American designer Harry Allen, he of Bank In The Form Of A Pig and brilliant C’Mere hand hooks, talks design inspiration, rollerskating, living in a former funeral home and being paid to have fun

Where are you based and what do you love about your neighbourhood? I’m based in the East Village neighborhood of New york City. I love it for a variety of reasons. To me it still feels like New York. So many neighborhoods like the Meatpacking District and Hell’s Kitchen have gentrified beyond recognition. The East Village still feels diverse and edgy. It’s not what it used to be, but it still has some flavor. It is diverse in all ways – racially, economically, sexually. It’s a residential neighbourhood, mainly, so there are lots of good small restaurants, and lots of people on the street in the evenings. For years the East Village was a creative centre of the City, and a home to many young artists and creative professionals. As rents have risen many of those young creative types have moved out to the boroughs, but some of the bohemia remains and I like that vibe.

Tell us about Areaware. Areaware is not my company. They manufacture and sell my REALITY line of products. However, I have been with them almost from the start. For about a year and a half I made the REALITY products on my own. I have manufactured a couple of times during my career. In general I am a consulting designer, but from time to time, when I have an idea I just can’t deny, and I cannot find a manufacturing partner, I go into production myself. That is what happened in 2003 when I first had the idea for the Bank In The Form Of A Pig. I started making it and selling it as best I could, but then in 2005 I showed at the ICFF, with my friend Ross Menuez and a fledgling company he was involved with. That company became Areaware, and they eventually picked up all of my products. My own company is Harry Allen Design, a multi-disciplinary design firm. I design a wide variety of products, furniture, lighting, packaging and interiors. I have a very diverse portfolio. I set up the studio in 1993. It was just the logical progression of my ambitions – to have a studio of my own.

Describe your studio/workspace. I live and work in the same building. The studio is on the ground floor and I live on the second floor. It’s a nice old building, when I bought it it was a funeral home, but it is not creepy at all. It was inhabited by a very nice Italian family. Two brothers bought it in the Forties and converted it into the Sparacio & DeMarco Funeral home. It has an amazing sign on it with a clock when I bought it. I’ve cleaned it up and added alot of windows. One of my contractors told me that it probably weighs half of what it did when I bought it. It is a nice place to be.

What are you working on right now? Two apartments, a yoga studio, a store project in Japan. Some new products for Areaware. An on-counter tester for MAC cosmetics. Two or three lighting projects, etc etc.

Before you begin a new design, you must… Not much. I like a clean studio, so sometimes I need to start by straightening up, but other times I can just ignore the mess. The creative process is very personal. You must give yourself the space and the time you need. Each design project is so different. I have yet to encounter two that are the same, so there is no way to have a routine, and honestly I like it like that. I am not a creature of habit – sometimes I drink coffee, sometimes tea, and sometimes nothing at all. I look and listen alot. I am in a constant state of research. I travel alot and look around at products, stores, design and art. I am constantly feeding my head so that when I get a project I always have new ideas to employ. I hate repeating myself. As you see, design permeates my life so it is difficult to know where one project ends and the next begins. Of course with the corporate work there is a contract and a kickoff meeting so it is pretty clear as to the start and finish. My mind usually starts designing in the first meeting. With studio work it is less structured, more artistic. I always have a few projects brewing that I can bounce between.

Who inspires your work? Everyone and everything I encounter. Really. I used to cite artists like Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt, and great designers like Kuramata and George Nelson, but they are not the great influences that they were in my youth. I’ve learned all that I will learn from them, I think. Now I am looking at the young designers to see what is going on in their minds. I loved the Salone Satelite this year in Milan. It had an energy that you do not find in the more grown up sections of the fair. In general, however, design only clutters up my mind. I use design references more as a limit on what I can do – to know what has already been done – than a true inspiration. I have my most creative thoughts when I get out of my environment – when I go see to an see art show or a dance performance.

You know a design is a success when… People buy it, designer friends tell me they like it, the press publish it, and any combination thereof.

What is your bestseller? I’m not actually sure. In the REALITY line I think it is the pig, but we sell alot of hand hooks too. I am pretty sure however, that the revenue on packaging like the BANG bottle I designed for Marc Jacobs would blow all of my REALITY sales out of the water.

The thing about being an independent designer/maker is… The good thing or the bad thing? In terms of a downside, I will quote my mother – ‘it’s hard to get people to pay you when they think you are having fun.’ But to me, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Making things suits my personality. As a child, if I wasn’t building a fort or a model, I was playing with clay or drawing. You can trace it back to my mum, the art educator, and my dad, the engineer. I am very happy doing what I do. The design industry is fun, too – lots of parties and in general I really like the people and companies I work with. I travel alot but not too much. What can I say, it is a difficult road getting to where I am at, very competitive and one is always looking for the next project, but it is very rewarding.

What’s your favourite piece of design? Favourite piece ever? Such a hard question, I love so many things for so many reasons. And my focus is always shifting. Right now, however I am very focused on American design. I am a bit of a collector and have had my eye on some candlesticks that Richard Meier designed for Swid Powell in the Eighties.

Aside from product design, I am pretty good at… Snowboarding, rollerskating, and yoga.

What music do you listen to while you design? Nothing in the New York office, it is all meetings and phone calls, and music just doesn’t figure into that world, but when I am working in my studio in the country, making things, I listen to whatever is on the radio. I love WFUV, a college radio station here in New York with a very independent perspective. I hate having to think about DJing so the radio just does it for me. I listen my own music when I am driving, and I have very diverse tastes. Right now I am in love with Adele and One Eskimo.

In another life, you would be… An actor or a writer. Two things I enjoyed at school but never pursued professionally.

What other designer/makers should we look out for? I just did a show in my studio with a young Brazilian designer named Brunno Jahara, he is very talented. I also love the work of Rich, Brilliant Willing, Paul Loebach, and Brendan Ravenhill. They are all young American designers on the Areaware roster.

What book is by your bed? A big fat one called Wolf Hall. I love it and want to finish it, but I am completely stalled. I hate when that happens. It has been to Italy, Brazil and Japan with me and I have not moved more that 10 pages in about 6 months.

Describe the perfect weekend. At my house in Bedford with my partner John – me in the studio, he in the garden.

Any claims to fame? I used to really shake it up on the dancefloor. I am a bit rusty, but sometimes jetlag affords me a night on the town, and you might just be impressed.

What invention would change your life? I’d actually like to undo a few. Computers are way over-rated.