Jim Howett, Designer
In my opinion, Jim Howett is the best dressed man in Spitalfields – pictured here with a characteristically shy smile – sitting on a seventeen twenties staircase in one of the houses in Fournier St he is currently restoring for the Spitalfields Trust. He looks entirely at home in this shabby yet elegantly proportioned old house, a specifically localised environment that over time has become his natural habitat and is now the place you are most likely to find him in East London.
For years, I admired Jim’s fine artisan clothing whenever I caught glimpses of him, always crossing Commercial St and disappearing through the market, or off down Folgate St preoccupied with some enigmatic intent. Then, last Winter we were introduced and I discovered that Jim sleeps each night in the attic at Dennis Severs’ House and crosses the market every day to work at 3 Fournier St with Marianna Kennedy, designing the furniture and lamps that are so distinctive and have become ubiquitous in the houses around Spitalfields. I also learnt Jim is responsible for a significant number of the most appealing shopfronts in the neighbourhood – though I should have guessed that the modest twill clothing he wears from head to toe and which suits him so snugly is made by Marie & Will at Old Town.
At first, I assumed Jim was Irish on account of his soft vowels and quietly spoken manner, almost whispering sometimes, even swallowing his words before he utters them, and thereby drawing your attention to listen, concentrating to gather both what is said and what is unspoken. Such is the nature of his mind that Jim will begin a sentence and then pursue a digression that leads to another and yet another – though such is the intelligence of the man, that when he leads you back to the resolution of the original thought, it acquires a more precise import on account of all the qualifications and counter arguments. Without a doubt, Jim is a consummate prose talker.
Jim’s origins lie in Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians, where he grew up in Salem. But Jim’s father worked in international development and in the nineteen sixties the family moved to the Congo and then his father was transferred Vietnam, with the family ending up in London in 1967. Jim studied at the Architectural Association under the tutelage of Dan Cruickshank, subsequently working for a few years in prehistoric archaeology, before deciding to study at the London College of Furniture,which was then in Commercial Rd.
Renting a room on Brick Lane, Jim dropped a card to his former tutor who wrote back to say he had just bought a house in Elder St full of broken furniture, so Jim set up a workbench in Dan’s basement to undertake the repairs. As a charismatic bachelor lacking domesticity and living in a romantically shambolic old house, Dan became a magnet for the attentions of women who always arrived bearing hampers of food – an occurrence of such regularity that as the attractive female benefactors walked through the door, Dan would simply yell down the cellar stairs, “Jim, dinner’s come!”
“Dennis Severs knocked upon the door one day, looking for Dan.” said Jim. “He said he’d just bought a house round the corner and wanted to do tours, and we thought he was crazy but we helped him set it up. I made the shutters, the partition with the arch in the dining room and I copied the fireplace from one in Princelet St.” he added, revealing the origin of his own involvement with 18 Folgate St, where today he is the sole resident. Before long, Jim was sharing a workshop with Marianna Kennedy and ceramicist Simon Pettet in Gibraltar Walk, sharing aspirations to create new work inspired by historical models and applying traditional craft skills. They found themselves at the centre of a community focussed around the restoration of the eighteenth century houses, dubbed “Neo-Georgians” by the media – a moment recorded today in the collection of magazines and photo features, illustrating the renaissance of Spitalfields, that Jim keeps in a box in his workshop.
Jim taught himself furniture making by copying a Hepplewhite chair – constructing four versions until he could get the proportion right – before he discovered that there was no market for them because dealers considered them too dangerously close to the originals as to approach fakes. Yet this irony, which was to hamper Jim’s early career as a furniture maker, served as a lesson in the significance of proportion in engaging with historical designs.
When Jim won a commission to design an armoire for Julie Christie, he thought he had found the path to success. “She gave me tip of half the value of my commission fee and I thought ‘This is as good as it gets’, but she remains the best client I ever had.” admitted Jim, wistfully recognising the severely limited market for custom-built new furniture in antique styles. “I used to make these pieces and have no money left over to buy coffee afterwards”, he declared with a shrug, even though today he has a client list that includes Bono, Paul Smith, Liv Tyler, Jeanette Winterson and Tilda Swinton – and has created an impressive range of bespoke tables, turned lamps and bronze mirrors produced in collaboration with Marianna Kennedy.
Instead, the renovation of Spitalfields gave Jim the opportunity to become one of those who has created the visual language of our streets, through his subtle approach to restoring the integrity of old shopfronts that have been damaged or altered. Perhaps the most famous are Verde & Co and A.Gold in Brushfield St, 1 & 3 Fournier St and Bedell Coram, Andrew Coram’s shop in Commercial St. In these and numerous other examples, through conscientious archival research, Jim has been responsible for retaining the quality of vernacular detail and proportion that makes this Spitalfields, rather than any other place. The beauty of Jim’s work is that these buildings now look as if they had always been like they are today.
Yet Jim is quick to emphasise that he is not an architect, explaining that his work requires both more detailed knowledge of traditional building techniques and less ego, resisting the urge to add personal embellishments. “The difference between me and architects, working on historic buildings is that I restrict myself to organising the space. I believe if a building has survived for two hundred years, it has survived because it has certain qualities. The reason, I don’t put my finger in the pie is because I can express myself in other things.”
While Jim spoke, he produced file after file of photographs, plans and maps, spreading them out upon the table in his workshop to create a huge collage of Spitalfields, whilst maintaining an extraordinary monologue of interwoven stories about the people, the place and the buildings. I was fascinated by Jim’s collection of maps, spanning the last five hundred years in Spitalfields and I realised that he carries in his mind a concrete picture of how the place has evolved. When I have seen him walking around, he is walking in awareness of all the incarnations of this small parish, the buildings that have come and gone through past centuries.
It fired my imagination when Jim took me into the cellar of 15 Fournier St, and pointed out the path across the yard belonging to the sixteenth century building that stood there before the eighteenth century house was built, telling me about the pieces of charred wood they found, because this was a site where debris was dumped after the Fire of London in 1666. Converted into a mission hall in the nineteenth century, this house is Jim’s current project, restoring it to its original ground-plan and recreating a lost eighteenth century staircase.
Simon Pettet portrayed Jim on one of his tiles as a fly on the wall, reflecting Jim’s omnipresence in Spitalfields. “I think if my father had not taken us to the Congo, I should still be there in Salem, Ohio,” confessed Jim with a weary smile, “because at heart I am a localist.” Jim showed me the missing finger on his left hand, sliced off while cutting a mitre from left to right, a mark that today he regards as the proud badge of his carpenter’s trade. In his work and through his modest personal presence, Jim has become an inextricable part of the identity of Spitalfields – after more than thirty years, I hope we may now describe him as a local.
Over coming weeks, I look forward to showing you a selection of Jim’s exemplary work, both his shopfronts and in the restoration of old buildings here in Spitalfields.
Jim at Jocasta Innes’ house in Heneage St, 1990
Jim with Dennis Severs and Simon Pettet, pictured in a magazine feature of 1991
Jim modelling his calfskin apron, 1991
Jim pictured in the penurious weavers’ garret at Dennis Severs’ House that today is his bedroom.
In the Victorian Parlour at Dennis Severs’ House.
Hoisting up the new cornice at Bedell Coram in Commercial St.