Oak, ash, beech, birch, walnut, laburnum – as the calm full voice of John A Harris echoes in the white cube, my mind is drawn into the world of the woods of Hertfordshire. My internal eye watches the light overhead glinting through the leaves. It re-adjusts to look ahead, peeks into the darkness of the forest and catches a glimpse of forgotten logs, lying in hybernation in the undergrowth, lost in time.
Forest managers maintaining woodland have the crucial task of deciding which of the trees are allowed to stay, generally only one out of three will make it while others are cut to clear the airspace. So what happens to the others? Sometimes they remain where they were cut, left to decay, a feast for mould and fungi.
But all is not lost. This log left lying bare by one may just be what another was looking for. Namely, John A Harris thinking up his next cabinet design. “It is called spalted wood. One has to get it at the right moment, generally pale hardwoods have the best ability to spalt.
You might have to wait one year or more,” he explains. “The fungi attack the felled wood and their spreading across the log creates amazing patterns. If they stay too long unchecked it weakens the wood too much, but if the wood is retrieved at the right time, the patterns are unbeatable.”
Actually, far from trudging next to John on a forlorn forest path, I am not only in the center of London but also the heart of mens’ tailoring, Savile Row. Dipped in darkness upon entering, we sailed past Ozwald Boateng’s brigade of sharp suited young men followed by a wall of black mirrors, to find a selection of John A Harris’ recent work displayed against bright white.
“This sideboard is made of spalted beech. Here I matched the patterns in panels for the front, side and back. Other times I have mixed them more freely.” Walking around one gets to admire the juxtaposed panels in many variations; funky, jazzy, even cartoonesque. Finished all-round this sideboard can be freestanding which allows for a multitude of possible functions. The shelves in the interior as well as the angular legs are solid oak, painted black.
“I like the contrast… in colour and tone but also in material, type and weight.” The balance of contrast or even opposites is complete: while the spalted wood is precious and fragile and applied only millimeters thin, the oak is reclaimed timber, strong, solid, bold, and plainly painted. The top is sealed with traditional beeswax which brings out the depth of colour and gives it a slightly matt finish and tactile, smooth touch to the hand.
The next piece we look at is a low coffee table with a solid English walnut top and a stained oak timber base. The lower part is actually a container construction which surrounds the off-center key feature: a concave rectangular opening, perfect for your magazine copies if you’re in publishing or fabric swatches if your business is fashion. The greyish brown of the walnut top is languidly finished with tung oil which makes for a glistening satinée surface, while the oak base is a touch warmer in tone and open-pore stained.
The Golgi chair features a solid reclaimed walnut frame with a beautiful marble-like grain with a checkerboard woven leather seat. Both chair and stool are named after neuroscience’s Golgi cells, which under a microscope resemble the side view of the chair. “I like to look at natural forms,” John continues. In his case it is nature’s shapes counterbalanced with a modern continental 20th century influence.
A walk around the block lets us discover another side to Harris’ multi purpose vision. A circular coffee table, wall-hung as sculpture makes for a perfect modern display casing with its strategically placed concave opening.
Harris’ bestseller to date, also on sale at Liberty in London, is his solid oak stool range. Cut tree trunks in different heights dramatically bursting open like sunrays from the centre are elegantly caught by contrasting butterfly joints – which are inserted to stop the splitting of the wood. Walnut and oak are elegantly joined together, resembling trees sporting bow-ties.
No stranger to fashion or the media, Harris’ past includes different creative roles. Originally from Nottingham, he formed the London-based acid-jazz quartet the Sandals together with Derek Delves, Will Blanchard and Ian Simmonds in 1990. He then worked as a menswear stylist for a
number of years in New York, Paris and London.
“I got into styling by chance, helping out my friend Nick Griffiths, Simon Foxton’s partner in & Son. But it wasn’t really a passion. I always loved to be in the open, the country, the woods. After the Sandals I actually went to college doing a horticultural course for a year. The cabinetmaking came quite by chance after moving to Hertfordshire. Toying with the local wood, making objects for friends, learning by trial and error. In fact it’s not unlike menswear fashion, it’s all about attention to detail, the materials and quality.”
VERY UP & CO London, June 2012
John Alfredo Harris
Milan Design Week 2012
John Alfredo Harris - Heliocentric System
Stone Island Showroom
Zona Tortona via Savona 54 20144 Milano