“The meeting of heaven and earth” – David Harber
"I get to see so many incredible gardens that mine is certainly a little unloved and unkempt in comparison."
David’s enormous repertoire of work ranges from small water features to vast civic constructions, and OX caught up with David to talk about his philosophies, techniques and achievements.
The nature of your work means that you're not entirely in control of the setting, so how much does the placement of one of your pieces affect how you approach the design?
I started off making sundials many years ago, and they are site-specific by their very nature - I've always gone out to look at the site before we start, and we've actually just been to Mallorca to look at some sites. It may be that the client has seen something of ours and that's what they think they want, but when I look at the setting I might be able to think of something far more fun, appropriate or cost-effective.
Looking at the site is a win-win, because I'll get to feel what's appropriate and they might get something more exciting for their money. It also means that there's a dialogue between me and the client, and it'll be about getting an idea of what the space is going to be used for in the future.
On a similar vein, how do you decide which materials to use with a particular piece? Do you tend to have a material in mind before you approach the design?
If you were putting something in a public place, you need to consider whether people are going to clamber over it, scratch it, and so on. You wouldn't use large areas of polished steel, for example. Aesthetically, it’s once again all about looking at the setting. Interestingly, it doesn't necessarily follow that if you're putting a sculpture in front of a Georgian manor house then you'd want bronze or something muted - if the client has a bit of imagination then something very contemporary can also work, which is quite fun.
In the early years of your career, did you take any cues from existing sculptors?
I can honestly say that I've always worked somewhat in isolation. I was never very proactive in going to exhibitions or researching others' work. I did train as a potter, many years ago, which I think gave me a sense of shape, form and function. I suppose there are a few people that I've been conscious of over the years, like Barbara Hepworth, but I actually try to avoid looking at lots of other people's work. My thought process behind this is that once you've seen a piece of art, it's then difficult to create something that's similar - if you scour the pages of catalogues and galleries and you see things that might form the basis of some inspiration, you're then in a grey area as to whether you're copying that idea.
What does your own garden look like?
Fairly modest. It's got probably half a dozen pieces in, but I live in the middle of a village which means we have quite a small garden. I get to see so many incredible gardens that mine is certainly a little unloved and unkempt in comparison. It also benefits from having 3 small children careering around, so there's that.
You have an incredibly diverse style. Do you have a favourite piece or collection of your own?
I'm still excited every time we make a Torus, which is a large, mirror-polished convex piece that we do. We've been evolving it for quite some time with different materials and finishes, and each time we bring one of those out, the clients are invariably over the moon and continue to tell us about it a year or two later.
Your pendulum for the King Abdulaziz airport is particularly impressive. How does something like that go from a sketch on a page to being installed?
The fun story about that was coming up with an idea that symbolised the meeting of heaven and earth. It's Jeddah airport, which is effectively the gateway to Mecca, and even though it's surrounded by overt commercialisation and duty free shops, the pendulum is a physical, spiritual and intellectual link between the heavens and the planet Earth. It's recognisable by anybody, and everybody understands the function of the pendulum. We turned it into this very large sculpture that’s hopefully mesmerising and gives the space a dramatic and contemporary feel. The difficulty with it was creating the pendulum itself: we were working with Formula 1 carbon fibre experts to deal with weight issues, and getting the mirrored surface onto it was very, very difficult indeed. Then, there were the robotics, computerised gearboxes and quite sophisticated engineering at the top, which meant that we were having conference calls with structural engineers in America. It was a big learning curve - it's one thing to come up with a nice sculptural idea that would normally be in a domestic setting, but when you're told that the enormous roof that we're hanging from has up to 40cm of flex due to the expansion and weight and so on, that's another world.
Where has been your favourite place to work?
Well, we've installed numerous pieces all over the States... I mean, it's always nice to go somewhere that's civilised and fun. I did an instillation in Delhi a few years back, and I was treated wonderfully by the clients and it was a real experience. It would always be lovely to hear someone say "I need you to install this piece on my private island in the Bahamas", but I actually like it when it's something a bit closer to home. Sometimes, if you can go and deliver something close to home, it's very rewarding and means that I can focus more on the job and not on the logistics of travelling around.
What are your plans for the future?
I've never been one to make many plans, and I've had the sort of career where as soon as I try to make a plan I end up throwing my cards in the air and getting inspired by or attracted to another option. The plan at the moment is just to consolidate what we do and keep coming up with new ideas. My team is now almost 30-strong, and it's fun watching people take up different roles. It's about ensuring that we're delivering quality pieces and surpassing people's expectations, either in terms of quality or design.
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