Welcome to my first installment of MONOLOGUE which is monthly blog series where I photograph and interview creative individuals
to discuss passion, drive, life and all the in-betweens.
JD Harrison is the owner and creative force of Studio H Designs and the founder of CR8|sustainablefurnishings. A local designer and maker located in Greenville, SC. I met JD through a mutual friend and I had the chance to photograph him and chat about his journey as a creative business owner.
Tell me about your journey and what got you to this point.
I was born in Anderson, SC to a great family unit who challenged me to be different. So I’m a local, but I’ve lived in Charlotte and also on the Appalachian Trail.
Wow, you actually lived on the Appalachian Trail? What inspired you to take that journey?
Yes, it was always something I wanted to experience… and it was amazing. The trail changes you, for the better. At the time I was at a cross roads professionally and it had reached a point of, now is the time. The goal was Mt Khatadin, however, life circumstances interjected. I ended up hiking over 700 miles from Georgia to Virginia. It was definitely worth it.
Do you think the trail has anything to do with where you are today?
It does as far as walking into the unknown. I was stepping out of the traditional trajectory that society places on you. Go to school, get the job, and have this life fulfilling thing sitting behind the desk staring out a window. For some people that works, but for me I always felt like there was something more.
The impact of the trail was evident once I got back. It was difficult to connect with people, I had a connection with the trail that most people have with their electronic devices. I could tell people about my story, but I could see that it was removed from them so they didn’t connect with it. It’s hard to tell your story or share yourself with people who don’t get it.
So what happened after you returned from the trail?
Honestly… I felt out of place. I realized how out of sorts I was with conventional daily life. It wasn’t that any of it had changed since I left. But I had, and with that, everything was changed. My approach to life, my interactions with people. I knew being inside an office wearing some form of khaki pants and a button down was the furthest thing from my spirit. I also knew I could not go back the massive scale of homes I did while in NC (5,000 – 25,000 sq. ft ). The simplicity of the trail had taken hold.
I needed to find value in my work and be valued for who I was. Eventually I found that in a small design|build firm here in Greenville who was looking for a designer. I enjoyed the value of the work, the quality of the design and the implementation of the details. Things progressed, designs were flowing, and I was putting out 90% of the ideas that came out of that firm at that time.
Then my world changed. My grandfather, Poppy, as we called him, passed away. Two months later, the woman who was my greatest inspiration, my grandmother, Minnie Lee Hanks passed. I had worked to get thru my grandfather’s passing. I took off a week of work after my grandmother passed. It was too much….The very day I walked back into work was my last….I was let go.
That is when Studio H Designs officially came to life. I was completely and utterly done with working for anyone else. In the throws of a downed economy and finding it difficult to find work, I had to do something different. No one was building, therefore, design wasn’t needed. I had to put my hands to work. I had more ideas than resources. I looked at my kitchen, which was in need of serious help. I ripped it out, designed and built out the cabinetry using shipping crates and pallets. I wasn’t going for rustic, I definitely wasn’t going for farmhouse. I wanted sleek and a touch of modern, that was well designed and built to last using honest materials already here. Materials that were deemed ugly, that people discounted, something people could not see past its rough exterior. I thought why not take off that layer of roughness and reveal the beauty underneath. Kinda like life. When I finished the kitchen, it was fantastic. So I took the idea and pics to a friend who owns an architectural firm and he loved the idea. Thus CR8|sustainablefurnishings was born.
This is how we do cabinets from shipping crates, image by JD Harrison
What would you say it is that you do?
At the end of the day, I design and make cool shit. I feel my process is honest. I don’t grab ideas from Pinterest or other social media platforms. My intention is to provide individuals with a truly unique piece to suit their lifestyle. There is a difference between design vs replication.
Do you think there is a difference between originality and authenticity?
For me, originality is honesty in your approach, honesty in your process. Authenticity is something you can see and feel, its not always flashy or trendy, it just is.
What is it that people don’t know about you?
How passionate I am about family, design and living life without boundaries.
I’ve been in the architecture profession for twenty years now. That’s a lot of time, knowledge and experience gained.
To know me is to know my love for nature. Bringing that love of nature and environment into my work is paramount. Promoting opportunities to be more environmentally conscious is an entity I will continue to explore.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with award winning architectural firms, designers & builders in Greenville SC and Charlotte NC. These experiences provided a solid foundation in understanding the art of the design and build process.
I’ve learned the true success of a project lies in the communication and execution from everyone involved. From the client, to the designer, to the builder, and don’t forget the guys swinging the hammer. Utilizing this ancient concept of team, we are able to be part of a truly remarkable process: The molding of a series of thoughts and ideas to a point of physical expression.
Tell me some of the challenges you have faced.
Having “a year round tan” in the design and construction world has presented it’s share of challenges. I’ve end up proving myself through my work, not just to others but for myself that this is where I belong.
When I was younger I was working as a courier at an architectural firm, earning my stripes. One afternoon,towards the end of the day, I was making the usual rounds to see if anyone needed anything. From around the corner I overheard a guy with the firm on the phone say “oh I’ll have my slave come get it…just kidding.” I knew he was talking about me. I ended up just leaving for the day. Those kinds of things never leave you completely and you never get use to it. You just figure out how to navigate thru them.
Wow, I’m so sorry that happened to you! But you didn’t react in anger, or shout from the rooftops about how you were treated?
