Harry Allen is a happening guy. From his design studio in New York’s East Village, he makes ironic rollerskate doorstops and pig banks for Areaware and is one of only three American designers working with the hip Italian furniture brand Skitsch, along with Jason Miller and Todd Bracher. His new Bang perfume bottle is all over the ad pages of major fashion magazines, strategically positioned atop a nude Marc Jacobs, and the skateboarding store Supreme owes its interiors to him. Allen is so evergreen, in fact, that it’s easy to forget the most basic fact of his biography: He’s been doing this for nearly 20 years. “Everyone treats me like I’m some kid, but I’ve been around for a long time,” he says. “When I started in 1993, there was no Moss, no Wallpaper. Philippe Starck was king, and everything was shaped like a horn. I looked at Europe and thought: That’s what I want to be, I want to be like Starck. I want to be Starck.”
But while he did follow that model when he set up his own design studio in 1993 — as opposed to joining a corporation like most of his American peers were doing at the time — part of the reason Allen’s presence in the design world always feels so fresh is that unlike Starck, he’s constantly reinvented himself along the way. After a post-grad stint making counter displays for the cosmetics company Prescriptives, he launched Harry Allen Design at ICFF with a series of modular furniture called Living Systems that sold to North Face and Barney’s; Murray Moss spotted it in the windows of the latter in 1994 and commissioned Allen to design the interior of his new store. Allen moved on to experiment with making lamps out of ceramic foam and tables and vases out of sandwiched plywood and plastic, paying the bills with cosmetics packaging, identity design, and more interiors work. And then, in 2007, came the pig. The fateful first offering in a line of cast archetypal objects he christened Reality, it consisted of a dead piglet sourced from a farm upstate and faithfully reproduced in resin as a piggy bank. Once known as the Moss Guy, then the Materials Guy, Allen immediately became the Pig Guy. “It was this sort of weird detour in my career,” he says. “But I wasn’t not going to do it just because it didn’t fit into my previous body of work. I look at artists like Donald Judd, and as much as I admire him, he did the same damn thing his whole life. I could never be that person.”
With Reality even moreso than his past projects, Allen found an overarching design approach that could inform multiple parts of his practice: The imploded-silver Bang bottle for Marc Jacobs, for instance, which captures the act of smashing a piece of metal with a hammer, makes sense in the same obvious, accessible way as a fruit bowl shaped like a bunch of bananas, or a coat hook modeled after a human hand. His new shelving system for Skitsch is a riff on the iconic house we all drew as children, and even his First-Aid Kit for Band-Aid has a kind of plainspoken familiarity about it. “It’s something that people can get their head around, something easily recognizable without too many distracting bells and whistles,” he says. “Even when I’m working in an abstract formal language, I’m constantly trying to hit a bullseye in people’s brains.” We visited Allen at his studio in New York to find out more about that process.
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