We had a lot of fun in the East Village interviewing Harry Allen who is the designer with the kind of ideas that you think you could easily have thought of – except you didn’t, he did. He is best known for his cast line of useful objects made from real objects, a piggy bank cast from a real piglet, a fruit bowl cast from a real hand of bananas and many other designs that involve consciously removing shapes from their context in real life, replicating them yet irrevocably changing them through the casting process, then replacing them once again into that very same context. Sometimes the process produces a creepy object (dismembered Addams Family-type hands used as coat hooks) or sometimes it results in something charming (candles in the shape of light bulbs). It is a concept that plays on the ideas of transformation, cloning, immutability and mass production and the objects sell like hot cakes. However, this is just one aspect of his design because he is also involved in package design for several cosmetics companies, and interior design, notably the store Moss in SoHo where design groupies go to gaze upon their objects of desire.
Your website is astounding – I had to have a lie-down after looking at it! One of the things that struck me was how verbal you are, how language matters to you, which is interesting in that design is so visual.
That’s interesting that you picked up on that because I write most of what’s on the website, which is sort of difficult because you have to write everything in the third person … so it’s always like Mr. Allen blah blah blah, which is a little weird. But you know my first degree is in politics with a literature minor—at that point in my life, I probably thought I was a lousy writer. But I’ve written so much since then, I think I’m actually pretty good. That’s why I have a business too and I can run the business. All that stuff kind of paid off later in life.
[Jeff, the photographer, comes in and the conversation wanders, during which Harry mentions that the day before was his birthday]
[Sian]: So that was what, May 22nd? What sign are you? Shhh Lesley, people are interested in that!
All of my Taurus friends think that I’m a Taurus. Taurus is bully, you know … like I do do that, like in order to make things happen, you have to be very determined … push the roof a bit. And I don’t see any of ‘the Gemini’—as a Gemini you’re supposed to be a little schizophrenic but I’m very holistic. Whether I believe they apply or not, I think it’s an interesting point of departure.
[Lesley] What I find fascinating is the way people interpret this stuff to fit themselves, it’s just incredible the way people maneuver themselves into the definition…
[He starts to laugh] Does that just drive you crazy?
[Lesley]Yes. [Sian] Oh I like it, what the hell!
[Lesley] … Again, back to the language thing … you’ve got this statement on the website: “Beauty is no longer defined by aesthetics. The time has come for intelligent, conceptual design solutions.” I don’t know what that means.
I think that art has moved so far away from aesthetics. It’s no longer about a pretty painting—it’s about concept. And that has moved into the design world in a big way in the last few years. Like my piggy bank for example—I didn’t apply an aesthetic to it. I lifted a form. That’s a very conceptual thing to do. People enjoy it [as a pretty object] but they also enjoy it as much on a conceptual level, that it’s the first piggy bank that’s ever actually looked like a pig in the history of the world. I sort of play both ends.
I’m very ambivalent about the whole design world. I feel in many ways it’s become it’s own priesthood, only for the initiated. I wonder if you have a reaction to that.
The thing about design is that it is just a huge field. I do feel that if you want to have a nice home, and a nice life, that you need to learn about things. And if you’re going to collect things and gather things, then it behooves you to make educated choices.
[Lesley] But it’s so conscious. I wonder about the time when designers didn’t know they were designers. I have these pillows at home that were made by some anonymous Turkish villagers and the colors are put together with a real eye and I’ll never know who this person is.
It’s probably some art director who came in from L.A.
[Sian] But don’t you think the person who made that pillow would market themselves if they could?
Yeah, they’d become a brand, they just happen to be stranded in this village … that eight-year old child probably [laughing] … I mean I just got back from China so I’m on the bandwagon.
Oh, so tell us about China. What was that like?
We have basically shipped all of our problems there, and they all exist there. And they exist compounded 20 times worse than when we had them here. When you go see it it’s pretty disheartening and scary. Just the magnitude of the problems, like when you see a polluted river, it’s the biggest, polluted river you’ve ever seen in your entire life … and at some point the Chinese are going to want health insurance too, so it’s sort of built on false foundation … and we’re just going to keep chasing the cheapest place to build a factory … I don’t know. In some ways it’s the consumers who are spoiled—you can have lots and lots and lots and lots of cheap crap. That’s where I think snobbery is a good thing. I would rather have people buy one really great thing … and then screw Christmas! Just buy one thing!
But it doesn’t feed our acquisitive urges.
Nah. But do somethin’ else! Go to yoga class! I don’t know.
How do you like being described as quirky?
That’s all right. One of the problems is this cast line [the piggy bank, grandmother’s candlestick, the hand-of-bananas fruit bowl et al] I’m doing has gotten very, very popular and there are many people who know that I do that and that’s all they think I do, but that’s fine. I’m all right with it. I have a good sense of humor too, so I like that that comes out in my work a little bit.
Tell us about how the pig used for the piggy bank died. I heard people got upset.
It’s cast from a real pig, the piggy bank, and all of those products are cast from real things. It turns out that its mother suffocated it. But there was this woman who was sort of attacking me for having done it. So now when people ask me I say its mother killed it not me.
I like how you’ve kept some old things here, like this chest of drawers.
Yeah, that’s a good chest. My father actually found that on the street when he was a kid. I’ve just been going through a lot of family possessions. It was just a lot of things so, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to edit through it all and keep the best stuff and not just keep everything. It’s not easy to make decisions but you have to do it if you want a nice life, otherwise you just live with a bunch of stuff.
What is a nice life?
What is a nice life? Well, I don’t like my life to be too cluttered. And I like the things that I have in my life to be tended to and cared for … and then the rest I just want to get rid of. Does that make sense?
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch