Working from his Milan studio, the London-born industrial designer JAMES IRVINE (1958-) develops products, furniture and automotive projects for companies including Canon, Danese, Magis and Whirlpool. He also designed the Mercedes Benz city bus fleet for the German city of Hannover.
“Always question why you’re doing something,” opined James Irvine, “unless you are being paid a ridiculous amount of money, then really question it.” This combination of rigour and irony not only characterises Irvine’s approach to his work as an industrial designer, but the part-purposeful, part-humorous spirit of the products he develops.
Born in London in 1958, Irvine studied furniture design first at Kingston University and then at the Royal College of Art. One of his closest friends at both institutions was his fellow designer Jasper Morrison who remains a friend and occasional collaborator today. After graduating from the RCA in 1984, Irvine worked first at Olivetti’s design studio in Milan and then for Toshiba in Tokyo before returning to Milan in 1988. He continued to work for Olivetti under the guidance of Ettore Sottsass, and in 1992 became a partner in Sottsass’ studio.
Since leaving Sottsass Associati in 1998 to concentrate on his own projects, Irvine has developed products for companies such as Arabia, Artemide, Asplund, B&B Italia, Canon, Danese, Magis and Whirlpool as well as working on ambitious public projects such as the design of the Mercedes Benz city fleet of buses for Hannover.
Q. How did you first become interested in design?
A. I am not sure when “Design” started interesting me but I always liked building things. Lego was one of my first toys.
Q. What was the influence of your design education?
A. Hopefully it taught me to design but it also taught me a lot of things which I had to un-learn later.
Q. After leaving the Royal College, you worked in the design teams of two multinational electronics companies - first Olivetti, then Toshiba - how did this influence you?
A. Certainly it was a continuation of my education. Also a terrible reckoning with reality, at times fairly depressing, at times wonderfully satisfying, for example seeing something you have worked on being used by thousands of people is really quite exciting.
Q. Similarly, what was the impact of your work with Ettore Sottsass?
A. Ettore is an extraordinary man, he taught me to appreciate certain aspects of the quality of life and above all he taught me to shed pre-conceptions.
Q. Which of your early projects are most important in establishing your reputation as a designer?
A. Looking back now one of my most formative times was in the early 1990s when Jasper Morrison and I worked together conceiving and art directing Progetto Oggetto for Cappellini. They were exciting times.
Q. How would you describe your approach to design? And how has it evolved throughout your career?
A. I don’t know how to bracket myself so therefore I find the question difficult to answer. But one thing is for sure, I think of the end consumer and I do not design for the smoke screen which is put up by many manufacturers. Too many manufacturers look at each other to decide what to do rather than thinking about Joe Bloggs. That’s why we have so many stupid looking cars on the roads.
Q. What are your goals as a designer? And how have those objectives changed over time?
A. Create things which Mr and Mrs Bloggs might want to own because they really want them and not because someone has told them that they are a failure if they don’t own them.
Q. Who or what inspires your work?
A. Too many things to say, but the recent disappearance of Barry White and Charles Bronson will leave a little gap in the world for me.
Q. Which designers - past and present - inspire you?
A. Too many to say, but the recent disappearance of Achille Castiglioni will leave another gap in the world for me.
Q. Which of your design projects have you found most satisfying - and why?
A. I am not going to answer because I might upset a client or two if I don't say that they all are wonderful which of course they are.
Q. Which have you found least satisfying - and why?
A. Now that’s a secret.
Q. Describe the Spalding pen project. You have often spoken of the designer's responsibility to ensure that they are justified in creating a new object in a saturated consumer culture, how can you justify designing another new pen?
A. Nice question, and luckily I think I have an answer, the clip is spring mounted so that it disappears in to the body of the pen and doesn't get in the way when you are writing. Not earth shattering but at least it is something.
Q. And what is it about the Danese stacking boxes and trays "Hold It" that justifies its design?
A. You could use them to hide lingerie, lego, knitting, sex toys, your Barbie or Action Man collection and above all your dirty socks.
Q. What are the most important challenges facing designers today?
A. To earn a living without selling out.
See more of James Irvine's work at james-irvine.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain