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10/10/10 with James Howe

10/10/10 with James Howe

Howe is currently renovating a new workshop space, within an old cheese factory in Adelaide

Introducing 10/10/10, a new series on Habitus Living where artists, designers and creatives give us a glimpse into their life through the lens of a disposable camera, a set of 10 questions, and 10 songs. Up first is South Australian-based furniture designer James Howe.

James Howe is a furniture designer by way of journalism. His work explores craftsmanship and exudes a thoughtfulness for materials, which is perhaps most apparent in the J5 credenza and cabinet designed for Stylecraft. In pursuing passion and unconventionality, Howe has designed a life that suits him and his family perfectly.

1. What does ‘living in design’ mean to you?

James Howe: To me, good design is a reflection of a well-built life — which I think is why it’s so appealing to people. I have sought to build my life using the same basic principles I use in my work. My pieces tend to feature order and repetition, a strong preference for minimalism and the relentless pursuit of beauty.

Parallels in real life include carefully designed rituals and routines, a conscious choice to pare back clutter and make space for the most important things and pursuing beautiful moments and connections.

However, designing furniture comes naturally to me — designing life is hard! 

2. Which artwork/object/piece of furniture has the most meaning in your home and why?

A ceramic wall hanging of the Virgin Mary, which came to me after my Grandpa died. He brought it over from Holland when he emigrated with his family, and it hung for decades at the family farm in Tarlee. He was a very straight-laced Dutchman, and he probably would have scoffed at a pursuit as frivolous as furniture design. But he had an innate creative flair and he always set up a space beautifully.

The picture of Mary must have been broken at some point because it has been mounted on a backing board and there’s a join line in the middle of it. To me, the defect just adds to its beauty. It’s a nice, albeit cheesy, metaphor for life.

3. What is the single best piece of advice you’ve been given in life?

The most motivating and helpful advice I have received came in the form of mockery from my cousin Luke, who sadly passed away a year ago. Luke was one of a small group of cousins who were my best mates growing up. He was a natural over-achiever, whereas I put no effort into school whatsoever, and eventually dropped out.

Having worked in a couple of factories, I soon realised that the drudgery of unskilled labour would nigh-on kill me, so I enrolled in a year-long bridging course to get into uni. I proudly told Luke about it next time I saw him. “Great!” he said, “Don’t quit!” 

I said: “Screw you! I’m not going to quit!” In doing so, I took the option completely off the table. I swear I survived the year-long bridging course and three years of journalism school out of sheer pride. 

4. What’s something you can’t live without?

YouTube! It’s a free goldmine of extraordinary stuff, and much of it you won’t find in any book, podcast or TV show. I rarely watch anything — I tend to listen with my headphones as it crushes through battery in my pocket. 

5. What would people be surprised to learn about you? 

I can ride a unicycle down a double black diamond mountain bike trail. I grew up with a lot of free time on my hands and the will to use it to master strange and pointless skills. 

6. If you had to lose one of your senses, which one would it be and why?

Hearing — but only if I get to have a hearing aid I can turn off when the kids are noisy. Otherwise, I’m going for touch — I’ve always wanted to up my fire-walking game. 

7. Share a typical day in your life…

I would describe it as regimented: I get up at 6:15 and make coffee, then my wife and I have breakfast together. I leave the house at 7:07 which is weird and psycho, but it’s the time I used to catch the bus and keeping it going works for me. I exercise for an hour, buy a coffee, journal, then get started at 9:30. Lately, I’ve been working from home while my new studio is undergoing repairs and having power fitted.

I finish work at 5 and have dinner with the family. Evenings are a mixed bag, and could involve working, surfing, bouldering or totem tennis; anything that comes along really. My wife and I have an iron-fast tradition of watching something together on the laptop before bed, which is where the nasty snacks come out. 

8. Sum up your work in three words…

Simple, refined, innovative

9. Tell us about the things you photographed…

It’s a real mixed bag, but it’s mostly photos of my kids. I fancy myself a parent who does not force photos of his children onto other people, but tragically, I do. I also have a couple of shots that document the in-between life I am living right now. I recently moved out of the workshop I was based in for two years, and am yet to move into the new studio. The new space is currently being renovated — it’s part of an old cheese factory and it hasn’t been used for decades, so there’s a lot of work to do. But I’m tremendously excited about it — it’s an incredible building with lots of potential.

It’s been a difficult but illuminating journey letting go of the workshop, and the need to make everything myself. I’ll always make stuff — I can’t help myself — but working with highly skilled people who can make my designs better and bring new ideas to the table, has been awesome.  

I’m currently working on a new product from home, and some of the photos document this journey. It centres around an experimental process of carving old bricks, which has been a massive learning curve. I’m very excited about the new product that seems to be beginning to emerge though. 

10. Tell us about the songs you selected…

Be above it, Tame Impala

Everything about this song inspires courage and forward movement. It’s a good pump-up song when things are tough.

Drank, Kendrick Lamar

Just speaks to me. 

Creep, Radiohead 

Any male older than 12 can relate to this song unless they were especially blessed in their ability to navigate high school, or were smart enough to focus on chess. 

The Rider Song, Nick Cave

From the movie The Proposition, a powerfully moving film written by Nick Cave, which blew my mind more than 10 years ago. This track still gets me a decade later. 

Gavid Guetta — any live set on YouTube

For the solo raves life occasionally demands. 

Dropped, Atoms for Peace

Just a great song — and I think Thom Yorke once said something about the importance of trying things that you’re not good at yet, which I love (don’t quote me on this — I think it might actually have been Tony Robbins). 

Stagger Lee, Nick Cave

Shockingly violent but Nick Cave doing what he does best. 

The clothes I Slept in, Luca Brasi 

Two weeks ago I had 15 minutes to run three kilometres uphill to get a car from the mechanic before they closed. I blasted this song on repeat through my headphones and I swear it gave me superhuman speed, because I made it in 12.

Shut Up, Stormzy 

It’s all about the ’fire in the park’ version. Watch it on YouTube.  

Golden Brown, The Stranglers 

This song appears in Snatch, when Mickey fights Gorgeous George — for me, possibly the greatest movie scene of all time. 

James Howe

10/10/10 is a regular profile series on Habitus Living where creatives photograph the ebb and flow of daily life with a disposable camera, and send it back along with answering 10 questions and selecting 10 songs that mean something to them. If you’d like to be featured send an email to aleesha@indesign.com.au with 10/10/10 in the subject line.


Aleesha Callahan is the editor of Habitus. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Aleesha seeks out the unique people, projects and products that define the Indo Pacific region. Aleesha was previously the editor of Indesignlive.com and has written and contributed to various publications and brands in her 10 years in the architecture and design industry, bringing intimate insight to her stories having first trained and practised as an interior designer. Her passion for mid-century design and architecture began while living and working in Berlin.