Harry Allen’s studio encompasses three large rooms in a building in New York’s East Village. He has an apartment upstairs, but spends half of his time living upstate with his partner John, a landscape architect. That house hides most of the antiques and iconic-looking objects that Allen collects as research for the Reality series, whose process he likens more to hunting and gathering than actual design. “When I was making lamps out of paper, I started looking at what makes something lampy,” he says. “It should have an urn base with a fabric shade and a finial on top. If you drew a lamp to go on grandma’s table in the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, that would be the one. So you’re searching antique stores for the perfect thing, and it’s really time consuming.”
The items on the shelves behind his desk, on the other hand, are mostly personal objects, like the gold diamond by Studio Job he traded for a pig bank. The Charlotte Perriand sketch is from a book of design prints from the ’20s, while the paper illustration of his hand hook is an invitation from Skitch’s first anniversary. Allen began working with the Italian design label after they started selling his Reality objects at their store in Milan — they liked his work so much, they invited him to contribute to their line. “They’re playing in a similar area that I’m playing in,” he says. “The company’s based on these ironic twists on real life. In Italian, Skitsch basically means not kitsch, but one step away from being kitsch. Which is what I always say about Reality.”
“A friend of a friend named Scott Riddle made the baby sculpture,” Allen says. “He’s a ceramicist in LA. He’s also interested in some of the same things I’m interested in; he was casting all these doll parts, which is twisted but fun. But his work differs from mine in that I’m doing straight up casting, while his is sort of gloppy and weird. I bought a few of his pieces, and some are very beautiful — the one I have here is just the one that John didn’t allow in the house. It’s the most twisted of all of them.”
The fact that Allen’s mother was an artist and his father an engineer made his choice of disciplines all the more poignant: Through design, he was able to channel both their interests. This miniature steam engine, though — part of a childhood collection — reflects his father’s influence in particular. “He was a civil engineer, and they did a lot of sewage treatment plants and highways, and I see such a beauty in that work,” he says. “I love engineering and I love the buildings of Pier Luigi Nervi, the mid-century Italian engineer who became a Modernist. I would never buy a steam engine now, but that appreciation definitely contributes to my makeup.”
“Sometimes my work is more lyrical like my mother, and other times it’s more gearhead like my father,” he continues. “This lamp I designed for Ikea has a barebones engineering quality about it, but it also looks like a little red animal, so you get both sides. It was part of a larger project involving other New York lighting designers that never got realized, but it was actually a huge success for Ikea. It was in the line for six or seven years, and was featured on TV and in one of the Spiderman movies. It was first time I got to do something on a hugely mass-produced scale. It fulfilled that part of my design fantasy.”
One of Allen’s latest projects is a wall organizer made from used tin cans that have been cleaned and sprayed with truck-bed liner. It’s not yet in production thanks in part to the earthquake in Haiti, where he was originally planning to manufacture it. “The piece you’re looking at is a one-off I made in the studio,” he says.
“I’ve always liked tin cans,” Allen adds. “Constantin Boym made them into coffee containers for Alessi and they’ve been played out in art, but I find them to be useful and beautiful objects. The only problem is that it turns out you could probably make a new tin can with less energy than you could cleaning and grinding down the sharp edges of an old tin can — that’s the issue with reuse. I still think it’s an interesting idea, though, and I haven’t given up on it.”
Allen’s first piece for Skitsch, called Home, launched during the London Design Festival in September. “It came from a little sketch I did for a storage unit where I started drawing little boxes, then put a roof on it,” he says. “Of course now everyone’s telling me I made a doll house, which is fine, as long as people buy it. But I was thinking of Julian Opie’s work, and how there’s a racetrack in your head from being a kid, and I wanted this to be the archetype of a house. If you asked a child to draw a house, he’d draw rooms, a roof, and a chimney. It’s something everyone’s experienced.”
“You can buy Home in separate pieces and put it together in different ways — making it look like a country house, or your house, or a city block, or not like a house at all — because it’s a system, which goes back to what I was doing in the very beginning,” he says, referencing his very first design in 1993, Living Systems (pictured). “The user can bring to it whatever they want to bring to it.”
Archetypes, of course, are the basis of Allen’s Reality line, which started with the pig but progressed into desk sets cast from generic office supplies, fruit bowls made of fruit, and candles in the shape of standard light bulbs. “That process is interesting because it’s made me look at how things register on the brain,” he says. “A lot of the objects I was casting were from my family, but I was like, what makes these candlesticks important to anyone but me? So I once attempted to turn a Ken Weber Art Deco clock from the Wolfsonian’s collection into a digital alarm. I liked that it had provenence, but a year and a half later we realized it didn’t even look like a clock. It was a beautiful object, but it wouldn’t have that immediate read to people. After all that work, it wasn’t clocky enough.”
“I wouldn’t mind casting design icons, but when you think of a chair, even though I want you to think of an Eames chair, you’re probably thinking of a regular flat-back chair,” he says. “So when you go to cast it, which one are you going to choose? In terms of commercial success and appealing to a broad audience, the bigger story is always the more successful one.” (Also pictured here: A transparent version of Allen's Metropolitan vases for Gaia & Gino.)
The Bang bottle for Marc Jacobs was well received for the same reason — it immediately evoked the feeling of something slamming into a piece of metal. “My initial thought was that I wanted to capture impact,” says Allen. “What goes bang? How do you capture the essence of that word? There was a molded gun in the concepts, but the company wanted to stay away from that metaphor. I thought about hand grenades and a lot of other things that go bang, but Marc didn’t want to show violence. The one that struck a chord had a lot of complexity built into it, but you read it like the pig. You get the message instantly.”
