AT Offline: Harry Allen

AT Offline: Harry Allen

Aaron Able
Jun 18, 2010

June Guest: Harry Allen
AT Offline: The NY Design Meetup
Attendance: 120+

Our most recent Meetup was with Harry Allen — product and retail designer responsible for the Areaware Reality series and the Moss store (to skim the surface!). Jump below for the transcript and all the images integrated from Harry's presentation…


MAXWELL: We don't have many guests like Harry Allen. You may have heard of him through one of his products like the IKEA rollerblade lamp (Kila light), or his gold cast pig, that can hold $10,000 worth of bills! Or the Moss store — everyone seems to comment on the store itself before its contents. Most designers are recognized for doing one thing well. Harry does many things well.

Tell me about how you got started? You were born in New Jersey in 1964 and studied Industrial design at Pratt. We, in fact, first met on a design panel for an Umbra design competition at Pratt. You started out at Prescriptive Cosmetics and went on to establish your own design consultancy. A lot of people come to New York to start a career, and you came here from Pratt. Tell us how you found your way?

HARRY: Well, first I actually got an undergraduate degree from Alfred University. I then worked for a few years for a non-profit called International House. It was a graphic design teacher at Pratt who encouraged me to do more with 3D design. So, I was actually 27 before I graduated. My parents said they would pay for college once. They felt that if I got a general education, I could do anything after that. I was a creative child and went to a high-pressure prep school in New Jersey. No one there could tell me what I should do — no one knew. My mother was creative. My liberal arts degree was all-good — I can read, write now!

MAXWELL: Tell us about working with Prescriptive Cosmetics and your store designs…

HARRY: Prescriptive Cosmetics was such an important part of my career and I actually still work for the art director from Prescriptive Cosmetics. I've worked with Prescriptive Cosmetics, Mac — all great art directors. I met James Gager at a party at the Puck building. He had decided he was going to meet three new people that night and I was one of them! Murray (Moss) heard about me through my furniture publicity. I can't imagine being a designer anywhere else other than New York. It's really hard to become a designer. In New York, as a designer, you're valued. My mother used to say that I was going to have a hard time getting paid because people think you're just having fun!

MAXWELL: Do you think New York has changed?

HARRY: Yeah, everything then was moving out into the other boroughs and outer ring of the city. I used to think Stanford would become cool because everything was going local. I was hoping that work would start to reflect these new pockets/communities. But with International design, everything is starting to look the same. Products made in Japan look like something from Italy.

MAXWELL: But doesn't design thrive in a recession?

HARRY: Well, I don't know about that. Creativity thrives, whatever that means.

MAXWELL: So how did you come to design under your own name?

HARRY: I think everyone should work at some point in corporate design, but I always thought my ideas were better, so I prematurely started my own company. My furniture did well in my first year and that's how I survived the spring of my life. I sold $40,000 in furniture to the North Face store in Chicago. I sold a lot of furniture to Sony Plaza. Also, my grandmother died and left me some money, which I used towards designing and producing furniture. I quit my job in January and showed at ICFF (which was in its infancy) in May. Barney's took all my furniture and put it in their window. That is where Murray (Moss) saw my furniture and a magazine lady from Sony Plaza saw it there too.

MAXWELL: Barney's have been the sponsor to many new designers.

HARRY: Yeah, when it was on 7th Avenue, everyone looked at the windows. I think it's less influential now in its new location.

MAXWELL: When did the Moss store first open?

HARRY: The first store opened in 1994.

MAXWELL: It was kind of an odd store — you couldn't touch any of the products — it was like a museum. At that time, design stores were rare. How much of the store design reflected your ideas vs Murray's ideas?

HARRY: Our relationship was very symbiotic. At that time, most of the spaces in SoHo were former galleries. We should probably go to the slideshow now.


HARRY: At this point, I was a bit naïve about design history. When I designed this, everything looked like Philipe Starck had designed it, so I thought I had discovered the grid with this unit! But than I saw Eames stuff and learned more about what came before. This was part of my Living Systems (showed two systems at ICFF) — and YES, I selected the rose for this picture! It was modular and all the pieces could fit into each other. It was meant to be residential but ended up being popular for the commercial setting. This was the dresser bought by Sony Plaza.

HARRY: This is the Moss store — Murray wanted more behind glass. He was having theft problems and liked that people couldn't touch. SoHo wasn't what it is today! That store is gone now. It was like a gallery. Though people hated it, it got attention. It was the whole idea of objects of desire that you couldn't touch.

HARRY: The new store at 150 Greene Street is a much bigger store and he wanted it to be more like a museum with bigger displays. I went to the Museum of Natural History to get inspiration.

MAXWELL: Did you design the (Moss) logo?

HARRY: No that was designed by Ron Ryan. He now designs a lot of websites.

HARRY: This is my kitchen — designed and ordered from Chinatown restaurant supply stores. All stainless steel. My apartment is somewhat changed. I blew out three rooms to make one large room. I wanted it to work like a studio.

HARRY: This table is 14 - 16 foot long made of Paralam, a composite material. I designed this sofa system for Dune. These are my foam lamps (Mutant Material in Contemporary Design at MoMA). I became known as the 'Materials guy'.

HARRY: When I designed this table I thought I'd be a furniture maker but then packed it up because I needed to do something new. The cabbages are by Steven HullI — I like all the vignettes that happen in life.

HARRY: Donald Judd wooden chair on top; piece and Sol LeWitt sculpture. I bought this Knoll-like Mid-Century cabinet for $150.

HARRY: Since 2007, I've been the guy who did the pig cast. This, like most of my best pieces, started as a studio experiment. I met a guy who was doing resin castings in silicone moulds. I had these candlesticks that I loved — my aunt left them to me when she died. It bothered me that I liked them so much because they were so traditional. I thought: "why don't I borrow some form." I decided to make them more modern by casting them.

