My East Anglian Life: 'I made Pink Floyd's inflatable pig'
- Credit: Pete Smith
Bungay-based artist Rob Harries may have his feet on the ground, but for decades his head was in the clouds as he created vast inflatables for megastar clients.
His work was a rare example of how high inflation can be a thing of beauty, attracting A-list clients including Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, George Michael, Disney, Iron Maiden, Queen, Lady Gaga, AC/DC and David Bowie.
Rob has made giant inflatables in a huge range of shapes and sizes: there's super-size fast food, huge hands, vodka bottles, telephone boxes, castles, octopuses, elephants, gorillas, astronauts, clowns, carousels, dragons with vans in their bellies and scantily-clad ladies.
He’s made an inflatable Freddie Mercury (and all the other members of Queen), Iron Maiden’s Eddie, The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman, American airliners, spaceships, James’ Giant Peach, golden Amazonian women, feral dogs and even Elvis.
“You never knew what you’d be asked to make,” laughed Rob, “but however mad the brief, we could pretty much make whatever people wanted.”
Rob went to Hornsey College of Art and took a diploma in Art and Design.
“When polythene became commercially available, we would make designs from it and then blow them up with vacuum cleaners. It was amazing what you could do with some tubing, some tape and a vacuum cleaner!” he said.
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After working in America, where he met Dave Bell and saw the work he was doing with polythene ‘air houses’ and structures for events, he returned to London.
There was a spell working for the Conran Design group. Rob then moved north to join Great Georges Community Arts based in Toxteth in Liverpool.
“Our brief was to involve a community which had recently gone through the trauma of the riots in the arts and to work with other artists,” said Rob.
In a Liverpool basement playgroup, Rob worked on inflatables for children’s play and after working with Action Space in London, built an 8ft by 12ft inflatable air ‘mattress’ and covered it in netting so it was also a climbing frame.
The children LOVED it.
Rob’s work in Toxteth continued, offering opportunities for young people and inflatables to communities in Liverpool: when he left the city, his successor – one of the aforementioned youngsters – took over and eventually became Liverpool Council’s director of play.
Back in London and living in a squat, Rob did odd jobs while trying to make his fledgling inflatables business…float…by securing bookings for his huge inflatable pillow, his pair of 90ft knotted tubes and his 12ft high football.
Finally, he had enough bookings to quit his building site job and Islington Council offered him a workshop and short-term accommodation plus a contract to provide 40 days of inflatable play in the district’s parks over the summer holidays.
Harry’s Big Balloonz and the Ace Arts Workshop (the first part of the name a play on Rob’s surname) then secured funding from the Arts Council’s Community Arts Panel for two years.
Rob met air architect Graham Stevens, who created interactive pneumatic structures such as a tube that enabled people to walk on water and a giant cloud built in 1972 which inflated and rose thanks to air being heated in the desert.
Rob and his inflatables were popular at festivals across the country and then came a meeting which would change the course of his career.
Wilf Scott and Tim Hunkin in Suffolk were making life-sized sheep from tea-bag paper which were – naturally – due to be fired from a rocket before inflating as they floated back to earth.
The pair told Rob that musicians Pink Floyd were having inflatable props made in a London studio and, in a bold move, he presented himself at the workshop and began to collaborate with inflatable maker and architect Mark Fisher and set designer and engineer Jonathan Park.
He worked with the team on Pink Floyd’s Animals tour after creating his own method of making patterns from original models.
“I came up with a way of wrapping the model in Sellotape to create a second skin and then drawing a pattern on the tape to create pattern pieces that only curved in one direction,” he said.
“You could then lay the pattern flat and scale it up to the right size to cut from PVC before sewing together.”
The inflatables used on the Animals tour included pigs (one exploded) and ‘the nuclear family’ of a businessman, his wife and 2.5 children plus their consumer durables: an inflatable TV, a fridge full of worms and two cars (only one was used in the shows). When Fisher and Park went on tour with Pink Floyd, Rob moved to East Anglia.
The jobs for Rob and his team, including seamstress Shirley Russell and painter Keith Payne, began to pour in.
Rob created a 50ft model of King Triton for the opening of Disneyland Pari, and monsters to hug the stage Guns N’ Roses played on. He made five elephants to promote Bryan Adams’ new album, and a set of phallic props for Elton John’s The Red Piano concert at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
He made a towering FA Cup in 2002 at the Arsenal v Chelsea game, a giant sofa and chair for the Ideal Home exhibition and in 1990 was involved in Pink Floyd band member Roger Waters’ landmark performance of The Wall in Berlin.
Rob also made Spice Girl Geri Halliwell’s inflatable legs at the Brit Awards in 2000, props for Norwich Theatre Royal’s pantomimes, a 45ft Sonic the Hedgehog and a giant Gromit to promote the Wallace and Gromit film The Curse of the Were Rabbit.
Commissions were often deeply unusual: Lady Gaga asked for a structure that enabled her to ‘give birth’ to her dancers on stage.
Rob created a model that allowed the star to have her torso poking out from a gigantic pregnant belly and legs and at a certain point around a dozen dancers would appear from a zip between the inflatable legs.
Singer George Michael asked for a cartoon character of President George W Bush engaging in an act that a family newspaper prevents me from detailing – suffice it to say, it’s unlikely the Bush family would clamour to buy it if it came up for auction.
There are, however, possibilities to rent Rob’s work: Airtechs, which offers inflatables to rent, was established and is run by Rob's children, Arthur, Grace and Isobel.
If your party is missing a giant rat, a huge octopus, a massive ice-cream sundae or a people-swallowing crocodile, a cartoon cloud, huge gorilla, a spaceship, the Halle Bop comet, a towering daffodil or an inflatable tank (to name just a tiny selection), airtechs.uk is the site you need.
“Although I’ve worked for some really big clients, it’s not often you get to meet them,” said Rob, “but the thrill of seeing your work inflating and everyone’s faces when they see it is incredible. But then the fear that it won’t work is pretty bad!"
Rob wound down production in 2015 (his book, The Inflatable Book, £19.99, is a fascinating reflection on his work and is available at burningshed.com) and while the hire market remains buoyant, his new artistic venture is very much down to earth.
He makes figurative sculpture in clay, fired to stoneware.
“I really enjoy making my own art in my small studio at home,” he said. “I’m 75 now and I’ve had enough of interpreting other people’s fantasies and making them real, now I am enjoying doing something of my own, for me.”
Rob’s sculptures will be at the Markshall Estate Sculpture Trail from July 23 to September 4 markshall.org.uk.