Kevin Harman has form when it comes to disrupting the status quo of how – and where – we live our lives. And how art fits into this process. Harman, born and bred in Wester Hailes, outside Edinburgh, first came to attention with his Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) degree show in 2008 when he swiped mats from the front doors of local tenements and laid them out in the college's main sculpture court.

He then invited more than 200 residents whose mats he'd taken to visit his show and reclaim their property. In the process, neighbours previously unaware of each other's existence were forced to speak to each other. The degree show's title was Love Thy Neighbour.

The following year, as part of a Master's degree at ECA, Harman smashed a metal scaffolding pole through a gallery window, landing himself with a £200 fine for breach of the peace. This, despite the fact he had already paid £350 to have the window instantly replaced.

In the intervening years, Harman has become a serious, and often seriously-playful artist, disrupting and challenging established ideas of What Art Is. Represented by the prestigious Edinburgh-based Ingleby Gallery, an exhibition is currently available to view online of Harman's beautifully luminous paintings made by pouring layers of reclaimed household paints onto salvaged double-glazing units.

In the last year, with time on his hands, Harman has revisited a project called Signs of Life, which he first started in 2015. The seeds of Signs of Life were sown when Harman met a homeless man called Steven Jenkins begging for change outside Tesco on Leith Walk, Edinburgh.

Struck by the time and effort Jenkins had put into creating signs, made with pens from a nearby bookmaker on cardboard from skips, Harman offered to buy it for £10. He continued to buy Jenkins’ signs on a regular basis for more than two years, until he had over 300 signs in his studio.

Signs of Life first saw the light of day in an art setting at Harman's four-day-long art takeover of a former power plant at Leith Docks in 2017. The Honourable K.W. Harman: Ltd Ink Corporation was memorably described by critic, Neil Cooper, as "off-loading Harman’s assorted concerns and obsessions into one gigantic dumping ground in such a way is akin to building a kind of punk-inspired fun palace or theme park."

In one corner of this vast space, stood an oversized four-poster bed draped in textiles and cushions adorned with the messages of Jenkins' signs asking for money to get a bed for the night. To make this bed, Harman enlisted the help of Atholl Macfarlane, owner of Edinburgh’s Remus Interiors.

From this seed-bed, Harman has developed a range of luxury interiors products, now available to buy via Working alongside makers across Scotland, Harman has created unique hand-finished cushions and hand-made mugs for the luxury market. Further products are planned, including rugs and throws.

There are, of course, many layers to this functional, yet visually-pleasing enterprise. Which is just how Harman likes it.

When we speak over Zoom on a bright spring morning last week, Harman is in a friend's garden clutching a cup of coffee; birds tweeting maniacally in the background. Signs of Life (or Signs of the Times, as I mistakenly refer to it – much to his glee) is, Harman explains, a "socially engaged art project".

"A significant percentage of profits made by selling the products," he says, "will be given back into homeless charities, including Grassmarket Community Projects in Edinburgh."

Harman, who is still in touch with Jenkins – now living in Newcastle – says that he is interested to see how one person's quest for shelter moves on from a gallery setting into the home-front.

"Five years ago, I started off with just the signs I'd bought from Stevie – around 300 of them in my studio. When I first saw his signs, I was struck by the artistry in them. They have a really undertaking of draftsmanship in terms of colour and scale.

"There are some things which make my fingers twitch and this happened with Stevie's signs. It reminded me of being a wee boy and waiting for Santa to come with new pens and paper. If I was in a bad situation I would pick up a pen and paper and it would dissolve.

“After I got talking to Stevie about art, he asked for a £20 loan to buy coloured pens. I had my doubts about what he'd do with the money, but he bought coloured pens and the signs he made after that were phenomenal.

“When I bought them, I didn’t feel like I was doing it out of pity or as an act of charity, it came from my appreciation of mark-making, thriftiness, the artefacts people make to survive. Real Arte Povera [a radical art movement which originated in 1950s/60s Italy and used unconventional processes and non traditional everyday materials] in action.

