A Day in the Life of Harry Allen
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You probably know Harry Allen for his shiny gold pig. Or perhaps the green roller skate. His home furnishings are quirky cool, for sure, and last month at ICFF he launched more of his magic, this time with a tech twist: iPhone and iPad holders. For today’s Designer Dailies column, Harry Allen takes us to his factory in China, where his very own arm is cast for a project.

I was in China twice this winter for various reasons, so I chose to document the second day of my factory visit, February 14, 2012. Happy Valentines Day! This is not a typical day in my life, but I thought it might be interesting to see.

On this trip I am working on an extension to my REALITY line of products. I have had a great success with my Hand Hooks, wall hooks that are cast from my hands. Areaware, the manufacturer, asked me to extend the line to include hands that hold iPhones and iPads. In order to produce the hooks, I needed to cast my hands, which means I had to show up at the factory.

I originally produced the products in Long Island City, New York, just outside Manhattan, but the factory closed about five years ago. There very few manufacturing facilities left in the USA, and it saddens me. To get to the current manufacturing facility I must fly 12 hours to Hong Kong, spend the night there, and take a three-hour-long van ride to Donguan the next day.

In the morning I have breakfast in the Donguan Hotel. It is a very Chinese hotel. There are not many foreign guests. Even the people at the desk speak limited English. Its feels very far away from home, and it is pretty hard to eat healthy. I have learned to love cabbage for breakfast.

The first thing you note in China is how large and new everything is. This hotel is hands down the nicest place I have stayed in Donguan. The hotel lobby is a masterpiece of Chinese interior design and they have a very nice garden with a koi pond.

Before I do any hand casting I insist on a manicure. Lee Cheng, my host and owner of the factory understands. After all, I’m casting my hands for eternity. Experiences like this make the trip interesting. I say to myself, “I am in a mall in Donguan getting my nails done.” Combined with the jet lag it is pretty trippy.

Then it’s off to the factory, which is about an hour from the center of Donguan. Here is a picture of Lee, my host, as we get out of the car. Lee used to live in New Jersey and still has family in the States. He speaks excellent English, is a classically trained musician, and a great host. The factory is typical — a dirty, over-scale building of a nondescript period. It might be 50 years old, or it might be 10 years old. It is hard to imagine that it will ever become the Chinese SoHo in another era. The factory has dormitories for the workers out back. This is where all of the cheap products we enjoy come from. The sky is almost always grey with pollution, a reminder that we have exported many of our problems along with our manufacturing.

It is here that my products are made. Production of my Bank in the Form of a Pig is in full swing.

I usually line up a few projects to discuss while I am at the factory. These rope vases and bowls were sent ahead so I could see the first pieces out of the mold and work on the detailing. We also discuss how we will do the hand casting for today’s project. How I will hold the phone? How I will get my hand out. How will I stay comfortable for so long?

Then we have lunch in a restaurant right across the street. All of the buildings in China are huge.

The food in general is good, even in a small restaurant like this.

Take note of the sort-of-cool bamboo chairs.

Back at the factory, they have worked out how the hand will be cast. This cardboard box, sealed with tape and supported with plywood, serves as the housing as we cast my hand in silicone. Resin is a very low tech manufacturing technique. The most important part of the process is to get a good original cast. My hand will be submerged in silicone rubber. I am holding a piece of glass to approximate the size of an iPhone.

We are not sure if the glass will work, so Lee finds a used knockoff iPhone for $60. In the end, this is what we use to make the casts. Amazing, a pirated iPhone, perfect in every way down to the “Designed by Apple in California…” on the back. Funny and scary. Donguan is a twenty-first century frontier town.

Here the master mold-maker pours the silicone into the mold. I must sit for two hours to wait for it to harden. Fortunately I have two unwatched seasons of Downton Abbey to keep me busy.

Getting my hand out is such a relief, but the price of my art are clumps of hair. They usually show up on the first cast.

China is is developing fast. There are very few bicycles on the street anymore, but every once in a while you see something charming, like this couple delivering charcoal on a motorized tricycle.

After lunch we do another round of casting for the iPad hand. It is grueling, but I manage to keep smiling. Here I am with Lee’s management team.

Lee and I ended the day in my hotel restaurant. It is pretty fancy by Donguan standards, although I could do without the very bright fluorescent lighting.

The finished products just launched at the ICFF in New York. Places to rest your iPhone and iPad while charging. The iPad dock also holds a book. They come with an app that features a variety of clocks and watches. You can get them through Areaware.

Marni Elyse Katz is a Contributing Editor at Design Milk. She lives in Boston where she contributes regularly to local publications and writes her own interior design blog, StyleCarrot.