Keeping it simple – James Hemphill
Systems. Whether it’s the system of keeping things simple and uncluttered or the systematic team effort that wins a yacht race, James Hemphill’s lifestyle will always honour the systems.

DESIGNER LIVING visited James Hemphill of JH Design to see what works for this top designer, at home and at play.

Although a fan of Herbert Baker architecture and classic décor, Hemphill has chosen for his home base a relatively straightforward, functional and compact house in Parktown North. Centrally located, a little more than a stone’s throw from his design studio in Rosebank, this retreat is easy living at its best.

“There must be an aesthetic appeal to the home,” says Hemphill. “But simplicity is equally important. The simpler and less cluttered your environment is, the more you can focus on the important things.”

This house nevertheless oozes charm and a relaxed kind of homeliness that comes from well thought-out spaces. It was somewhere between his boarding school experience at Hilton College in KwaZulu Natal and his two years of National Service that he developed an appreciation for orderliness that has never left him.

“Effective design is all about functionality. On top of that, routines in the home make life more efficient and easier to manage. Too many people run round in circles and waste much of their time re-organising things and trying to make sense of the clutter. If you have an ordered approach to what you do, you will have a better chance of carrying out all your responsibilities and meeting all your commitments.”

Having matriculated from Hilton in 1982, he braved the inclement English climate and equally chilly political attitude towards South Africa at that time, to study for and pass his A-levels at Haileybury College, north of London. He returned home to complete his tertiary education, first studying under Bill Ainsley at the Johannesburg Art Foundation and then embarking on a 3-year Graphic Design course at the Wits Technikon. Not one to shirk his duties, his next step was on to the navy vessels in Simonstown, where he took an officer’s course during his first year of compulsory National Service. For his second year, he was transferred to an army base in Pretoria, where he was put in charge of the army’s graphic design section.

“It was a productive two years. I was involved in doing photographic shoots and I had to do a lot of presentation work, which stood me in good stead for the future,” says Hemphill.

It was his love for sailing that brought him to the next crossroads in his fledgling career. He managed to secure a position in a company that was owned by the wife of one of his sailing buddies. After working there for three years, during which time he worked his way up to virtually running the whole operation, he decided to buy the business. The field of speciality (hey presto!) was in presentations, which was big business back in the late eighties and early nineties. After careful consideration, though, Hemphill decided to re-focus the business. He re-named it JH Design and changed the focus to graphic design. He now has a two-pronged operation – JH Design with ten employees and JH Net, a web based operation, with four employees.

“Both businesses operate out of the same space, so there is interaction between the two. But that can be challenging,” he says. “Creative people prefer a quiet space, while programmers can function with rock music blaring full ball.”

“No matter who they are, though, they are all involved in the interaction between studio and clients. They need to be great creatively, but I also look at their attitude towards life and their respect for themselves and others, when I’m hiring. A lot of business happens on an interaction level and it’s the connection that you have with your clients that makes it work.”

After 16 years, having only worked for this company in its different guises, Hemphill has been able to grow with its evolution. In the process, he has had to devise all the systems himself.

“Reliability, consistency and service are vitally important in a creative business. The systems have to be transparent enough to enable us to deliver that,” he elaborates.

Then, once the work is over for the week, it’s down to the Vaal Dam, where Hemphill is Commodore of the Aeolians Yacht Club. Along with cycling, collecting sculptures, artworks and silver hip flasks, sailing is one of his passions. Having the luxury to get away from the city buzz, out on to the water, to blow away the cobwebs and put together a team and a system that will win the race – that’s the ultimate satisfaction.

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Article by: Bev Hermanson -