Profile: James Harrison

Success came early for furniture designer James Harrison, courtesy of a deal with Habitat, but he retains the pragmatism and level-headedness he learned while growing up on a farm, says Max Fraser

James Harrison’s first foray into the design industry came in July 2005 when a handful of his furniture designs appeared at the New Designers exhibition. A graduate of the University of Northumbria, Harrison gained positive feedback on completion of the course and was consequently invited back by the university to join its designer-in-residence scheme – a privilege bestowed on only two or three graduates each year – which provides the basic infrastructure that a new designer needs in the tentative first few years in the ‘real’ world, including access to workshops and business-mentoring support.

Together with fellow graduate James Kinmond, Harrison formed a partnership, James Design, to handle one-off furniture commissions for mainly private clients. In the early days, this involved several joinery and cabinet-making jobs for a local interior design consultancy which helped to fund the development of new prototypes. Like most designers, Harrison is most happy when he is actually designing, and cherishes the moments when he is experimenting in the workshop and transforming his ideas into working prototypes. In that respect, you suspect that the other time-consuming elements of trading have imposed a steep learning curve on the young creative – an impact that has presumably been less of a struggle when shared with Kinmond.

James Design has benefited from the proactive support of the university at exhibitions such as the Stockholm Furniture Fair in Sweden and Salone del Mobile in Milan, Italy, where its work has been presented as part of a group stand promoting the university’s recent ‘talent bank’. Exposure to a mature international audience has helped the partnership understand the demands and opinions of the industry.

That said, Harrison was thrown in at the deep end when Habitat expressed interest in the oak rocker chair that he designed as a student and showcased at New Designers. It was a rare opportunity for a new graduate, as talks began to add the design to the retailer’s range. ‘I was attracted to the rocker design because it is a simple, beautiful modern interpretation of a traditional function, which I think many people relate to,’ says Bethan Gray, senior furniture design manager for Habitat. She’s not wrong. Since it was introduced into this year’s spring/summer collection, sales of the chair have already exceeded predictions.

Throughout the product development of the rocker chair in 2006, Harrison continued with his private commission work while also creating new products for James Design, including a two-seater version of the rocker and the leather-upholstered Wingback chair, which were both launched at New Designers’ One Year On exhibition in July last year. Shortly after, as his relationship with Habitat strengthened, the allure of London saw Harrison move to the capital to take up a part-time design role at the retailer, where he now works four days a week, spending his remaining time pursuing freelance work and ‘doing his own thing’.

Harrison doesn’t profess to make any highbrow, intellectual statements with his creations. He takes a pragmatic approach to his profession, paying careful attention to the practicalities of production while always aiming to design something beautiful. ‘A chair can be as comfy as possible, but no one will buy it if it is ugly,’ he says. ‘I’m not trying to change the world, and I am not interested in adding more unnecessary quirky items. I want to produce elegant pieces that stand the test of time.’ It is no surprise, therefore, that he cites designers such as Matthew Hilton, Jasper Morrison and Russell Pinch as inspirations. He is also a fan of Danish designer Hans Wegner and admires his timeless use of natural quality materials.

Harrison has already proved that he is not a one-hit wonder. This April saw the launch of his new designs – some side tables and hat stands – for UK company Case Furniture at Salone del Mobile. You get the impression that his early successes have come as a bit of a surprise. The 24-year-old will admit that, when growing up on a farm in Yorkshire, he never really knew what he wanted to do. He attributes his hands-on approach to the problem-solving demands of a working farm. ‘For me, designing seems instinctive and it’s what I enjoy,’ he says. Refreshingly devoid of a ‘designer ego’, let’s hope that the fast pace of London doesn’t prove too much for this rather gentle talent. He will be exhibiting new designs at 100% Futures in September, but it’s unlikely that any success will go to his head.

All designs pictured by James Harrison

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