The touch of scent - Lyn Harris and Russell Pinch in conversation

The touch of scent - Lyn Harris and Russell Pinch in conversation

Photographs Laurence Ellis

As the 2018 edition of Salone del Mobile starts in Milan, we look back on some of the most influential designers we’ve featured over the years, starting with furniture designer Russell Pinch and perfume maker Lyn Harris. 

The pair first met more than 20 years ago when Pinch was working for Sir Terence Conran. Now running his own design company (along with wife Oona), Pinch met up with Harris at her Marylebone store, Perfumer H, to discuss their shared interest in value, craft and why good design has to ‘touch the senses’…

Lyn Harris ‘We’re competing with mass production – I’m sure you are as well. The most over-used words at the moment are authenticity and luxury. Everyone, even downmarket brands, is using the same words to describe their products. You think, you’ve totally misused the words.’

Russell Pinch ‘It’s hard to compete when you’re small. It’s like when we do these trade shows, trying to sell something that’s handmade; made with real love. And you might be sitting next to these huge megabrands. So many people will say to us, “£500 for a chair? They’ve got them down there for £130 each”, and you say, “But this was handmade in Leicester and it’s English pippy oak, and that one’s mass-production!”’

LH ‘And then do they get it?’

RP ‘Not really! You have to find your niche, don’t you.

LH ‘And everyone is different, like my bottles: each one is handmade by Michael Ruh. Everything that’s handmade is different.’

RP ‘But a lot of people will ask, why is that more expensive than something else? It’s only when you pick up that candle and you smell it, and you realise that is a whole different level.’

LH ‘You have to experience the design: there’s a weight to the glass. There’s nothing wrong with the standard thing, but I think we’re in an era where if you buy something it has to be everything that you want. I think the era of buying for the sake of it has gone.’

 

 

RP ‘For me, it’s just about being able to make furniture that touches people’s soul. Soulful, human furniture. The other funny thing, thinking about the senses: the one thing that really thrills me is how many people touch our furniture when they see it. Everyone strokes it.’

LH ‘You really feel the wood and the textures – the elegance of the material. The realness. That’s something I’m obsessed with in my work. I’ve got a lab there filled with bottles of my materials. It doesn’t really mean anything to you guys does it?’

RP ‘This is crazy, it’s total alchemy.’

LH ‘So I know what’s in all those tiny little bottles; that’s my olfactory memory, it’s all stored up here. So I can smell my idea in my head, and then I can write a formula.’

RP ‘I suppose music is the closest thing, composing…’

LH ‘Yes. It’s bringing your materials out – how do you do that?’

RP ‘It couldn’t be more different. If you saw our studio, it’s such chaos. Because all of our stuff is whittled. We honestly don’t even draw anything, we go straight into 3D – so I will know what I want it to look like, and start sanding bits of wood.’

LH ‘That’s so you. When I first met you at Terence Conran’s office, you had millions of models everywhere.’

 

 

RP ‘Yeah, nothing’s changed.’

LH ‘But there are no drawings with you, which is strange.’

RP ‘I know it sounds really weird, but I literally know what it needs to look like. But it doesn’t necessarily always end up like that, because what you think looks good, once you’ve modelled it, you think, “that looks awful”. It’s really hard to know when to stop. This is where Oona is… integral would be an understatement. She’ll say “You haven’t gone far enough” – or, “Don’t change it, it’s fine like that”.’

LH ‘Is she more commercial?’

RP ‘No! Much more experimental. But she’s also more conscious of the world around us. I would literally sit in my little bubble and do stuff .’

LH ‘Yeah. I’m in my bubble you see… I went down Bond Street the other day, and it was like being in a time warp. Weirdly glitzy. I think, “You’re never going to get me in there” – even though I do like some of the things these brands make. We’re the sort of people who used to go to those shops and buy those magazines, but it’s all about hierarchy and politics now. I buy magazines like Hole & Corner now!’

RP ‘The hardest thing is when you are the small, unique(-ish) business – how do you stay that way? Keeping it fresh?’

LH ‘You’ll be fine! Look at Terence. He kept everything so intact. There are people who will prostitute your brand, but they don’t know what to do with it, they just like the idea of it. They want to get something beautiful and then roll it out and duplicate it. But then you look at Aesop, and he’s kept hold of it; he’s managed. He’s one of the very few, but you can do it too.’

