Lords of Design: Simon James

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This story was part of a larger print feature in the Winter 2019 issue on New Zealand designers.


SIMON JAMES’S CHAIRS CAN BE SO understated they’re almost self-effacing. At first, you might wonder whether you’re looking at a designed object or just the concept of a chair distilled to its Scandinavian-inflected essence. “I’ve always stayed kind of true to my style . . . which is fairly uncomplicated, fairly refined, [and demonstrates] quite a bit of honesty in materials,” says the designer. If there’s detail, it’s kept to a minimum, and it’s sensibly deployed. A Tangerine chair, destined for a life of being pushed up against a table, has decoration just on its backrest, the only part that will get much attention.

James’s stackable oak Tangerine chairs, 2012, for Resident Studio, shown here with a variety of finishes.

James’s export furniture and lighting company, Resident, which he runs with his business partner, Scott Bridgens, has been shaking up the status quo both at home and abroad since 2011. In Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood last May, they staged a pop-up show in three thousand square feet of interconnected gallery spaces done up in high style by Kiwi interior architect Rufus Knight, and filled with a range of Resident’s in-house studio’s Circus 250 and Hex pendants, Offset tables by designer Philippe Malouin, and Jamie McLellan’s Odin chairs, among much more. James says that they’d been doing the city’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair for a few years and just wanted to try something different. “We’re one of those companies that always likes to keep changing, you know, when they zig, we zag. . . . We just want to keep people guessing.”

Resident Studio’s Hex 500 light (left), 2013, in white aluminum and Hex 750 light (right), 2014, in brushed brass.

James also runs Simon James Design, which represents eighty-two designers, including heavy hitters Hella Jongerius, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and Tom Dixon, for whom the firm acts as New Zealand distributor. With showrooms in Auckland, the country’s biggest city and one threatening to supplant Wellington as New Zealand’s cultural capital, he’s right at the heart of the action. Given all the managerial responsibilities that go into running two businesses, you would imagine he’d be left with little time to design. But whether in the shop, at work, at home, or in the car, James always makes sure to have paper at hand, ready for whenever his muse decides to drop by.