ALEX DEVOL - WOODWORKER
"We have got to the point where we do not look at our shoes and think cows and we do not look at our furniture and think trees. I think people would appreciate things a little more if they just took a bit more notice of where the product they are buying came from and what has gone into creating it.”
Alex Devol is a woodworker and founder of Wooden & Woven. After becoming disillusioned with the ethics of the commercial fashion industry, Alex quit his job as a menswear designer and started making wooden products, something he had enjoyed doing since he was a child but did not have time do alongside a full time job. He now spends his days hand making contemporary, minimal wooden furniture, tableware and utensils in his rural workshop using traditional techniques and local materials. I spoke to Alex about why he became disillusioned with the commercial fashion industry, why he decided to start working with wood, his design aesthetic, his love of Japanese craftsmanship, his inspirations and the benefits of making things with your hands and knowing where things come from.
What made you become disillusioned with your career in fashion design?
The way people buy clothes has changed, everything is now about disposable, fast fashion and that started to make me feel a bit sick.
When I first started working in fashion design I was really excited about the prospect of having a creative career working with a product I love and never really thought about the ethics of the industry. The more I found out about how crooked and irresponsible the commercial fashion industry is, the more miserable I felt. I was getting to the point where I could not sleep at night and felt like becoming a political activist.
It takes years to grow the cotton needed to make one t-shirt. That t-shirt is then flown across the world burning god knows how much aviation fuel. After six months, it is sold to the consumer and all the people involved in making the product are paid virtually nothing while the retailer makes a ridiculous margin. Six months later the consumer is then told that style is no longer cool and they need buy a new one from the latest collection. I felt like a crook because I was selling things that were so temporary.
The high street doesn’t care about what your ethics our values are, it just wants margin and speed. I was dying to get away from high street fashion.
After leaving fashion design why did you choose to start working with wood?
I have enjoyed working with wood since I was a little kid. However, when I got a full-time job in my twenties and worked around the clock I didn’t really have time for woodwork. After leaving my job in fashion design, I was thinking about what I like doing and what would not make me miserable so started working with wood again. I set up an Instagram account because I thought it would be a good way of documenting my work and quickly began to notice that there was a real demand for the products I was making. From my Instagram account, you might think I just make wooden spoons for a living but the reality is that most of what I do is on commission. For instance, I just made a coffee table, dining table, and bed set for a client, which was three weeks of work. I also get to do some contemporary fine art and am planning an installation for next year.
I think there is a renaissance of designer makers. In the last five or six years, a lot of people are walking away from their careers like I have, because it has not panned out quite as they expected, and are getting into studio pottery or furniture making.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
My taste is very abstract, minimal and contemporary but a lot of what I make is influenced by the techniques I am learning and trying to master. While I am in the pursuit of trying to make my work minimal it is not always that easy because wood is quite an organic and natural looking material. By casting my products in glass, metals and ceramics I can make them look quite clean and minimal whilst maintaining the features of wood. I have spent most of my time making things I don’t like; as a commercial designer, you have to acknowledge that you are making something for other people not yourself. So now I am really enjoying spending my time making things I do like.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
I like Barbara Hepworth and Andrew Goldsworthy and all the other knights of the round table of sculpture. I also have a lot of friends who are potters and ceramic artists so often look at their work. But generally, I try my best not to look at what other people are doing or have done because I have spent my whole life doing that as a fashion designer; everything I made needed to exist within the confines of what other people were doing because otherwise it is not seen as relevant. Fortunately, what I do now can be relevant without having to tick other boxes. Being able to work without having to look at what others are doing is not only refreshing it is also the first time I have been able to do that. I am trying to do something that hasn’t been done before especially in the casting of wood into other materials in a way that preserves features of the tree. I am hyper sensitive about wanting to be contemporary and not wanting to emulate what other people have done. In a way that attitude can be sabotaging because you can get put off ideas by getting worried they are too close to things that have already been done. Ultimately inspiration for me is not something that you can obviously see; if something puts you in a good mood and gets you feeling like you want to get to work then it is an inspiration.
Is it fair to say you have a special fondness for Japanese craftsmanship?
Craft is at its pinnacle in Japan, there are some Japanese tools which are truly unbelievable in their quality. For instance, I bought some Japanese hand planes and can’t bring myself to use them because they are so beautiful. I have complete confidence in Japan’s ability to make things well; they are more diligent about the quality of things within certain industries than most other countries. If you are buying a Japanese car, a pair of Japanese jeans or a Japanese saw, you know, if you are paying within a certain price range, that it is going to be high quality. The Japanese are culture vultures and buy up a lot of heritage products which are towards the end of their lifecycle; they bought all the big American denim looms and Scottish whiskey distilleries and have put time and effort into giving those products a renaissance. I think that is really admirable.