That said, Allen can’t always predict the success rate of a Reality piece, even if it captures the a-ha moment he’s looking for: His Chianti candleholder was discontinued by Areaware, as was the wine rack made of cast half-bottles. He suspects it was “too generic; the more outrageous a Reality object is, the more people like it.” This frog-shaped flower frog — used to anchor stems at the bottom of a roomy vase — was another failed experiment. “Areaware was pushing me to do more animals, and I like them to have a relationship to the object they become, like a piggy bank. We sold most of these to florists, but they never had general appeal because most people have no idea what a frog is. I always loved it, though.”
Because Allen has gotten “a little bored” of the prolific Reality line at times, he sometimes looks for ways to experiment with his methodology. After pinning and drying a firefly he caught in his backyard, he took it to an x-ray scanning technician working in the medical industry and had the bug digitally mapped, resulting in a computer file he could enlarge and print with startling accuracy using a rapid-prototyping machine. “It’s not Hollywood fakery, it’s very real, which is always my concern,” he says. “It’s damn near as good as a cast we’d normally do.” Of course, because the finished firefly light retails for $2,500, it’s only limited edition for now.
Another diversion involved casting a lantern in a kind of papier-mache, using a silicone mold. “I was wanting to get away from resin at the time,” Allen says. “The trick is to keep the paper transparent, for which I can’t tell you my formula. But it was never really fully resolved, just a studio experiment. Whenever you stray from commercial production techniques, you run into problems and have to find an enlightened manufacturer to stray with you. To make one is really easy, but to mass produce it is a very different thing.”
The studio shelves are also lined with models and ideas for furniture, which Allen hopes to do more of in the coming years. He’s currently working with two Brazilian manufacturers on seating and lighting — NDT and Vialight — and has given Skitsch several more proposals for Reality furniture that so far haven’t progressed. When it comes to the latter, “Often people don’t want to make it until I mock it up,” he says. “The idea on paper falls flat; it’s almost impossible to relay. It’s not until you get them made and ghosted out that they make sense.”
“The squirrel is the beginning of another thought for Areaware,” Allen says. “We were looking to do a nutcracker, but it’s sitting there waiting for me to figure out the tail. The pig was just lucky — pigs don’t have a lot of hair, so you’re basically casting a little fleshy thing. But anything that has hair or feathers mushes, so it’s hard to cast. It’s a shame to make an object where one part of it is cast from life and another part is a simulation.”
Also on Allen’s bookshelf is the wacky 1972 volume “Underground Interiors: Decorating for Alternative Lifestyles,” which he bought on a tip from Murray Moss during a period when he was collecting obscure design books. “It documents this period in wild interiors that are oddly unfinished and poorly detailed, but exuberant and really fun,” he says. “The page pictured here is Karl Lagerfeld’s apartment. There’s also one where everything in the apartment is covered with sheep’s fleece — they were chosen for their oddity.”
“This was a piece that was in production in 2008 with Umbra, the Block Table, and it was part of a series,” says Allen. “I wanted to see what it looked like if every cube was a different color, so I had this sample in my studio that was the wrong finish, and I asked this artist, Jennifer Dunlap, to come in and paint it for me. It’s not in production anymore because it was too heavy and expensive to make, kind of like a butcher block on steroids. But I’m fascinated by clusters of things in general.”
In fact, a huge bookshelf in the back room of Allen’s studio is crammed mostly with manfuacturing samples and other “Reality rejects I like a lot,” he says.
“The item on the right is actually a scanned sugar cube, which I made when I was messing around with all these magnified small things, like the firefly,” Allen says. “I was going to turn it into a sugar container, but it didn’t have an iconic quality because people wouldn’t know it was a sugar cube — it looks like a piece of styrofoam. But it’s funny because Alessi has since done something very similar by Marti Guixé.”
Early experiments from the ’90s, “back when I was the materials guy,” says Allen. “They’re all combinations of virgin and recycled wood and plastic. I glued the sheets into blocks and turned them on a lathe. Now you’d laser-cut them or water-jet them, but at the time those technologies weren’t as advanced as they are now. One of my problems with the greening of the world is that it all ends up looking green, and what I was interested in was highlighting the beauty of these materials by combining old and new.”
This black sample version of his pig bank is made from porcelain rather than the usual ceramic, the only remaining evidence of the time Lladró approached Areaware to start a partnership with its factory. “So we tried it,” he explains. “They did a beautiful job, but it came out to be $600 retail, and you don’t actually get to co-brand it Lladró, it’s just made by their factory. Plus, most people already had the perception that the white pig is made of ceramic — no one knew it was resin. We decided not to do it; we were way too far down the road to make it happen. But we are working on a matte-black pig in resin.”
The pig is omnipresent in Allen's studio, including in this painting done by a 90-year-old artist friend, which greets you from an overhead wall as you exit the building. Allen seems conflicted about the impact it’s had on his practice — while he’s grateful for the design’s success, he's wary of being pigeonholed. And yet in January, he’ll launch a new series for Steuben that includes a glass pig up on its hind legs, with an open mouth for feeding coins into. “Everyone knows me for this one object, which makes me a little bit nervous,” he says. “But only fleetingly, and then I get over it.”
This week only, you can enter to win your very own gold Bank in the Form of a Pig as part of Sight Unseen's Perfect Present Giveaway, in which we're giving away one product from the shelves of The Future Perfect each week for four weeks. Click here to visit the sweepstakes entry page, and don't forget to come back daily to increase your odds of winning!