James Irvine 1958-2013

James Irvine, the London-born designer and one of the most eminent product designers of our time, died unexpectedly on February 17, 2013. We are both shocked and deeply saddened by this loss and would like to bid farewell to a great designer and man.
by Silke Gehrmann-Becker | 2/20/2013

Those who knew James will have lost a friend. For that is precisely what he was in his own special way to each and every person who crossed his path. He filled the space around him with his gestures, expressions and comments, a space in which you felt a connection to him; sometimes you even got the feeling that you had been sworn in, complicit in some kind of conspiracy. There were few better at arguing and debating than James, waving his hands around making wild gestures all the while. As a jury member he was unbeatable in his function as zealous advocate and merciless negator in one. However, fairness was always a top priority. He was fair in his treatment of others’ work, fair with respect to his own strength of judgment, which he did not place above everything else but did expound with a unique intensity. He unified British humor and Italian flair in a manner that always placed himself the center of his critical yet affectionate illuminations. When I think of James, I see our shoes beneath the table at dinner many years ago. Suddenly his eyes were wide as saucers, and without a word he pointed to my foot: “WHAT size is that?!” His small black loafers started doing the heel-toe – and from that moment on every time we met he would quickly flash his foot at me with a wink. A comparison that was about so much more, about one world view and another, about one’s own perceptions and the perceptions of others. A kind of secret code that James had with each person he knew and that bound him to so many people in the most intense way.

His biography, which he himself liked to tell as a rather more concise version, only provides a fragmentary reflection of his untiring dedication: Born in 1958, James Irvine studied at the Kingston Polytechnic Design School until 1981, followed by a period at the London Royal College of Art. After graduating in 1984 he went to Milan that very same year, where he worked as a designer for the Olivetti design studio under the direction of Michele de Lucchi and Ettore Sottsass. In 1987 he took part in a cultural exchange program that took him to Tokyo, where he conducted research in industrial design at the Toshiba Design Center. After returning to Milan, in 1988 he founded his own studio, which came to boast such clients as Cappellini and BRF. Parallel to establishing his own business, James Irvine was also part of the Sottsass Associati Milan, responsible for the industrial design group.

One milestone was the development of the X 12 / X 18 city buses for üstra, Hanover’s public transport operator, in 1999. Since EXPO 2000, it’s almost impossible to think of the Hanover cityscape without these silver Mercedes Benz buses with their characteristic orange stripe at the bottom and “üstra-green” roof. I can still see James now, during a tour for the jury of the iF product design award in 2007 organized especially for him, talking shop with the bus driver up front, still interested in the buses’ “real”, everyday use, in potential improvements, years after completion. I can see him walking along the gangway in the moving bus, swinging around the stanchions, a cheeky grin on his face, an attempt to quickly disguise the flush of pride and the twinkle in his eye.

The fact that he was a good, earnest advisor is clearly evidenced by the work he did for Thonet from 2005 through 2010. His direction gave rise to unusual yet lucid trade-fair stands that combined the company’s long-standing traditions with his own interpretation of modernity. His 2004 “Loop Chair A660” or the 2006 “S5000” sofa are also exemplary in this respect. The collaboration between Thonet and Japanese brand Muji, shaped as it is by minimalism, gave birth to the “Muji Thonet 14” (2009) – as well as sparking a great deal of debate in the design world surrounding this daring synergy. James always gave the impression that he was charged with boundless energy. “Bustling” was often the word that came to mind when I thought of him. He wanted to be involved even when sometimes he could barely muster the strength for the sheer amount of work. In October, shortly before Orgatec kicked off, he was thrilled at the prospect of the upcoming debate in the Design Post on “Le projet c’est moi! Ego vs. design? Typical Preconceptions in Architecture and Design” and was already busily formulating his theories and arguments over the phone. Unfortunately he was unable to take part in the event. And he would have been so pleased to present his latest project for Arper, the “Juno Chair”, for this was yet another project that filled him with immense enthusiasm – the same combination I saw in the “üstra” bus, a combination of a designer’s pride and noble modesty, whereby at times his pure zeal for the object at hand would cause this to slip, though this only added to his charm. Although I can’t say it from my own experience or only in part, I’m sure it was just the same with other clients such as B&B Italia, Zumtobel, Alias Artemide, Canon, Magis, LG or Foscarini – the result being a reduced, perfectly formed design.

James’ feet weren’t small. He left large footprints in the sand with shoes that cannot be filled. He will be buried today in Milan.