Tom Dixon's Twenty exhibition

Tom Dixon's 20th-anniversary exhibition features underwater furniture and mycelium towers

British designer Tom Dixon has unveiled Twenty at Milan design week, an exhibition exploring two decades of his work that includes a chair made from eelgrass and furniture that has been "grown" underwater.

Showing at the Palazzo Serbelloni, an 18th-century Milanese palace that houses auction house Sotheby's, the exhibition celebrates 20 years since the designer launched his eponymous studio.

Designer Tom Dixon in Milan
The exhibition showcases twenty years of designs

It comprises 20 of Dixon's designs, some of which have been altered and updated. These include the S chair, originally made from recycled rubber tires and eventually produced by furniture house Capellini in reconstituted leather and textile.

Here, it has been given a shiny latex cover that the designer worked on with rubber couturier Nange Magro.

Also on show are an upgraded version of Dixon's Bird chair made from eelgrass – a type of seagrass – as well as towers made from mycelium and scented with Dixon's new fragrances Root and Underground.

A seaweed chair by Tom Dixon
The Bird chair has been given an update

The exhibition has a firm focus on materials, which is an important aspect of Dixon's designs and one that he continues to explore.

"There's a lot of new material research going on, but there are very few things which are mature enough to compete with the old materials that are done in huge bulk," he told Dezeen.

"But that equation is changing."

Lamps by Tom Dixon
Among the pieces on display is the Melt light

One example are his mycelium towers, a concept the studio is working on that was informed by packaging design.

"What's interesting right now is probably new ways of working with old materials and it's not like mycelium is new," he said. "It's just it's never been used in that way, and the innovations can also come from odd places."

Dixon is also currently looking at the digitalisation of manufacturing, which he believes is really changing the design industry.

"What's been interesting is the digitalisation of manufacturing," he said.

"Everybody talks about rapid prototyping, but for many years now, the digitalization of metal bashing for instance – robots that punch [metal] – that flexibility of manufacturing digitally reminds me a bit of what's happened in the music industry where you can now make an album on your laptop," he added.

"So in principle, designers can have a proximity to the means of industry which they previously couldn't. You can be a kind of bedroom designer brand and manufacturer in a flexible way with low tooling costs."

Aluminium chairs by Tom Dixon
The pieces are on display in Sotheby's Milan space

While Twenty features designs that are recognisable to people who are familiar with Dixon's work, it also showcases the more experimental designs he is currently working on.

Among them is Accretion, a metal chair designed to be "grown" underwater.

Based on a proposal by scientist Wolf Hilbertz for growing whole cities underwater, a small amount of low-voltage current is passed through the metal framework of the chair. This leads to mineral accretion – a chalky deposit begins to grow on the chair at an accelerated rate.

Accretion is a chair that has been fished out of the ocean
Accretion chairs are grown underwater

Dixon's studio, which has three Accretion chairs growing underwater in the Bahamas, hopes this could be a way to capture carbon and re-generate the world's disappearing coral reefs.

"By putting electricity through a kind of metal structure and that metal structure accumulating calcium carbonate, it starts allowing you to regenerate coral reefs, and coral grows three times faster on these structures than it does in normal water," Dixon explained.

"It's been shown that these kinds of semi-transparent structures and specifically coral slows down the waves and slows down beach erosion," he added.

"So that's where it becomes possible to think about underwater architecture that is adding, rather than subtracting."

A metal lamp by Tom Dixon
The exhibition features a number of playful designs

Dixon thinks he first went to Milan to show a product around 35 years ago – he has seen the rise of the internet and how digital culture has affected the design industry, something he thinks has had both positive and negative aspects.

"I've got the benefit of also having lived previously [before the internet]," Dixon said.

"I don't think it's that healthy to have your earliest ideas – before they're even ready – shown everywhere and belonging to everybody," he added, referring to how people can now showcase their work online.

"It makes it more difficult to gather a body of work and then have a point of difference from everybody else," he said.

"But the benefits are immense, of having an international audience from the get-go and people being able to find you in a way that was completely impossible before."

Twenty, which coincides with Sotheby's first design sale – for which Dixon has curated a room full of iconic design objects – is on show at Palazzo Serbelloni until 12 June.

Last year, Dixon appeared at Stockholm Design Week in the form of a hologram and launched a made-to-order lighting system.

Milan design week takes place from 6 to 12 June 2022 in Milan, Italy. See our Milan design week 2022 guide on Dezeen Events Guide for information about the many other exhibitions, installations and talks taking place throughout the week.

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