What are the benefits of making something with your hands?
There is joy to be had working with materials both on a philosophical and physical level. Recently there has been a lot of talk about flow state within psychology; we know that when people are engaged in physical challenges or concentrating on what they are doing like weaving, they are in a meditative, relaxed state. There is also a very rewarding pleasure that comes from finishing something which meets your expectations. Beyond that it creates an ambition and a sort of motivation to improve what you have done. On a lot of different levels there is benefit in working with your hands and I encourage everyone to do it. Spoon whittling seems to have become very trendy now but it is something I did many moons ago. It is fun, easy to do, you don’t have to do it well, and you don’t need fancy tools. A lot of people I know who teach workshops tell me stories about people who keep whittling long after the class has ended because they get stuck in the whittling zone. I also think people should try and spend more time outside, go for a walk or sit by a river if you are near one. We know this will make you feel better, it is science. It is the same as working with your hands, you will get endorphins from it.
Do you think people generally no longer think about where the products they buy have come from?
It was not that long ago when everything in our houses would have been made, if not by yourself or someone in your family, then by a neighbour. All the little ornaments, cups, vessels, plates and furniture in your house was not from Ikea, we made it or someone you knew made it. I am not anti-consumerism or industrialisation, I think they are both great, but I do think we have forgotten how to appreciate the origin and making process of the things that we have around us. It would not take much to value things a bit more; I think if you know where something comes from, you do value it more. There is this romantic notion that if it is handmade, it means it must be better, but that is nonsense because we don’t buy hand made cars and some of the most sophisticated and incredible products out there are machine made. There is also some very shoddy handmade stuff out there but when it is done well there is something quite special about the fact it is handmade. We have got to the point where we do not look at our shoes and think cows and we do not look at our furniture and think trees. I think people would appreciate things a little more if they just took a bit more notice of where the product they are buying came from and what has gone into creating it.
How important is the functionality of your products?
The utility aspect of what I do is more narrative than anything else. I make things that are functional but more often than not they are only used for ornamental purposes. I own a couple of Japanese tea pots, cast iron ones, but I have never brewed a cup of tea from them and I never will because I don’t like drinking tea. I love them as ornaments, they are beautiful and even more beautiful because they have been intricately designed to have a function. I have always thought there is real beauty in hand made, well-made functional products to the point that I have bought a lot of things just to appreciate them on an aesthetic level. Wood is not a particularly valuable material; in the hierarchy of valuable materials it is at the bottom, just above plastic; stones, metals and ceramics come above it in the art conversation. If you want to work with wood, you are already on the back foot really. A lot of people do because they love it; if you make something in wood and you make something in metal, most people will touch the one in wood because it is warm, natural, and people can identify with it. In comparison, the metal one is quite cynical, bold and not as tactile but often worth more. There is also a higher monetary value placed on things with decorative purpose than those with functional purpose. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. The reason I make decorative things that look functional is to stick my finger up at that trend because I think it is stupid.
Are you still interested in clothes?
Fashion has become something that I do not like at all but I do like really well-made clothes, accessories and the craftsmanship that has gone into it. But there are not that many places left to look. There is a brand called Story MFG, which was built from the ground up by two friends of mine. It is a responsible, creative and ethical brand and specifically about what they like; everything is indigo died and predominately denim. They are very passionate about product, the quality is outstanding, and in my opinion it cannot be criticised because it is so considered and so well executed. The only thing it is not is cheap and because of that it will never exist in commercial fashion. They are an example of a brand that are great at what they do but are excluded from commercial fashion because they are too good. I do not like the high-street money machine and I do not like a lot of the premium brands because it is generally bad quality and it is not creative; it is expensive stuff for idiots that do not want to put much thought into what they like. I really like clothes, I love that product, so I would never go and buy something just because it is in a store on a shelf with a high price tag and I didn’t really know what I wanted. If you don’t have any interest why spend 500 or 600 pounds on a jacket, just buy the regular stuff. I am very bitter sweet with it but I do still love the product and when I see a brand that is being contemporary, ethical, creative and hardworking then I am really invested in it and fully supportive of it.
Is it fair to say you are particularly passionate about clothes with a workwear aesthetic?
I have always liked workwear; I like well-made things and it seems to be that brands with a workwear aesthetic have incorporated that as one of the most important criteria in their product. If you are someone who really appreciates craftsmanship, you are going to end up going down the workwear route because it is really good stuff. Clothes used to be better made than they are now, there is no doubt about that. Brands that emulate yesteryear's clothing tend to make them to a better standard.