Tom Dixon brings larger than life lines to a fresh, new collection for VitrA. Here he explains the process – and why Victorian plumbing has a lot to answer for.
You’re known as something of a polymath in design but this is your first bathroom range. Why did you want to design a bathroom collection?
Well, if I post-rationalise, clay is what introduced me to design in the first place, so it’s partly about a desire to work in ceramics. My only formal qualification in design is a pottery A level – a Grade A, but that’s my only A level. It still fascinates me, the way a bit of grey and greasy earth can transform into something so white, clean and shiny. I love the challenge and opportunity of working with things you use every day, asking questions like: ‘How do you make things that people will love to use?’ or ‘How do you make it easy to clean?’. It’s also about wanting to create your own version. We’ve spent almost 20 years building the Tom Dixon Studio, venturing into product categories from textiles to lighting. But basins and toilets are completely different, it’s bought in a different way. So we always knew we’d go into a partnership to create products for the bathroom. Another driver was the way the bathroom is changing, with people using the space in different ways and seeing it as something to be proud of – like the kitchen evolving into somewhere people want to spend time. I think the way we view our bathrooms has been accelerated by the pandemic, with more emphasis on a place you can escape to.
And why did you choose to work with VitrA?
Because what I really wanted to do was tiles, taps, sanitaryware, accessories and furniture – an integrated system, all in one go. Very few manufacturers have the capacity to do that, or the vision to do it all as a collection. Having access to manufacturing capacity for ceramics, taps and showers all in one place alongside design and research expertise made it a lot more straight forward. I was looking at it from a consumer perspective – why should you go to a separate tile and tap shop when it’s all for one space? I’m always intrigued by why tradition dictates things are done a certain way, and I wanted to do it differently.
Is this the first time you’ve worked with ceramics in a manufacturing context?
I’d say I’ve dabbled a bit. I’d visited ceramics manufacturers in my previous life at Habitat and had been fascinated by the scale and complexity of it. At Habitat it was a bit of a mad dash through a vast range of products from toys to tableware so I probably came across every type of homeware manufacturing you can imagine. I’ve worked in terracotta and also porcelain and stoneware for the table. But I was creative director then, so I wasn’t doing the design but commissioning it – I think I was a bit frustrated that I couldn’t get my hands dirty with clay.
What was your starting point for the collection?
Well, one thing was asking: ‘How can you make it simple for people to specify a really great bathroom?’. It’s actually a difficult thing to do, with spaces that are often small and different trades and products to be brought together. I wanted to make it simpler. I started off on this obsession with a modular grid – the idea that everything begins with the tile. In principle I still love that idea. But the reality of designing objects to fit the human body, creating products with complex internal piping, and aligning that to an artificial grid imposed by an ego-maniac designer just doesn’t work. So I had to ditch that one quite early! In some ways the tiles were the departure point, then the grid idea was put aside, and then tiles – the modular aspect – were brought back in again. There are five colours and five patterns of tile so you can make a great interior design out of them. With every design you start off somewhere and you end up somewhere else, when you’ve got to know the trade. I love being naïve. I think it makes you more likely to come up with an original solution. I don’t like being the super expert.
What are some of the inspirations behind the collection?
One stream of consciousness was Victoriana – the robustness of the butler sink for example.The contemporary trend in ceramics has been the opposite – to go really thin and sharp-edged. Or even square, which doesn’t feel right for bathrooms to me. I like the feeling of permanence in Victorian bathrooms, with their big, chunky taps and fat tubes. They feel civic. It’s an aesthetic that’s closely connected to a whole tradition of British engineering – the hygiene infrastructure and sewage systems that influenced the development of the bathroom. I found myself looking at things like ceramic pipework – the kind of stuff you dig up in your garden from time to time. The construction of those Victorian sewage systems was monumental. It was the first proper sewage infrastructure and some of it was made right here, from the mud of London. Much of it is still in operation now.On a rather different tack, I’ve always been drawn to the heavy sculpted quality of vessels associated with ritual, like the font in a church or the Roman bath – big marble containers for dipping yourself in.
How did the collaborative process work as a journey?
The way I look at things, I’m here to stir things up a bit – to say what if, can we, why don’t we? It’s inevitable when amateurs come up against professionals that there’ll be a bit of: ‘Oh no, you can’t do that because we’ve always done it like this’. And there are some things you can’t fight, like the U-bend. What you lose in naïve momentum in a project like this, you gain in a real understanding of the complexities of the field. Visiting the VitrA production lines with Erdem Akan, Design Director and Boğaç Şimşir, Innovation Director, I learnt a lot about mechanisation, about robotisation. I was fascinated by the scale of the operation and the investment mindset, the belief in the power of design. You might be tempted to think that technology and investment will be better here, in the UK, but that’s not the case. We went to Turkey and threw around lots of ideas, lots of mood boards. Then the visits to the factory and a big discussion on different iterations of prototypes. They’ve got an impressive facility for producing full-scale prototypes at the Innovation Centre – it’s 3D printing for the taps but for the ceramics it’s milling. The forms are effectively carved by robots. Later we spent time with the prototypes set up in a bathroom environment in Istanbul. Actually they tried to kill me! It’s my own fault, I was moving some stuff around and didn’t realise that the display boards weren’t fixed. I added another basin to an installation and the whole thing fell on me! I would have liked to have got even more stuck into the factory but the pandemic got in the way. My fascination remains the possibilities of craft or industry; I really like knowing how things fit together and seeing if I can find a new angle to challenge some of the received wisdom of what a machine can or can’t do. I’m interested in an extended discussion around what you might possibly do using their ceramic technique, including more bathroom furniture. We’ve got the stool – which I’m really happy with because it’s a bridge between our world and VitrA’s world.