No, my grandmother taught me if you scream and shout that is all people will see and notice. They’re focused on the wrong thing and aren’t listening to what you are actually saying. That doesn’t mean you lose or silence your voice. Prove yourself through your work, but don’t expect acknowledgement from others. So that is what I’ve tried to do and slowly people are beginning to notice.
I recall a few summers ago, I invited my young cousin to intern. Give him some exposure to see if he’d find interest in the creative realm. I’d ask him daily his thoughts; of the day, the processes, interactions with our team. Some time went by and we were having our end of day talk. I asked how he was enjoying the overall experience. He told me he was enjoying the work but not necessarily getting up before the sun. Touche! I was working him pretty hard, but that’s the work at times. I could tell that something else was on his mind that evening. I asked him to just put it out there. Be honest …and he said “you act more like them than us”. That put me back on my heels because I got that growing up all my life from both sides, “you don’t act black”. What ensued between us that night was great conversation. The words I left him with were, “at some point you have to define yourself. I refuse to fit anyone’s definition of what or who they think I should be because at that point you are limited, because you are only meeting up to their limited expectations of you.”
I often remember what my grandmother told me: she said, “You were born on an odd sign on an odd day, I don’t know if I will be around to see what you do, but you will grow up to do odd things.” People react differently to that statement. I am an odd, unique individual. She gave me permission to be myself, without limits. I look back on that often, I try not to judge people. Everyone has their struggles. That alone puts us on the same plane. It is important to be honest with yourself about who you are in the hopes that you get honesty back.
Everyone has their scars, everyone has their story. Do you hide from them or embrace yours? There’s a beauty in exposing those scars and telling your story. Kinda like the material I use.
Where do you draw most of your inspiration?
Experiences. Good or bad, they drive me.
…and nature of course, but I love music: all forms, jazz and blues. You will catch me head banging to Billie Holliday or John Lee Hooker to Metallica. There’s music for every mood. And photography. It provides another outlet to express creativity. The art of photography allows one to show unique perspective of the world without saying a word. I also get inspired through conversations. If I were to have an open dialect with a client, and they were looking for a specific piece of furniture, our conversation would spark an image in my head. Then it would take a physical form.
I also recall the founder of the first firm I worked at, architect Kirk Craig, would often allow me to observe him work , look over his shoulder, talk life and design. He didn’t have to, but he took time to. To a young kid who didn’t see any faces that looked like mine in the profession, who felt a little out of place, was tremendous. I learned so much from those exchanges and value them to this day.
What are some obstacles you have faced?
People don’t see the struggle as a small business owner. During the economic crisis, I had reached a point where I was fighting foreclosure and I wasn’t sure if I should continue, or just strike out and say “I’m going to work at Home Depot.” I remember getting the foreclosure letters in the mail and things were getting scary. I remember at one point just curled up in the fetal position in the corner. I allowed myself to have a session, and then I heard this very stern voice that said “Get up off the floor!” So, I did.
Some time had passed and still struggling, I’d been approached with an opportunity. I found myself in negotiations with a local real estate group wanting a upfit of their office. I remember pulling up to their office that day, checked my pockets. I had $18 in my pocket and not enough in the bank
to withdraw. I said a prayer before walking in and negotiated this make or break deal with this small firm and walked out with a signed contract in hand. I couldn’t get back to my jeep fast enough. I pulled the crumpled wad of cash from my pocket and took a picture. Then I cried. As I said, I’m passionate and honest …even with my emotions. I don’t tell that story to many people.
Oh, and the desk I designed and built, that material came from a Plantation. It is still one of my favorites to date. Using authentic material is more than old wood. There’s a story. It’s not trendy, or new material made to look old but it is something that is real to stand the test of time.
(Desk and Money Images by JD Harrison)
What advice would you give to another up and comer?
Be passionate in what you do. You see it, and hear about it in books, and people always are talking about it, but you have to have a passion for what it is that you are doing. If you are not passionate about what you do, and you are not happy about what you are doing, that’s on you. Figure it out. Invest in yourself. Believe in yourself. Be stubborn. Push forward. It’s your dream, why let someone talk you out of your dreams!
It seems in today’s world, the art of working with your hands and crafting honest goods has been replaced with the quick and fast mentality. Quality has been replaced with speed. If you want it to be long lasting it is not going to happen overnight.
There are always risks. I think too much is focused on what you have to lose. The real question is, what do you have to gain?
(photo credit: Meechan Photography)
What would you say is your definition of the good life?
In a word, Un-compromised
What’s next for you?
Hmmm. That makes me think of the quote from Pinky and the Brain:
Pinky: “What are we going to do tonight?”
The Brain: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.”
Expanding Studio H Designs and CR8 to see how far it can grow. Long term, I’d like to expand to a group of about 10 people, kicking out some great design and quality craftsmanship. Not just houses or commercial interiors or furniture but design at large. Treehouse? Let’s do it! Mobile living quarters? Container home? T-shirt? Product Design. It’s all possible!
Everybody has their individual need and story. We want to help extend your story thru Studio H Designs and CR8|sustainablefurnishings. We are about capturing your unique lifestyle creatively. It all starts with a conversation….
JD Harrison| designer.artist
Studio H Designs
“At CR8|sustainablefurnishings, we’ve made it our business to tell the stories of our clients thru the materials we use and objects we make. Each piece we create is thoughtful, well designed + crafted to represent our client. The end result, unique pieces that express the clients we serve. We appreciate the trust you place in us to tell your story. Now, let’s go make some magic!”