as Head of Design and then as Creative Director. From 2004-2009, Tom took up the role of Creative Director at Artek, the Finnish furniture company founded by Alvar Aalto. Tom Dixon now designs for his own company and for other companies and designers. His products are sold in over 60 countries worldwide.

What do you love about your job?

There’s a real in-built human satisfaction in making something, finishing it and selling it. I enjoy the way I can control the complete cycle. That fundamental link to producing the stuff you use is missing from a lot of people’s lives.

Finnish forest

A Finnish forest, photographed by
Kaapo Kamu for Out of the Blue

Which materials do you most enjoy working with?

I go through crazes. Steel was my first love, but I’ve gone through phases of exploring plastic, aluminium and textiles. Right now, it’s glass.

What inspires you?

I get a lot of ideas from factories and tools, and the evolution of manufacturing techniques. For the Milan 2012 Furniture Fair I made a steel screen that was digitally manufactured in Milan by a robotic metalworking machine. New techniques mean you can get much closer to the means of manufacture.

When did you first become aware of Finnish design?

Home of an Artek fan, photographed by Johannes Romppanen for Out of the Blue

Home of an Artek fan, photographed by Johannes Romppanen for Out of the Blue

I remember seeing a video at the V&A Boilerhouse of a Finnish furniture factory pressing plywood legs when I was about 17. Presumably they were Alvar Aalto designs.

What did you learn during your time at Artek?

I had very privileged access to the basic building blocks of Finnish design, and learned how design helped Finland form a national modernist identity.

What are the characteristics of Finnish design?

Finnish design has very specific roots. It has a lot to do with nature and the Nordic interest in natural materials. Finnish people are used to a stripped-down, minimalist, bare aesthetic which is very modern.

Kuuskajaskari 2012 by Aino-Maija Metsola, from Out of the Blue

Kuuskajaskari 2012 by Aino-Maija Metsola, from Out of the Blue

What do you appreciate about the Finnish approach to design?

For a small country, Finland punches above its weight. The Finns are interested in innovation and the power of design and they have a real sense of ownership of brands like Artek. There’s something heart-warming about a country that feels so strongly about a brand of furniture.

What’s your favourite piece of Finnish design?

Eero Arnio bubble chair. pic c/o

Tom’s favourite piece of Finnish design:
Eero Arnio’s iconic 1968 bubble chair.
pic c/o

Eero Aarnio’s clear hanging bubble chair is genius 60s design. He brought a space-age mentality to Finnish design and is in that canon of revolutionary provocative designers who try to change the way we live with a sense of joy and colour and futurism.

Who do you rate among upcoming Finnish designers?

There’s a young generation arising now who are very fresh, techy and international – people like Harri Koskinen and Paola Suhonen. It will be exciting to see what happens next.