As with any great artist or designer, Tom Dixon, owner of Tom Dixon Studio, went through a phase of trial and error before his famed S Chair was born.
“There were many really quite ugly versions before I came across the one I liked,” he said.
The beautiful serpentine curves of his S Chair, created in the ‘80s in Dixon’s London workshop, were partly inspired by his need to wrap recycled tire rubber around a steel frame with a soft shape—no sharp or harsh edges, something akin to wrapping a mummy, he described.
Once he settled on the now iconic shape, the idea of which is said to have sprung from a small doodle he made of a chicken, the tire rubber had to go.
Although it was a comfortable and tough material, “it smells too much for most people,” Dixon explained. “So I tried a few other materials and ended up using seagrass and bulrush, natural materials, which suddenly made it look much more country style.”
The chair was a hit in the U.K., and it eventually impressed the head of Italian furniture company Cappellini, who offered up the company’s manufacturing and international distribution power to bring the S Chair to the marketplace.
In 2020, the S Chair celebrated its 30th anniversary, and along with its many editions in different materials (including leather and fabric) throughout those three decades, Dixon has also collaborated with artists around the world to create new versions of the S Chair.
Some were more successful than others.
“Sometimes the net effect was disastrous,” Dixon recalled. “I tried making an edition in India with hemp, which was for a nightclub in Portugal, so I tried to make a batch of 100 S Chairs with a person I met in India by chance. They started to unwind in the club, and I had to send a whole team out to reupholster them in Portugal.”
Other times, he said, those collaborations have been successful and a way of pushing forward new materials.
For London Craft Week 2020, Tom Dixon Studio invited knitwear designer Peju Obasa, who specializes in crochet and upcycled materials, to reengineer the S Chair. She worked with Econyl, which produces regenerated nylon from ocean and landfill waste, to create an S Chair edition with recycled nylon made from fishing nets.
“The S Chair has a signature style—it’s very strong and bold,” Obasa said in a video of how she made the crochet chair at Tom Dixon Studio. “I just thought it would look so great with a chunky texture on top of it [and] it would look very sculpturally beautiful.”
The S Chair has been known to lend a sculptural quality to a space, but Dixon urged commercial designers to remember that it’s also an ergonomic chair with good lumbar support—meaning it can also be ideal as an office or conference room chair.
“I like using it as an occasional office chair myself,” he said. “It works as a sculpture, but it’s also been used very effectively as a six-around-a-dining-table kind of setup. You don’t get that forest of legs that you get with four-legged chairs. You get these single, flame-like objects. It’s been effective in meeting spaces or boardrooms, where you want something that is out of the ordinary or something that keeps people alert.”
The S Chair is certainly a conversation piece, as well as a functional piece, and Dixon hopes its reinventing continues.
“It’s had a long life, and I think that’s partly because it’s quite a good canvas for reinventing,” he said. “It’s anthropomorphic—it’s quite human shaped. It’s got a waist, wide knees and a kind of human attitude. So when you dress it up in an extraordinary fabric, it just refreshes it. It’s kept interesting because we rethink it all the time. It’s been a great object for me to have following me around in my career. It becomes a canvas for testing out new ideas.”