A Restless Transplant

Interview with James Higginson

When you’re about to enter the home of the set decorator of Pee-wee’s Playhouse – a popular American children’s show – there are two images you expect to find once you open the door: either an orgiastic amalgam of color and bizarre objects or a stark, clean interior stripped down to the bare essentials — nothing in between. Yet James Higginson’s apartment is something completely different. Over the years, he’s amassed artefacts like wooden masks, Native American totems and tribal statues, and has mixed them with other indigenous art and work made by friends. His flat opens up like a chest of wonders that awakens a need for tactile observation — visitors want to run their fingers across every single object and hear the stories behind them.

Born in Pennsylvania, James followed his parents’ advice who “like all good parents, wanted me to have a comfortable life, close to the American ideal,” and went into sciences to train as a marine biologist. However, his creative urge, which had been slowly brewing until then, finally fomented a revolution against his career path, and sent him straight into night school at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. His penchant for color and ability to blend patterns in a very singular manner, landed him a position as the set decorator for the popular TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He was awarded an Emmy for the show’s characteristic set design, that familiar world of wonders where distasteful mixture transforms into a tasteful whole as different stories unravel.

We sat down with James for an intimate discussion during which he shared his personal stories, his approach to interior decoration and explained the underlying topics of his work.

You were part of the creative team responsible for the set decoration of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Tell me more about this stage of your career.

The set was just a sensation overload and that's one of the aspects I loved about this project. I mean there were things like a 6-foot diamond ring mixed with absurdly large can openers next to a wall shimmering of small little vinyl pieces. We mixed — good Lord! — we mixed so many different periods! This was a turning point in terms of set design. It kind of gave permission to create very eclectic and non-uniform sets.

You look at the set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and this was done in an age of disrespect in art, if you want to call it that, where what was tasteless was going to become tasteful. We wanted to create taste out of distaste and we brought everything we could together to make a statement against pure minimalism and conformities. This quirky, strange juxtaposition was part of the fun.

You were faced with this explosion of colors and shapes on a daily basis. Was it overstimulating?

I found it to be a very exciting adventure creatively. I had to be able to multitask and constantly move from one set to the next. And that was very good for me. Shifting between different roles is how I work. Having to commit to one discipline is so restrictive. I rebel against that. Defining yourself in one box is a mistake and I’m insulted by the fact that I must only be one thing. Of course, in the art world, they like you to be known for one style because they're looking at the business side. But as an artist I’m stifled and I get bored easily. My life is an ever-evolving, ever-developing process. My journey is my art. I would feel trapped otherwise.

In your apartment, there are various intriguing objects curated in a very meticulous way. We see objects from your travels, your own artwork, and art made by friends. How does this marriage work?

My approach to designing and arranging interior spaces is to find a balance between space, comfortability, beauty, texture, and story. All of the items in my home have some story behind the way they were made, where they were found, or how they came into my life. I appreciate well-crafted and beautiful works. I love to be surrounded by works that remind me of a person, an experience, or a place I have been. A space that is furnished with interesting curios and items of individuality gives me comfort. When it comes to interior decoration my first rule is to define the activity of the room and the mood that will govern it. Then choose wisely in terms of color, texture, balance and contrast to keep the focus centered on these goals.

"Shifting between different roles is how I work."

In the middle of the living room, amid intriguing memorabilia from your travels, we see a prominent Eames Lounge Chair. How does it fit with the rest of your interior?

I had always wanted a Lounge Chair, ever since I was in college. I finally had the opportunity to purchase one from a friend when they were moving overseas and couldn’t take it with them. I am attracted to the simple clean lines, the combination of materials, and the way the design can complement other pieces to raise the look of quality in a room. In my case, the chair and the ottoman fit perfectly into the main living area—that’s where you’ll find me reading or watching films, with my feet up. I also have a secret desire to have the Plastic Armchairs und Side Chairs by Charles & Ray Eames in my dining room. But I guess it isn’t a secret any longer.

Have you ever used the Lounge Chair in a stage set?

Yes, on various occasions, most often in the interior spaces of design professionals. Either in living rooms or dens, offices or family rooms, it works very well. The Lounge Chair adds a subtle elegance to help define a character as having good taste, a sense of style, and a respect for design history.

Tell me about your trip to China.

I traveled to China in 1988 and I was introduced to a Chinese master painter who invited me to collaborate with him. During that time I decided I wanted to look at the Tang dynasty and the modes of painting during that period since that was the last time China was free from any threat of invasion, so the arts and all cultural strata flourished. I returned to China in early June 1989, for our collaboration.

A few days after my arrival there were the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and, interested in sociopolitics as I was, I went to several demonstrations. The American government asked me to leave the country, but I decided against that since I had funded this project myself and it was simply a peaceful collaboration. The Chinese media jumped on us and we found ourselves at the center of attention. They tried to use our artistic collaboration to their benefit and basically say, “Forget about Tiananmen Square. Look at this peaceful artistic synergy between China and America.” I stood up and gave speeches about the freedom of expression but who knows how the translator that was given to me communicated what I said to the people. She was the daughter of a Chinese General and I was never left alone during those five weeks.

I heard that you had to smuggle the work out of China when it was time to go. How did that happen?

Five weeks later I needed to get out. We had drawn a lot of attention — it was time to go. I was planning to go to Beijing and then take the Silk Road to Pakistan. Instead, we found a businessman who traveled from Beijing to Hong Kong every week — same flight, same route and everyone at customs knew him. So they arranged that I would fly on the same flight with him back to Hong Kong and pack all the paintings into my suitcases. I was introduced to him at the airport, we sat together, and I cannot remember anything after that to be honest with you. We simply walked through customs without being checked and that was it.

There’s this duality in your practice. You go from heavily charged topics to conventionally beautiful images of unadulterated landscapes without any underlying messages. Is the latter type of work a mental cleanse for you?

I used to find recluse in the high deserts outside of Palm Springs and in Joshua Tree National Park. While wandering there, I intuitively felt that parts of the land were important, they felt like power centers. This land was walked by the Native Americans aeons ago. For me that was a reconnection to the land. Looking back to the mid 1800s paintings and the poetry of Walt Whitman where simply being in nature was a beautiful subject. The bucolic dream. This series touches on something more humanistic and pure. It is indeed a mental cleanse. Nature and humans are part of a symbiotic relationship. Right there in nature I’m reminded that I am not just “being”, but I’m in motion towards something and I’m always “becoming”, I’m always in a state of perpetual being.

Thank you, James, for sharing your opinions and life stories with us.

Find out more about James’ body of work on his Website.
See more of this portrait on Freunde von Freunden.


Publication Date: 30.12.2015
Author: Effie Efthymiadi
Images: HEJM