Meet James Howe: the Adelaide-based, self-taught contemporary furniture designer. We caught up with James to chat about the simplicity of his work, how his previous life as a journalist impacts his craft, and how his best ideas come to him while he watches Netflix.
James Howe first fell in love with furniture after discovering Danish designer Børge Mogensen’s J39 shaker chair – the journalist-turned-award-winning furniture designer was trawling through the internet in search of dining chairs. It’s fair to say Mogensen changed his life.
Seven years later, James has won an international award for his work and is about to open a private studio. “I basically became obsessed with furniture overnight,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like [Børge Mogensen]. Something about it grabbed me and made me feel a weird mixture of serene and wildly excited.”
But, it was the pending arrival of his first child that actually spurred him to craft his first piece. With a new-found interest in furniture design and creation, he designed and built a change table and Moses basket stand. “I just went in deep,” he says. “I found it enthralling. To discover something out of the blue that really lights you up like that – it’s a real gift.”
In 2015, his wife encouraged him to enter both pieces in the internationally-recognised Etsy Design Awards, where he won the New Talent category. “I started receiving press, and [my career] began to snowball in a way that was just crazy exciting,” James says. Then came a coveted position in the Jam Factory’s associate program where he undertook a two-year funded position. “It gave me permission to make furniture all day, every day. It was huge.”
James describes his aesthetic as minimalistic, basing his work around a material or an image he’ll imagine. “It’ll usually pop into my head when I’m watching Netflix,” he quips. He’ll then strip back the various layers of the initial concept until he finds a distinctive element to focus on. “It’s an important part of my design process. Finding what the piece brings that other furniture doesn’t.
The Rushcutters Bench (pictured right) exemplifies James’ commitment to simple yet thoughtful design. The first draft of the hand-dyed Danish paper cord seat with stainless steel frame featured timber legs and a metal top. “What set it apart was the hand-woven weave with these tapered ends that I developed,” James explains. “Once I realised that I eliminated everything other than what was structurally required for the piece to exist.”
James says the Rushcutters Bench is one of his favourite designs to date. “I feel like it’s the most resolved in terms of stripping it back to its core thesis,” he says. “I know how much work went into resolving it, reducing it and boiling it down until it resembled what it is today.” The piece was named as a finalist in the 2017 Australian Furniture Design Awards.
Other pieces in James’ portfolio include a credenza with chevron-fluted doors (picture above), a softly curved side table and the ‘Hubble Lamp’ – a simple rock maple and Limoges porcelain diffuser structure that emits swirls of light from the impurities in the handmade glass.
He credits Adam Goodrum, Tom Faraday and Adelaide-based Khai Liew as some of his most influential role models, but says his early success also derives from his appreciation of the materials he works with. James calls himself a ‘material fiend’ who tries to emulate the emotional impact furniture and form have on him in the work he produces
James’ previous life as a freelance magazine journalist and photographer has also given him a unique perspective on design, saying the two fields feel “identical” to him. “My ability to know whether the words I write are good and the ability to know if what I’m designing looks good comes from the same place,” he says. “It’s the same skillset.” This, coupled with his natural aesthetic sense and ability to be a step ahead of the trends, means he’s quickly moved to a place where he’s becoming comfortable with his identity as a self-taught designer.
While he gets ready to open his studio, James has also started to inspire the next generation of Australian contemporary furniture designers by posting educational videos about his work on social media. “I want to see people like me, who don’t feel permission to design furniture, to decide to start and to have the same life-changing experience I did,” he says. “It takes guts to put something vulnerable into the world. I want to encourage other people to take that leap.”