Interior designer Kate Harman first caught our eye on Instagram with her colourful ‘vital organs’ collection of houseware oddities – more on that in a bit. Formerly a visual merchandiser for Habitat, a set designer and art director for music videos, film and television, she now channels such experiences into interior design projects in Bristol and London. Her work is lively, fun and liveable and she’s got a bit of a knack for creating still lives on a shelf. Here, she tells us her approach to this, why she is drawn to neutral colours and how that enviable organs collection took shape.
How has your background in visual merchandising, set dressing and film helped your approach to interior design?
“When set dressing for film or video the production design team take a rigorous and comprehensive approach to understanding the people or spaces they’re trying to portray. Every visual detail you see on screen is a highly considered clue. This thorough approach to a fully-rounded comprehension of the characters behind the spaces has very much influenced the way I work to understand my clients and their needs. I pay close attention to all the design decisions they’ve made up until this point and also have a series of key questions that I ask that may not even seem particularly relevant but yet tell me so much about the person behind the brief and what it is they really want from their space. I think also my background allowed me to develop a shorthand for making things pleasing to the eye (or lens), which is of course an important part of the job of design. However I believe the real nuts and bolts of interior design is making a space feel the client’s definition of comfortable, and functional to them, and this aspect of the work I do intuitively rather than as an approach I’ve learnt.”
Do you have a favourite corner of your own home right now?
“My favourite corner would have to be my lean-to. I have always loved and will always love house plants – despite their current popularity. My mum is incredibly green-fingered and they featured heavily in my childhood homes. There was one home in particular that I loved which was a top-floor flat in central London that was at the end of a crescent with views of communal gardens to the back and all the way around the side of the flat. Despite the already very verdant views, my mum had plants on every surface inside too – including on top of the bottom half of all the sash windows in the kitchen. Opening the windows was a pain but it looked so great.”
How do you approach the curation of a shelf, mantel or ledge – any hard and fast rules?
“When I’m arranging a shelf, or corner say, I don’t have a formula or set rules that I follow – again the process is more visceral for me. But if I did have to sum up my approach I would say… I love playing with colour and enjoy colour combinations that aren’t necessarily obvious, but prefer not to be too matchy-matchy. Pattern, for me, is best in moderation. I would rather add interest by using different textures and a variation of different heights and forms. I particularly like architectural shapes, and shapes that feature repetition as they have a sense of rhythm about them that I like and that is interesting to the eye. I prefer to display with odd numbers as even means symmetry, which is great on a big scale but less interesting on, say, a shelf. All that being being said as I’ve got older and my taste has evolved I’ve come to realise that less is more. These days, rather shockingly, I value the space around me more than the things.”
Do you keep your eye out for particular pieces – what sort of thing are you most drawn to?
“At any given time I always have a hit-list of things I’m on the hunt for, and on that list will always be some hard-to-find, excalibur-type items. I like timeless design and prefer hand-made pieces as the quality is so much better. I enjoy buying and owning things I know haven’t been mass-produced, that have longevity and aren’t going to end up in every other house in the country. However I will never walk away from anything over or under-sized, a good plant pot or a big serving dish.”
Tell us more about how your vital organs collection and how it began?
“I’ve always enjoyed the postmodern fancy for making one functional object in the guise of another. It all began with the coat hanger, which is by far and away my favourite (and rarest) object of the lot. I found it at a flea market many years ago and the owner looked so shocked anyone would want to buy it he practically paid me to take it away. The rest of the collection grew from there – fleecing car boot sales, charity shops and markets up and down the country. I don’t keep them altogether as I think that bitty collections like this (particularly themed ones) feel too cluttered and look too contrived and museum-y for the home.”
What’s your approach to colour generally and do you have favourites or hated shades?
“I generally prefer natural, muted colours, although I get more excited about colour combinations than individual colours themselves. I definitely go through phases and like can turn to dislike fairly easily – usually depending on how popular a colour is and therefore how ubiquitous it becomes. However I don’t think I’ll ever not like the combination of an inky teal with a dark mustard yellow and am currently very much enjoying a lilac accent.”
Any colours you just can’t get on with?
“In the past I’d have said a definite yes, but now I think there’s a time and place for all colours. However there are certain shades of every colour I struggle with – but it’s really dependent on the context.”
Any buildings, homes or places you’ve visited recently that you’ve found particularly inspiring?
“I travelled to Barcelona a couple of times last year and found it so inspiring. Despite the tourism there it remains a resolutely Spanish city for living, working people and hasn’t yet been over-gentrified relative to other great European cities. It therefore remains affordable for artists and makers to live there which gives it a creative energy that is exciting to me. So much of the different design eras are still visible there too and haven’t been purged as part of the gentrification process – whether it be a shop-front or a door handle or a light fitting, and I love the way these different design styles sit so un-self-consciously next to each other.”
What are you working on at the moment or what’s coming up next?
“I’m currently working on a bedroom mezzanine which I’m enjoying as it involves dimensions that are quite a challenge and I’m getting to design stairs for a client who is up for experimenting. I also have an on-going project renovating a shell of an out-house deep in the Somerset countryside as a B&B as well as small consulting jobs finding one-off items for ongoing clients.”
What would be the dream brief?
“I think filling a house with hand-made things that have been made to last, from sustainable, natural materials featuring no new plastic, for an open-minded client with a limitless budget would be pretty dreamy… But quite honestly, without sounding cheesy, I love what I do so much that every brief and every job is, in some way, the dream.”
All images by Kate Harman