Harry Allen has always made things. From a very early age, he was creating forts, model rockets, Halloween costumes, soapbox derby racers and mud pies; in high school, he was an avid potter. Allen grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, so NYC was always glowing in the distance. He moved to the City in 1986, earned a masters in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute and, in 1993, founded Harry Allen Design in the East Village. He lives in that neighborhood with his partner of 18 years (whom he married last year), and his studio is one flight down from their apartment. He’s also an avid yogi, and designed a yoga studio for one of his teachers.
What is your favorite part of NYCxDESIGN? Harry Allen: The openings! Designers love a good opening, and we have a lot of fun as a community—we like to party and put on a show. NYCxDESIGN is a fun time to be in NYC. There are so many interesting events going on—I’d suggest people visit the NYCxDESIGN website to peruse them all.
What’s your role as creative director of Design Pavilion? HA: I curate our exhibitions, new product launches, design competitions, a talk series, a market and all sorts of installations that demonstrate the power of design to solve problems and delight the senses. This year our theme is From This Day Forward, and the centerpiece will be an inflatable pavilion I designed. It’s all free and open to the public.
What are some places in NYC that inspire you as a designer and artist? HA: I recently went to an opening at NYU’s Bobst Library, a building that I long admired from the outside; it‘s a red sandstone cube designed by Philip Johnson and Richard Foster. It is amazing inside, too—I was blown away by the huge central atrium. I also love the City’s museums: Cooper Hewitt and the Museum of Arts and Design are great for design. And I love contemporary dance. There is a great correlation between all of the three-dimensional, abstract arts—dance, sculpture, industrial design and architecture. Check out the Joyce Theater, NY Live Arts and Danspace Project.
What are some insider tips for visitors to NYC interested in design? HA: There’s a cute design shop on the Lower East Side called Coming Soon that has a very unique perspective. For larger design, The Future Perfect, on Noho’s Great Jones Street, is fun to check out. The 1stdibs showroom, in the New York Design Center, is another—it’s mostly vintage stuff, and you can see many different design aesthetics all in one place.
What impact has the LGBTQ+ community had on you as a designer and on NYC as a design center? HA: Many of my mentors and friends are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Work, I find, is a lot like life in general; one is drawn to people with common interests who act as collaborators and inspiration. The world of industrial design is not as gay as one would think—fashion, yes, but industrial design and architecture are the “butch arts.” I’m a little jealous of the fashion world because they get to have so much fun!
How can LGBTQ+ travelers support LGBTQ+ designers in NYC? HA: Rather than seeking out LGBTQ+ designers specifically, I would encourage people to support design and art in general, and to that end get educated. Collect, meet designers, ask questions, learn how things are made and learn about the things that designers and artists value. Through the process of collecting, supporting the arts and developing a personal perspective, you will most likely be supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
What was it about the East Village that made you want to open Harry Allen Design there? HA: Being a designer, I am inspired by and want to live on the creative edge. That’s how I describe a place where artists can afford to work and live. When I moved to the East Village, it was the edge. I had been in NYC since the 1980s, moved here in 1994 and bought the place where I live and work now in 1998. Unfortunately, the creative edge has since moved on. It’s still a nice place to live, but we are about to get a Target on the corner.
When was the first time you saw your work displayed publicly? HA: The first major public display was at Barneys original store on Seventh Avenue, back in 1994. Simon Doonan was running the creative department, and they selected all of my Living Systems furniture to use in the window displays. It was a great experience.
How do you feel the City differs from other places to work in as a designer? HA: NYC is the best place in the world to network and get inspired. Everyone passes through—it’s a town filled with important people, and the most casual encounters can turn out to be very productive. It’s also a wonderful place to be exposed to art, fashion, design, food, dance and performance.
What does it mean to you to have your work in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Brooklyn Museum of Art? HA: It’s an honor, to be sure. It means that my work will be preserved for posterity, and that is a comforting feeling. It keeps me wanting to design more.