© 2022

Sustainable, Liminal Design: With Claire Harper

Interview, Words MARYAM ARSHAD


Research, poetry, nature, sustainability. All these elements coexist and centre themselves in the design process for Claire Harper. Based in northern California, in itself an unlimited place of inspiration, Harper’s outlook and approach to design focuses on liminality, experience and collaboration. Harper The Label, founded by Harper in 2019, is a direct reflection of these concepts. Designer’s have a substantial power in materialising and transferring ideas into reality-especially those which will determine the state of the environment and the future-noted by Harper. The fusion of thinking and making becomes designing, and the ethos behind Harper’s approach is crucial and admirable. Art and sustainability coexist and reflect on one another, and the result is powerful and impactful. We spoke to Claire Harper about making, dynamic processes and hopes for sustainability embedded across design.

What themes underlie your work?

CH Nature and our place in the natural world are the main themes in my work. Many of the shapes I use in my designs reference organic forms found in the wild. I also tend to explore the liminal space between words and objects: I am fundamentally curious about how words describe (or fail to describe) the human experience.

How did you start in design, and find your footing within sustainable and circular design?

CH I studied printmaking in college, and have had a meandering path since then. I have worked as an artist assistant, a graphic designer, and a window display artist for large brands: it’s funny to see how your path comes together when you look backwards. My introduction to leather came through an apprenticeship with a luxury leather goods studio in Brooklyn, and I took from that a basic understanding of how to work with the material. I have been nurturing a passion for sustainable design for years: it has been a natural reaction to the green-washing practices I’ve seen while working in various facets of the fashion industry.

What is your design process like, does it lean more heavily towards certain aspects?

CH My design process can be a little scattered! I really enjoy the preliminary work of sourcing materials and inspiration and doing product research: it can be hard for me to sit down with my vulnerabilities and design something new. My process is very spatial: I start with a simple sketch of what I’m envisioning, and then I move on to manipulating paper to match those shapes. Once I have something I like in a paper model, I sew it in a stiffer vinyl fabric, so that I can see how it folds and bends. There are so many iterations between those steps, and lots of thinking.

Would you say that your work is multifaceted in its approach?

CH My creativity spills over into so many different kinds of media that it can be hard to rein it in. One day I write poetry, the next day I might feel called to sew, and the next I want to play with film photography. All of the different ways I create naturally blur into each other: I don’t know any other way to be.

Do you think collaboration is crucial for design?

CH Collaboration is the heart of all design. Even if it’s not a direct partnership, every artist builds on ideas that they pick up from other sources – nothing exists in a vacuum. Sometimes I think of myself as more of a curator than an artist, because I pick and choose ideas from other places to create my own work.

We noted that nature is an abundant source of inspiration for you. Are there any locales in particular that resonate with you?

CH I’m lucky enough to call northern California home, and there’s something incredible about the wildness in this part of the world. Nature has always been a place for me to recharge and get inspired: I grew up outside of Washington D.C., and hiking, camping, and getting outside were a way that my family connected and spent time with each other. My parents had a plot of land in West Virginia that we would go to when I was younger, and we spent every season exploring the deep woods there. My father taught my sister and I about the plants, animals, and fungi that are part of the forest, and I owe my curiosity about the world and how we fit into the broader ecosystem to him. I still go into the woods or to the ocean to let my thoughts wander, and it’s where I still do some of my best problem solving.

What aspects of sustainable design do you enjoy?

CH I love the research aspect of sustainable design. At heart, I am a problem-solver (another thing I owe to my tinkering father), and there is something inherently hopeful in working in the sustainability space.

What do you look forward to seeing in design for the future?

CH I look forward to the day when sustainability is a first consideration for everything that is brought to market, not an after-thought or a buzzword. I’ve been inspired by the way that the conversation about consumerism has shifted dramatically during the pandemic towards more intentionality. People seem more curious about what they buy – where it comes from, who makes it, what it is made of – and I hope that is just the start.

What spurred the launch of your own business, that is well rooted in high standards, good ethics and sustainability at its core?

CH I never set out to be a business owner, though I think everyone who knows me predicted this a long time ago! In 2019, a mentor who has an entrepreneurial bent encouraged me to give it a go. She had seen my first design, which would become the crossbody bag, and thought it was unique. Without her words of wisdom and advice, I wouldn’t have had the guts to try.

What power and perspective do you think designers have in relation to environments and the climate?

CH Designers are the ones who are going to get us out of this mess, as long as policy makers do their job too. It can be easy to get discouraged about the state of the climate (I certainly do), but I am constantly amazed by the work that talented scientists and researchers are doing to mitigate and alter the path of climate change. Good design makes grand climate saving ideas translatable and digestible to the average person, and I think that is our purpose as artists. I try to stay hopeful that we can design alternative futures for humankind, ones that are gentler and kinder.

Claire Harper is a designer, weaving mediums, experiences and organic forms of nature to design for a sustainable, impactful and creative future.


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