Radical Thinking

David Harber’s instinct for how things work has led to him leading an international design enterprise

Can you pinpoint the thought, whether yours or someone else’s that led you to a career in design?

I actually came to design quite late in life, in my mid-30s. I was fortunate enough to attend Dartington Hall School in the Seventies, a radically liberal school with a strong artistic bias. And whilst, as with most of my contemporaries, we were distracted by the absolute freedom, I’m sure I was subconsciously inspired by the aesthetic of the location and the importance placed on creativity, flare and independent thought. The architecture, some of which was designed by William Lescaze, was just part of our everyday world, but in retrospect influenced my appreciation of commitment to design. A short period of a few years as an apprentice potter consolidated my awareness of shape, form and function.

In terms of the design and architecture industry, what do you consider the most radical era or pivotal moment?

As somebody with no formal training but an instinctive awareness of how things work and are put together, I am both inspired and moved by the audacity of the ‘inside-out’ architecture of the Pompidou Centre. The transformative nature of this building on architecture and how we perceive structure was a bold and giant leap by a very young and audacious team of visionaries.

David Harber
David Harber

Which radical thinkers have been inspirations to you in your career?

I have always been inspired by and grateful for conversations I’ve had with Mike Davies, of the Richard Rodgers partnership. I created a sculptural feature for the Millennium Dome in 1999 and worked closely with Mike and saw first hand the process of design was as much about the philosophy of creating as that of engineering and aesthetic.

Who are the radical thinkers who inspire you now? (Not necessarily forever or for a lifetime – just now)

I have long been intrigued by the maverick and free-spirited art installations created for Burning Man which seems to be coming a benchmark for radical and individual creativity, unconstrained by any establishment or commercial imperative. Closer to home I’ve always been inspired by and jealous of the flare found in the creations of Thomas Heatherwick.

Who outside the industry can architects and designers learn from?

Having not been formally trained I have tended to work in isolation, not seeking inspirations or influence from others. This may stem in part from the desire to remain independent in thought and creativity, which probably is a result of feeling outside of the establishment, a legacy of my education at Dartington Hall. I find myself needing to touch surfaces as part of absorbing the experience. So the texture of tree bark or sedimentary stone is a feast for my fingertips and senses, exquisitely produced furniture and interiors demand the same tactile examination. We strive to create amazing finishes that are incredible, both visually and texturally. We learn and are inspired by nature and refine and develop through our skill and desire to create.

The Burning Man art installation in the San Francisco Bay area, a benchmark for radical and independent creativity. Image Credit: SNAPASKYLINE / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
The Burning Man art installation in the San Francisco Bay area, a benchmark for radical and independent creativity. Image Credit: SNAPASKYLINE / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

What will lead the way for more radical thinking in the field?

We are already seeing an awareness/awakening to the responsibilities of creatives to shine a light on environmental issues. The morality of conspicuous consumption, both in terms of material and durability is now being firmly questioned. Nature and its powerful influence on us and our total dependence on it is for me the main driving force for my creations.

Could you recommend a book/article/blog that inspired your thinking?

This choice may be a little contentious. ‘Architecture Without Architects’ by Bernard Rudofsky. I discovered this book about 40 years ago when I was a young, invincible rock climber and with the brash confidence of youth I felt inspired by the concept that anyone could create anything, using logic and practical skill. Interestingly, I just recently refound the book in a private collection of a talented architect and interior designer.

Could you name two buildings/pieces of furniture that you consider radical designs of their time, or perhaps still to this day?

The Matrimandir in Auroville. Twenty five years ago, my wife and I were motorcycling across India and stumbled upon this extraordinary architectural creation and whilst the concept isn’t unique, its execution, vision and purpose have always inspired me. The space created within the structure was so inspiring and for me a light bulb moment, affirming the power of space and design on the human soul/psyche. The juxtaposition of the surrounding jungle/ forest and the perfect symmetry of the structure is magnificent.

La Grande Arche de la Défense has fascinated me for over 30 years. The combination of the audacious structure, the brilliant relationship with the Arc de Triomphe some miles away is a wonderful example of how contemporary architecture can fit in a more classical context.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a private view in the gallery at the very top of this sculptural building to see an amazing exhibition of photographs by Yann Arthus- Bertrand whose view of the earth from above has inspired me to distraction, his eye for detail and the beauty of nature and his awareness of the fragility of nature and our responsibility for it is, exciting and inspirational.

I think best with…

My hands do the talking. I am very visual, but a total luddite when it comes to using technology for design. I am fortunate enough to have bright young people working with me, who can decipher the waving hands and and rolling eyes which allows us to create a meaningful render. I am, however, enjoying using modelling materials – clay, wire, card – to convert the piece in my imagination, to a 3D maquette.

I think best during…

‘Architecture without Architects’ by Bernard Rudofsky, first published in 1964, inspired David Harber’s thinking
‘Architecture without Architects’ by Bernard Rudofsky, first published in 1964, inspired David Harber’s thinking

Ideas and concepts pop into my head literally at any time. The challenge is to capture them there and then, before they are lost in the very disorganised filing cabinet of my mind.

I think best when…

I seem to have a disproportionate number of ideas whilst attending grown-up meetings. As somebody who left school at 15, with little or no formal understanding of maths, a meeting with accountants and finance directors is the perfect moment to let my mind wander whilst seemingly remaining engaged.

The thought that keeps me up at night is…

Having lived a very care-free life, full of diversity – left school, potter, thatcher, rock climbing instructor, BBC mountaineer, owned and converted a travelling theatre on a barge around Europe, and then turned my hand to making sundials and subsequently sculptures – this random sequence of career moves has happened spontaneously without any master plan. I now find myself running an international enterprise, the responsibility of which I have off-loaded as much as possible but it is this that ‘keeps me awake at night’. Along with the ever-growing concerns about how we are treating/ abusing our environment.

The thought that gets me out of bed each day is…

I’m lucky enough – and I do appreciate how lucky I am – to live in a beautiful old mill house by a gin clear chalk stream. I spring out of bed, walk across the lawn with espresso in hand and have a morning plunge at six every morning. Twenty seconds later, my day has definitely started with a bang. If I ever miss this ritual, I’m out of kilter with the day.

Do you like to think with, or think against?

I love collaborating, brainstorming with clients and fellow creatives. In fact the relationship with the client/end user for any of my pieces is incredibly important and as such it is a symbiotic process, whereby I am thinking/ working with a shared goal in mind. I’m very poor at confrontation – in fact I will do almost anything to avoid it. I find it negative, and it stifles the joy of creativity.

If you weren’t a designer, where do you think your way of thinking would have led you?

Having had this diverse and chequered career, I think I could have fallen into almost anything. I am a natural extrovert, although often publicly shy. I have a seemingly very strong sense of how things fit together. I analyse in great detail any elements of a building, vehicle, aircraft or piece of furniture to understand the thought process that goes into its design and development. So I could have, intellect and qualifications permitting, pursued building and architecture, although I tend to need instant results and as such the rigorous training would probably have been beyond me.

Could you describe radical thinking in three words?

Never say can’t.

What’s the most radical thing you’ve come across recently?

I sat in on a presentation with the management team about the merits and function of a ‘talent manager’. Whilst this is essentially a HR/ personal development role, it is so much more, and with the ever-growing team here at David Harber and along with the strong belief that the team is our greatest asset and we have a real responsibility/obligation to give back. The role of a talent manager is a totally new concept for me but makes complete sense and I am looking forward to the journey with everybody. ‘What goes around, comes around.’

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