 

 

RP ‘Also I don’t want to design just for the sake of it. We’re fooled by fashion and the idea that there should always be a new collection. You think, “But we’ve already got a good chair!”’

LH ‘Well that’s another thing. But it’s already changing in fashion, I think the bubble is bursting. Something has to change. We need a new era. There has to be an experience, something to…’

RP ‘…touch the senses!’

LH ‘Exactly. What worries me is it’s going to happen with craft now: every year it gets bigger, and then you need funding and advertising. It’s fascinating though. You can’t lose your edge.’

RP ‘Having the big companies – that are able to mass-produce – snapping at your heels, it’s easy for the companies that do have this craft basis to be lost. Because the bigger companies come along and say, “We also do craft” and do it bigger and cheaper, and they erode the craft, because you can’t compete.’

RP ‘Is Perfumer H something that you need to come into the store in order to experience?’

LH ‘Totally. At the moment I don’t even have a website, I just have Instagram. It kind of works. We put our new products on there and by the weekend people are coming in to see them. Last week someone from Spain rang up because he’d seen us on Instagram, and bought three bottles.’

LH ‘I can still picture you outside Terence’s office at Shad Thames, where I first bumped into you. I was doing this fragrance for him…’

RP ‘And I was his design slave! They didn’t have a design department in The Conran Shop, so they created one and I headed that up. I was the luckiest man in the world. Terence trusted me ridiculously, he sent me all around the world, working on everything from rugs to china to cutlery. Doing watches with Seiko, Parker pens…’

LH ‘It’s a bit like what happened to me in my fragrance world. My first teacher in Paris, she believed in me. And then I was introduced to the Maubert family in Grasse, who own my fragrance house. They’re one of the top five in the world but they’re still family-owned and they work with naturals, which I’ve always been obsessed by. When I went to Grasse, no one was using naturals. They didn’t laugh at me exactly – I was a bit of a novelty because I was quirky and wore trainers while the French women were all suited and booted. And this family said, “Just come and join us”. And they appointed this lovely master perfumer to look after me, so I had his undivided attention, day in, day out, whenever I wanted. He was a second-generation Grassois perfumer, and he taught me absolutely everything.

 

 

RP ‘That’s amazing!’

LH ‘A couple of years ago, I went out there and they said to me, “What we gave you, we’ve never given anybody. So now you need to give to somebody else.” So I do want to train someone, I think it’s my duty – and I think it’s yours, as well.’

RP ‘The best thing Terence taught me was more the understanding that you’re not designing in a vacuum. So his love of lifestyle, where it all crosses over – cooking, eating, seeing that you’re not just designing a product or an item… It goes back to trying to produce something with a soul. I don’t want that to sound too over-ambitious, just something that feels human – for real people. I hate the word consumers. They’re real people with all their idiosyncrasies. Furniture should be for all those people refer to good taste. I just want people to be individual.’

LH ‘If I go into a room and you can smell someone’s scent really strongly like that, I get really upset. All this beauty around you and this terrible smell – how could you do that?’

RP ‘Now we know how to really upset you! [laughs] I hate it when people refer to good taste. I just want people to be individual.’

LH ‘And that’s what the English are good at.’

RP ‘Yes they are: idiosyncrasies.’

LH ‘And Terence saw something in you, didn’t he? Just like when I was that woman in her early twenties going to Grasse.’

RP ‘Who’s the crazy English woman?’

LH ‘And that’s what we’re selling – something that is individual. It expresses a style, an aesthetic element, but it also gives them something. When I’m creating for private clients, the letters I get from people – it’s like you’ve changed their life.’

RP ‘That’s gorgeous.’

LH ‘Do you get things like that?’

RP ‘We do. They’ll send photographs of it in their home. Someone the other day wrote and said this cupboard was the most important thing she’d bought in her house, and every time she comes downstairs in the morning she just looks at it and smiles. Job done! Isn’t that the best thing in the world?’

LH ‘For me, the whole process is so detailed, and when I go to see the growers, the farmers…’

RP ‘Really? So you go right back? Wow.’

LH ‘Yeah. I mean I don’t every time, but I went to see this co-operative in France and that was really special. They were growing some of the herbs that I use, and they were telling me they’d had a really terrible time that year – with all the sweat and the blood and the exhaustion of getting this crop – and I said but you don’t realise, this particular sage has done so much for my formula…’

 

Pinch will be revealing two new pieces at Salone de mobile Milan this week. Find out more here.

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