If you don’t necessarily know who Harry Allen is, you’ve seen at least one of his designs somewhere—most likely the realistic piglet piggy bank cast in a variety of materials or the fruit bowl shaped like a bunch of bananas. These products from his “Reality” line represent just one set of his ideas—there’s much more to his output, including designs for lighting, interiors, furniture and commercial packaging. Harry’s work is in the permanent collections of MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum as well the Denver and Philadelphia Museums.
We’ve interviewed Harry in his East Village apartment before—we seem to remember on that occasion we talked about astrology rather more than design. Anyway, this time it was gentrification and from there, his thoughts on how little time we give to creativity in our day-to-day lives … we also learned from a designer who has been around the block, the definition of something that’s “too design-y.”
So it’s been six years since we interviewed you …
Six years. A lot has happened in six years.
Tell us what has happened … in 140 characters or less …
[laughs] Well life is basically the same because John [John Holm, Harry’s partner] and I were together, living in Bedford and living here, splitting our time. What we do is, we split the year—half the year I commute and half the year he commutes. I commute all summer and he commutes in the winter. So it’s very fair.
This neighborhood has changed so much in the past few years, hasn’t it?
Oh, the neighborhood has changed so much … thankfully. There are pluses and minuses to gentrification, right? This area was particularly scarred by drugs, and because of that it took longer for this area to change. I mean on 13th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue B, there were, like, coke dens. You could literally go in, buy coke and do it. It was just very sinister. Someone threw a brick through my window … but that was around the time I first moved in, which was 1998. For a long time there was still nothing really up here but a couple of years ago, this really cute little cookie shop opened up on the corner and you could just sort of feel that things were okay.
I don’t really know what to say about gentrification because it’s appealing … you know cookie shops and so forth … but you also have to see it from the point of view of the long-time residents who are essentially pushed out.
What I love about the East Village and have always loved about the East Village, is the diversity. And that actually won’t change because of the projects on the water [East River]. But it’s not affordable [elsewhere], that’s true.
I read the diary you wrote about going to Haystack [Mountain School of Crafts] – I really enjoyed reading it. What caught my attention particularly was something you said about how little time we have in our lives for actual creativity, which was interesting coming from you because I thought that’s what you, as a designer, do have time for! I wondered if you could talk a little about that idea of how little creative space there is in daily life and how it competes with the time given to day-to-day activities?
Sure. Two years ago, Haystack started a residency. You have to apply and if you get the residency, then for two weeks you basically have the run of the place. And that’s not really a common design thing; it’s a writer’s thing or an artist’s thing. So you go up and do that, but it was coming back to my life that was probably the most interesting part of it.
I really wanted to get back to my life. It was like a little bit of sensory deprivation [at Haystack] but it’s also this really great opportunity. Most of the people are crafts people with a real focus, so they were potters or they were woodworkers or something. They have this amazing work ethic—and that’s what you do …like the meals, for example, they ring a bell, you go up, you eat and then you go back and you work. You don’t even have to think about what you’re going to eat! And you realize when you get back [to your real life] how much of your day is spent figuring out what you’re going to eat, going to the store and buying it … when you don’t have to do any of that sort of thing … it’s so huge!
Perhaps that’s what life really is … small obligations and chores …
Yes … when I got back, I had neglected things … I’d neglected my mother—I had been helping her with her house at the beach that got wiped out by Hurricane Sandy. But while I was at Haystack, I had made so many things! I did have so much fun. But normally in my life [as a designer], I spend all the time setting it up. And I might have, like two hours to do the work. I have to be really efficient and I have to bang it out. But there, when I walked in I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to have two weeks??!”
What was it like being around so many crafts people?
I’m not a craftsman, so I’m not crafting and perfecting and all of that stuff. For me it’s ideas. I just need to get the idea out. It doesn’t need to be crafted in a beautiful manner, so I’m a little different than the people who were there. Craft is about the making; design is about the idea. Although, it made me realize that they’re way too far apart.
What did you make while you were there?
Well often the people who go there have a specialty, like they work in ceramic or they work in wood but I didn’t belong to any one thing, so I [first] put myself in the textile studio, which is something I’ve never done. And actually there’s a whole collaboration that’s come out of it with [textile designer] Liz Collins [the pieces including a pair of chairs “woven” together that riff off the idea of antique “conversation chairs”]
What did the crafts people think of you?
I think I was a little bit of a curiosity. I’ll show you the chair I made in the woodshop. I made a mold out of another chair and then I built over it with sticks. My idea of craft is that it doesn’t have to take a long time. And actually what I did was kind of amazing—but don’t tell anyone! I had a drill and I [makes the sound of quick bursts of drilling] put all these sticks together … I figured if I put enough of them together, it would be strong enough. They didn’t understand what I was doing. They thought I was screwing the sticks to the shell. The chair was all covered in tape and screws and they said things like “Nice tape joinery” … you know they were all dovetailing beautifully. So when I took this chair [made entirely of sticks] off of the mold, they were all … like people came around to see it!
Cool! You sound so confident.
Well, I knew what I wanted to do. You learn a lot through the process. Actually, the best things I’ve ever done, I’ve done with my own hands, like the bottle for Marc Jacobs—I took a hammer and I banged that piece of metal and I made that bottle.
Ideas come from doing and process, don’t they? I’m also very interested in your capacity for story. You’re very good at imbuing what you do with story, like talking about going to the Chinese plantation to hack down what we Brits call a “hand” of bananas for your banana fruit bowl.
A hand of bananas? That’s very good. I say a rack of bananas. But you know I find it so easy to find a story because everything has a story. Those Reality products happen to me. It’s not design—it’s like an exercise in hunting and gathering. I’m icon hunting. I’m also sort of done with that whole [Reality] thing [now].
I feel like I’ve done a bunch of really great things but … it sort of marked a period in my career. I might add to it every now and then.
What would you like to do now?
I like doing the simple, modern things. Sort of what I always did. The minute I did “the pig”, everyone forgot that I do those things. That’s a little bit weird too. Once you do something that’s successful, you’re marked by that. I always say that the pig is my Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I heard you say in a video about designing a clothing store in L.A. that you didn’t want it to be too “design-y”. What is “too design-y”?
I always think of it, it’s like a party. Everything in your life is a guest and you want them all to be sort of interesting and it’s nice if they’re good-looking and all that stuff. But then there’s always that one person who is, like, really screaming for attention and you can’t stand that person. And that’s the way I feel about something that’s too design-y.