Where did the idea of the ceramic stool come from?
I really love the way the Victorians used ceramics for things like coat hooks and light switches – before stainless steel it was the most hygienic material. There are lots of things you can do when you get to that monumental, architectural scale and the amazing thing about ceramic is that it can last thousands of years – our museums are stuffed full of Greek urns that have survived this long. When we’re thinking more and more about sustainability and circularity, it resonates that you can make something that will last forever out of something that’s widely available. In fact, we’re sitting on a massive slab of clay right now that stretches from here to the Chilterns and the South Downs. The eco slant comes from its ready availability and the fact that it will last forever if treated properly. The ceramic industry even reuses its own waste – it’s crushed up into ‘grog’ and added to the clay to give it different characteristics, like making it harder.
All the ceramic sanitaryware is white. Is that a commentary on hygiene and the modernist bathroom?
There’s no doubt that white and bathrooms go very well together, and from a hygiene perspective too. But I did want an element of contrast and we’ve got that in the taps and in the furniture. The reality is that when you’re doing sanitaryware and want to get it at a certain price point your whole facility can get polluted by colour – a small amount of black is like almonds or peanuts in a sweet production line. And black has a very specific vibe to it, like black satin sheets, whereas white is universal. You could work around it, and in someways I would have loved to have done avocado – a commentary on the 70s bathroom! But I’m not sure that’s want people want, whether it would have the necessary longevity.
Touch – or tactility – seems to be an underlying principle – from the rounded forms of the ceramic pieces to the taps and the embossed surfaces of the wall tiles. Was interaction design a big driver?
It’s really about what I call expressive minimalism. When people are doing minimalism they often kind of ignore the issue of contact. That’s what I don’t like about a square basin. It doesn’t make a lot of sense from a manufacturing process because it’s difficult to do sharp edges, and it’s not great from a cleaning perspective either. Arguably it might be a more efficient use of space but it’s not great with the flow of water. You lose the visible function of something – that’s why I wanted the pipes in the collection to be really ‘pipey’ and the knobs to be really ‘knobby’. I was fighting against that experience when you go into a hotel bathroom and you can’t figure out how to switch on the shower and you end up burning yourself. I wanted something that has a very clear logic. I see no point in hiding functionality. The trick is to make something that’s reduced enough to not be fussy but to make sure that people instinctively understand how to operate it, what the use is. It needs to be recognisable as an object. I wanted it to look like a kids sketch of a bathroom sink, or a tap.
What are the inspirations behind the collection? Did you look to architecture or art, for example?
Sculpture has been a big inspiration, and architecture is too. I’d love to have been a sculptor but now I get to indulge within a functional framework, which actually suits me much better than having a blank sheet of conceptual paper. There’re elements of pop art –Jeff Koons and his ‘Balloon Dog’ or Claes Oldenburg. I quite like an element of the comic – as long as you still recognise what things are. Other inspirations are probably the work of Barbara Hepworth – that very rounded use of marble, the geometry of soft forms. And Isamu Noguchi, who worked with marble and a whole range of other materials. We’ve been building this round-edged aesthetic for a while now – an example of which you’re sitting on, the Fat Dining Chair – which has got this generous use of material and a soft outlook. It’s quite blobby, almost cartoony, and it’s comfortable. I think it’s partly to do with family. I was very spiky until I became a dad and then I became more rounded. And kids run into things and hurt themselves, so you avoid that if you can.
Would you say this is a designers’ collection, or is it for everybody?
I saw the collection as an opportunity to do something a bit like a Swiss Army knife, metaphorically speaking, that works in professional situations and domestic ones. If you can do something that’s tough enough to survive in a professional environment, the toilets of a bar say, it will survive forever in the home. It used to be that hotel sanitaryware was distinct and different from domestic products but the boundaries are increasingly blurred. People take inspiration from what they see in hotel rooms or restaurants, and if we do something that people recognise and want in their home, that’s no bad thing. From the aesthetic point of view there’s no need for a distinction. For a long time, the office environment has looked a bit like a living room or people’s homes might look a bit like Shoreditch House. I don’t think there’s as much separation now between work and play, holidays and being at home.