Profile – Dominic Harris

Putting everyday technology at the heart of bespoke lighting installations may be a simple idea, but it’s led to high-profile projects across the globe for designer Dominic Harris. John Stones talks to him

‘What else allows you to have a few weeks off and go and fly UFOs in Brazil?’ asks Dominic Harris, displaying the enthusiasm that has enabled his studio to get off to a flying start.

In only two years, he’s been busy working on a series of highly original designs for the Snog frozen yoghurt chain, an inter-active lighting installation in London’s Hoxton Square, various art projects and event installations, not to mention, of course, the dazzling, flashing, 7m-diameter UFOs, flown at night by unlit helicopters, that he helped New York artist Peter Coffin create.

He’s part of a coterie of London designers working at the cusp of interactive and lighting technologies that includes Chris O’Shea (with whom he collaborated on an art project in Dublin, using colour beacons that follow visitors), Moritz Waldemeyer, Random International and Jason Bruges Studio, where he was senior designer for four years.

He left to form Cinimod studio, setting up shop on the kitchen table at home. ‘The place was covered in LEDs and you could hardly get into the bathroom because a chandelier was blocking the way,’ he says. When lawyer wife Claire finally cried ‘Enough!’, Harris rented a smart studio in nearby Westbourne Park. She remains in the picture, though, and, says Harris, ‘provides the sanity check on our projects and contracts’.

Harris chose the name Cinimod (Dominic spelt backwards in case you’re not a crossword fanatic) as he didn’t want the studio to be all about him, but a team effort, he says in a generous gesture to the three other full-time designers in the studio.

A Londoner by birth, 32-year-old Harris originally studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture, and despite the direction his career has taken him, architecture remains his first love. ‘I’m still an architect at heart, and it was my time at Future Systems that was most formative,’ he says. ‘It is Jan Kaplicky’s voice that I hear in my mind giving me advice when I’m working.’

Despite the art projects, Harris’ approach remains very much that of a designer. ‘The art projects are R&D,’ he says with a smile. For instance, Snog Soho required the installation of 700 bespoke lights, so Harris devised a simple modular wiring system that allowed each light to be plugged in with a USB connection, thus avoiding the customary expensive wiring and crimping. One of the partners of Snog – Pablo Uribe – is an architect, and has been pushing Harris to be more ambitious and innovative. ‘He’s a dream client,’ says Harris. Each Snog store has a bespoke lighting installation designed by Harris, and two more stores – in London’s Covent Garden and Notting Hill – are in the pipeline.

Most recent is the Snog outlet in the Westfield centre in White City, London, which features a characteristically innovative use of materials and technology. Its large booth is manufactured in polystyrene, shaped by a mixture of CNC milling and hand-carving, before receiving its tough and shiny outer coating.

If its formal language harks back to Future Systems, another current project has a different aesthetic, evoking Constructivists such as Naum Gabo. It is a three-storey, lit sculptural installation for a major building in the Middle East, whose client is insisting on confidentiality – much to Harris’ frustration.

An ambitious project to create a pair of enormous arches in Beijing, spanning eight lanes of traffic and made up of twisting modules of aluminium and LEDs, similarly remains under wraps.

Closer to home, Harris’ work for Snog has caught the eye of fast-food impresario Julian Metcalfe, who has commissioned him to design interactive lighting installations about to appear in his chain of Itsu restaurants.

As LED technology develops, it’s now allowing designers more sophisticated and subtle options to the rather predictable ‘rainbow’ sequences usually relied on. For instance, Harris is working on a chandelier that can be programmed to display various shades of white, from warm to cold, and believes there is plenty of scope for the application to consumer products of technologies that have up until now been the preserve of design installation art.

He also points out a commercial application for the electronic sky used in the first Snog, in Kensington, which has an ‘English summer sky’ with drifting clouds. This could be transferred to, for instance, the video lighting of offices to create specific moods and evoke different times of the day. And with a new project for Philips and a product design brief from a Belgian lighting manufacturer also in the offing, Harris is clearly not twiddling his thumbs through the recession.

All work by Dominic Harris and Cinimod

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