David Harber’s sculptures can be found in parks, squares, gardens and even airports across all six populated continents, from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK to King Abdulaziz international airport in Jeddah and the Liberty Center mixed-use development in Cincinnati. He is best known for his first piece, the Armillary Sphere sundial, a take on an ancient Greek model of the universe, and the Torus, a highly polished stainless steel round. He has exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and, in 2016, his company received a Queen’s Award for International Trade.
How did you end up designing art for the garden?
I went to an incredibly liberal school called Dartington Hall [in Devon]. As a teenage lad, I didn’t pay much attention to it but it did instil in me a sense of how important it was to be creative. I left school at 15 and became a potter, then a rock climbing instructor, then a mountaineering cameraman. Then I ran a travelling theatre on a boat around France.
When I returned to the UK, I was down on my luck and a friend of mine happened to show me an armillary sphere, an ancient Greek sundial. From then on, I was a man obsessed and had to try making my own. As luck would have it I managed to make one and the actor Jeremy Irons bought it.
What was it about the armillary sphere that first attracted you?
Without trying to sound esoteric, it’s because it comes to life through the action of the heavens. As a sundial, its function is to interact with the movement of the sun through the sky. When we started making more contemporary pieces, a lot of it was about reflection and using the environment to tell the story.
How would you characterise your style?
I described it once as sculpture without ego. I am not dissing the artistic endeavour — my daughter is an artist and my ex-wife is an artist. I am a sculptor, but it’s not about me, it’s about the piece. It must work within its environment and with its environment.
Name your top three influences
Because I had no formal training and I am a Luddite when it comes to computers, I don’t have many references to other artists. I’m aware of the big names — the Anish Kapoors and the Andy Goldworthys — but, in terms of inspiration, I don’t tend to look at them. If you’re inspired by something, no matter what you do, you’re copying it. I’d say my inspiration is nature. I defy anyone to sit in a deck chair, look up through the canopy of a tree and not be moved.
What has been your favourite project to work on?
There are the prestige ones, like one I did for [London’s] Millennium Dome in 1999, which wasn’t my favourite but I’m immensely proud of it. Then there’s the Torus. Of all the pieces that I do, it’s the one that is not about the piece itself. It is about the reflection and I absolutely love it. We did one for the house [in Majorca] that was in the BBC television drama The Night Manager. You could see it for miles. It was somehow defiant and resolute, but because it is polished it blended into itself and the landscape.
If you weren’t allowed, who would design a sculpture for you?
Loyalty decrees my daughter, an aspiring artist. Otherwise, money no object, I would probably go for Andy Goldsworthy. His work is sublime and beautiful but also has integrity.
Is there anyone else in your field that you particularly admire?
I’m not sure what my field is exactly, but there is a man called Giles Rayner who makes beautiful water features. Then I admire the work (though not the politics of) Anish Kapoor. I also admire the designs and audacity of Thomas Heatherwick.
What is the one object you would never allow in your garden?
An outdoor television. I see people with outdoor waterproof televisions and I think that it’s absolutely tragic.
Strangest or most unusual project you have worked on?
Quite often I will come up with an idea, which is perhaps a bit eccentric. The centre of Jeddah airport is an 18-metre Foucault’s pendulum with a 2.5 metre mirrored bob at the bottom that swings through 24 hours. That’s a mad thing to have created. But then I have also been asked to make an enormous water feature that was designed to double up as a champagne bowl, for the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes. I was battling with my artistic conscience on that one.
What makes a good client?
The best briefs are those that come to us because they like what we do and they respect the way we work — and when the client is open to a dialogue. One piece I did was a surprise present for a client’s wife in Suffolk. We got their children to write some lovely things, which I then scanned and engraved into the metal. That came about because we took the time to talk about what they wanted to achieve.
What is your advice to clients who would like a bespoke piece for their garden but don’t know where to start?
You need to put something — it could be a dustbin, a chair or a piece of canvas standing on a broomstick — in the spot that you are thinking the piece should go, and look at it at different times of the day, week or year even to make sure that there’s a purpose for it being there. Alternatively, invite me along for a look around and I’ll have 101 ideas. I’m respectful enough never to force my ideas. I quite often go to places and say, “This is so beautiful, you don’t want a piece here.” The key is to find an artist you like and respect.
Which gardens do you find the most inspiring?
I have just moved from a modern house that we built in the middle of a village with a modest garden to a house at the edge of the village where we have acres of rolling water meadows, which I do find inspiring. I also have a tiny rundown house in Sicily in a valley surrounded by lemon trees with a river.
What do you see as the top trend in your field at the moment, even if you don’t subscribe to it?
I’m not the man to ask [about] gardens, but in terms of material for sculptures, more muted tones. I still make a lot of lovely stainless steel pieces, but we’re doing a lot of bronze, oxidised steel and catenated metals that are more rustic in their mood.
Photographs: Clive Nichols; Howard Sooley