I learned a lot from designing furniture, like the fact that it's expensive when things go wrong! I started casting smaller pieces. I started getting them manufactured in China, as it was cheaper.

MAXWELL: How many pigs did you sell?

HARRY: The figures aren't exactly accurate, but I think 15,000 units.

HARRY: This banana bowl is one of my favorites. This was not really design but more like hunting and gathering. It's affordable art.

HARRY: I designed this bed. Wall fixture is lit colored glass.

HARRY: This is not a chair! It's a glass lamp that is lit from behind.

HARRY: NYC loft living and objects had consumed my whole life. Then, I met my partner Jon, who had this house in Bedford. It was built in 1840 and is a former schoolhouse. The picture of the house is my photo. I took it from the cemetery across the road!
The rest are professional photos from a shoot for Home & Garden. After Home & Garden folded, it was picked up and featured in Wallpaper last January.

HARRY: This is me and my partner — Jon's a gardener so there are lots of great trees.

HARRY: The pig I'm holding is a collaboration I did with Tobi Wong in Christmas red.

HARRY: With interiors, I like to keep the shell simple so it doesn't compete with the objects. This room was originally the bar area in the house. I designed the bed and dresser. There's a shag rug and some mid-century furniture.

HARRY: We had the garage turned into a dining room. The table is red oak. Some of the chairs are from my grandmother — some were Jon's. We had them stained to match each other and got all the weaving re-done to match.

The artwork is by a Norwegian artist. My partner (Norwegian) was interested once I told him the artist was Norwegian! It is two stags' heads, one licking the other's antlers. It has sexual undertones but it's tame enough for my mother! This is a complex piece of work when you relate it to my life.

We opened up the ceiling. I work with a Japanese woman who has a friend who worked for a lantern company. I ordered this very large lantern from her — it's something really simple but would have been nearly impossible to get without the connection.

HARRY: All blue foyer

HARRY: The kitchen is all grays — pewter, stainless steel backsplash, wrought iron, metal. For this room we combined three rooms.

HARRY: This is a dark room with brown walls. White on ceiling is also quite dark. Furniture and objects are bright colors to contrast the dark.

HARRY: This is my Tin Can Wall storage unit — I'm going in a new 're-use' direction. I have always kept things in tin cans because I like the way they look and here I've cast them.

HARRY: This is the New York Corian showroom. This shows the variety in my work. The pig and this showroom are great in their own right. This conference table is great because the pieces of Corian can be put together and sanded and it still looks seamless. The conference table actually goes through a hole in the glass wall. The window screens are translucent with a photograph printed on them.

HARRY: Scanned from a real firefly

HARRY: My Metropolitan vases

HARRY: First Aid Kit for Johnson & Johnson

HARRY: Cast pick up truck — brand new this year for Areaware launched at ICFF.

HARRY: Sticks and Stones glassware for the show 'Breakable'

HARRY: This is new for Dune — Pipeline furniture that is modular upholstered seating.

HARRY: A bottle I designed for the new Marc Jacobs' fragrance — Bang

Q & A

Q: Do you design for problems and needs in your own life?
HARRY: I designed a dresser to fill a personal need. But it goes both ways.

Q: Are you always changing your own spaces?
HARRY: I find there's nothing better than getting something new to refresh my space, but I'm also prone to lethargy.

Q: How do you find your artists?
HARRY: Unfortunately, I do very little residential work. I've only had to buy a piece of art once and that was through an art adviser.

Q: Being a designer for Moss, what do you think of Anthropologie?
HARRY: Sometimes I go into stores and I don't really pay attention. If it's a holistic experience, it's often better. Moss is very self-conscious; both are a valid experience.

MAXWELL: Yeah, different designs are appropriate for different times. The flea market experience of Anthropologie (though it doesn't have flea market prices!!) is good in a recession.

Q: What is the price range of your designs?
HARRY: White pig is under $100, but the chrome or custom-made pigs are more expensive. My IKEA lamp was only $14.99!

Q: How do you become an IKEA designer?
HARRY: I don't really know how to crack that nut. I just met a young guy in New York who asked me to design something for IKEA. It was part of the European PS line. It was 3-4 years later that the design came out; it's a very long process. IKEA only pays a flat fee.

Q: I work for The New York Times local section. Upcoming designers all seem to have a green focus. You mentioned how today's design is all very similar; was there an era when it was more distinct or regional?
HARRY: Yes, but with mass production/travel/commerce this is all changing. I'm very interested in being green — in fact, I'm hugely concerned. People say that designers are part of the problem, but we're also part of the solution. I was at the National Design Triennial at the Cooper Hewitt. They were talking about Greener, better solutions. All I kept thinking was that it was more engineering than design. In the US, the word 'design' is appropriated to mean things it's not. Design is about making things pretty, but no one has an interest until the consumer wants it. When the consumer wants greener products, that's when things will change.

MAXWELL: What is it about your design that is specifically New York or American?
HARRY: Haha! I'm always asked this question, particularly in Europe. It's always asked in an underhanded way. The problem is it's very difficult to get things made in the US these days. Therefore, it's an economy of means; you make things as easily as you can. I think what's happening is sad. New York is a very European city and is a gateway to the rest of the world, though I do like a lot of things about American design. What is American Design? I don't know!

MAXWELL: Thank you, Harry!

Images: Harry Allen Designs, Rune Stokmo, Francois Dischinger, Stefan Hengst, Albert Vecerka

• Special thanks to Herma Ryan & Kate Casciano for transcribing our Meetup!

• Special thanks to Knoll for welcoming our Meetup to their showroom!

• Special thanks to our wine sponsor, September Wine & Spirits!

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