“I bought them to do something with, to have in my possession, to build my understanding of a situation, to share a story with others – and because they are beautiful.”

"I didn't have a future for them at first, but then we made the bed. And last year, I decided I was going to bolt on a few components and make the signs functional and socially-engaged. By creating the products, the signs become more participatory than voyeuristic."

Harman created an exhibition of the signs, attaching them to letting agents’ boards and adding timber supports. Then he scanned the designs and used them to create a pattern for fabric, which was printed at the Glasgow School of Art’s Centre for Advanced Textiles onto luxurious velvet.

Working with Edinburgh-based soft furnishings maker, Irene Tweedie, he developed a range of cushions. Each one of the cushions, which are on sale for £350 each, is unique, using the Signs of Life fabric and backed with upcycled fabric from Tissus d’Helene in London. Harman jokes that he got obsessed by sourcing "plump duck feathers" for these luxuriant cushions. "There's a shortage apparently because people aren't eating out and so sales of duck have fallen."

Granton-based ceramicist Sandra Brown created a range of hand-made wheel-thrown mugs featuring the Signs of Life designs. The mugs (not designed to be used on a daily basis) are on sale for £50.

Harman is currently in discussions with Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh about reproducing one-off made-to-order tufted rugs based on the signs.

Signs of Life teeters on the verge of art and high-end opulence. For Harman, the twitching fingers he felt when he saw a homeless man's lovingly-crafted signs has now led him to test boundaries and build his understanding of a difficult situation.

In this case, the complex and complicated world of homelessness. He is now taking this concept into the realms of the domestic, where superficiality sits comfortably alongside artisanship and beauty.

Harman puts it this way: “I was interested in the idea of opulence, the desire for shelter and what would happen when these designs are turned into art objects, how that object will resonate and react with other objects in a person’s house.” It’s an interesting premise, but one wonders how much thought future owners will give to their socially-engaged soft furnishings. As someone who has written extensively about interiors in glossy magazines, I have my doubts. It certainly asks massive questions about the haves and the have-nots of this world. That’s what art can do.

For Signs of Life project and products:

Kevin Harman: &

Don't Miss

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s jacket, a dress embellished with the elytra (hardened wing) of a jewel beetle and a fisherman's Gansey (woollen jumper) are just a few of the items on show in a new online exhibition exploring the history of people in northern Scotland.

Highland Threads is a virtual exhibition staged by 14 museums across the Highlands are taking part. A treasured costume from each museum's collection features alongside stories of the people who made the cloth, who wore the clothes and where they were produced.

The exhibition, which launches this Thursday (April 1) can be found at

As part of the digital show, a 360° video presentation of each costume, alongside close up shots of stitching, pattern and texture, aims to provide an experience close to viewing the item in real life.

A programme of online events will give an opportunity to delve deeper into Highland clothing stories, including a partnership with creative industries network, XpoNorth, and its Heritage As a Creative Future series, which looks at the role the heritage of textiles can play in design, creation and storytelling in the future.

Some of the costumes will also be on display at the various museums as and when Covid-19 restitutions allow. An online map shows were the museums are located.

Helen Avenell, Partnerships and Projects Manager at Museums and Heritage Highlands explains: "The diversity of museums across the Highlands is reflected in the varied selection of items in this exhibition. Each costume tells a fascinating story and is a conduit to exploring our Highland heritage.

"Some garments have a strong military connection, some – like the Gairloch hose and fisherman's Gansey – are steeped in a rich history of the place they were made. Like the child’s knitted swimsuit, some provide a glimpse into a past that will resonate with many.

"We even have a 1740s silk dress used as a dressing up costume for a family's children. Before being donated to the museum, it was put through a washing machine - luckily it survived!"

Highland Threads, from April 1 and across social media using #HighlandThreads