Though he passed away in 2013, James Irvine’s legacy endures equally in the objects and memories he created. The charismatic designer collaborated with some of the greatest brands and worked alongside the most legendary practitioners. “I like to think of a product as the work of an unknown hero,” Irvine once said. Never beholden to a particular style, he masterminded everything from bottle openers to city busses, each with an acute level of functionality and humanity to them.
James Irvine, a book Phaidon published this year, reads like a nostalgic tribute to Irvine’s life and work. It features personal interviews with Irvine’s close friends, who also happen to be among the most renowned designers of today: Konstantin Grcic, Marc Newson, Jasper Morrison, Giulio Cappellini, and Naoto Fukasawa all share narratives about collaborating with him on projects, his life and work, and, more often than not, tales of stops into Milan’s famed designer hangout, Bar Basso.
Born in London, Irvine studied at the Royal College of Art. After graduating he landed in Milan to work at Olivetti. The year was 1984, a pivotal moment in Italian design. Memphis was in full swing and Irvine worked closely with leading figures Ettore Sottsass, Michele de Lucchi, and George Sowden. Irvine’s early work—like a tap for the fixtures company Fantini and pepper mill for Alessi—bears the playful geometry and brash colors of the time.
Irvine was never beholden to a style and never designed to one. Instead, he found ways to express his wit and good nature through his design’s details and form.
“James…became very aware of the emotional value of objects—that an object is not just a practical thing, it is something you build a relationship with,” Konstantin Grcic says in an interview published in the book.
The 1991 Piceno collection for the Italian manufacturer Cappellini—a longtime champion of emerging designers—brought a lot of attention to Irvine. Made from beechwood, the chair, tables, and coat rack are painted with vivid hues and have a sort of cartoonish curves to their structure. They appropriate traditional silhouettes, but you can see Irvine moving beyond Postmodernism.
“I got to know James through his designs,” Naoto Fukasawa says in the book. “[He] was able to design incredibly complex devices and perfectly produced objects. For me the Piceno chair is the piece that represents him best because it reflects his humanity: it’s as if it had introduced me to him before we actually met.”
Irvine was a partner at Sottsass Associati from 1993 to 1998 and maintained his own studio simultaneously. During those years, he designed a sleeper sofa for B&B Italia, rugs for the Swedish company Asplund, and outdoor furniture for Magis.
Irvine turned his attention solely to his studio in 1999 thanks to a large commission from the German city of Hannover to redesign its bus fleet from the inside out.
In the years following, he continued to work on a variety of goods at all scales, conceptual and practical, for luxury and economy brands: an entire kitchenware range for WMF, a German company; a rattan rocker for Ikea; a futuristic Corian bar for Du Pont.
He eventually became creative director of Thonet, the bentwood furniture company from Austria. During his tenure, he introduced the company to Muji—for whom he had created a handful of household goods—and the two companies collaborated on an update to the classic Chair No. 14, which dated back to 1859.
The updated and original chairs share a similar profile, but Irvine scaled the new design down. He did away with the stretcher between the legs and added a midrail to reinforce the back. When the chair is pushed into an accompanying table, the back tie disappears and all you see is the graceful curvature of the chair’s profile—its most emblematic attribute. (An image of this graces the book’s cover.)
“That was his way of de-dramatizing function, he had a functionalist approach that was nevertheless full of irony and humor,” Fukasawa says in the book.