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BUSINESS

Q&A with Alex Devol, Wooden & Woven

Mable Yiu

By Mira Dayal

Fairweather Magazine: How did you get into woodworking? Who or what were some of your early influences?

Alex Devol: My grandfather got me my first workbench and tools when I was about 5; I don't suppose that really counts, but I do remember quite vividly being in his garage and inspecting each tool with immense fascination. Since then I have taken on a variety of roles and worked with more materials than I could list, and I'm not sure exactly how or why wood seems to have won my affection over all the rest, but It has. It’s not just the material that’s responsible for me becoming a craftsman, though. I have a love of ceramics and sometimes think it could have just as easily been clay in my hands. I think it’s just always been important to me that I’m making things.

FM: From a cooking standpoint, how does using wood products differ from using alternative material products— metal, plastic, and glass, for example?

AD: As a designer, I am fascinated by synthetic and engineered materials. I love learning about new technology. I have a background in sportswear and one of the most fascinating aspects of that industry was the research & development. It’s interesting to see how design can push the performance of material to new places, but despite that my personal preference is always the natural one--cotton & wood over polyester & plastic. Most well-stocked kitchens will have a wooden spoon or spatula. It isn’t as strong as stainless steel, it wont wipe clean as easily as ceramic, but it just feels right to use when you’re making a stir fry! Not that long ago, all the utensils in a kitchen would have been wooden. I see why convenience and ease of production has led us away from it, but for pure aesthetics and pleasure in use there is no comparison for me between wood and metal. There is just something inexplicably warm and soothing about wood which can’t be replicated.

FM: How do you choose your woods? Do you have preferred types for different products?

AD: It’s important to me that all the materials I use are responsibly sourced. Most of the green wood I use comes from local trees in controlled areas which needed to be felled. The timber I use comes from local suppliers I trust to ensure that the process is the most ethical and sustainable it can be from woodland, to sawmill, to me.  Different trees bear wood with different properties, and that makes them most suitable for different products. Sycamore is particularly antibacterial which makes it great for chopping boards which come into contact with raw foods and meat. As with any design, to make a good product, you have to consider the properties of the material you’re going to use--the durability, strength, and weight... It’s no different with wood, but there are some idiosyncratic properties like the grain type and smell. Some woods actually retain a lot of flavour even when dried out and so would affect the taste of a hot drink if used in a cup or one of my coffee cones. 

FM: What are some of your most trusted carving tools? Have you been trying out any new techniques or materials recently?

AD: Most of my tools are either hand-me-downs or things I picked up second hand. I’m about 45 minutes from Sheffield, which is famous for crafting some of the world's best steel. While unfortunately most of that industry has vanished in the past half century, there are a lot of great tools floating around. There are still some incredible artists out there smithing tools, though. I’d say my best carving kit is either made by Nic Westermann, who is still independently making incredible tools, or a set of Japanese Oire Nomi chisels which are so beautifully made that it’s sometimes hard to bring myself to use them.

FM: I love the look of the coffee cones. What other designers or art movements inspire your aesthetic eye?

AD: Most of the makers who inform my own work are ceramicists. I struggle to think of a craft that forms a better relationship between art and utility than pottery. It seems to have always held a perfect balance of functionality and ornamentation, and at the moment that’s the same balance my work sits within. Designers are very fortunate these days since we can just look to a screen for ideas, but the people around you provide your best inspiration and I have been fortunate enough to work with some incredibly talented potters this past year: Romy Northover, Clair Catillaz, Takashi Endoh, Jono Smart… There were actually a lot this year, too many to name, and some have since become good friends. To give a nod to a few master woodworkers, though, I admired the work of George Nakashima and the writings of David Pye, both of whom should be remembered for a very long time.

FM: How long do these handmade pieces take to carve? An Italian Olive Eating Spoon, for example?

AD: The quickest thing I make takes several hours, and the longest can take weeks!

FM: How much do you depend upon the internal qualities of the wood? It seems like, by making each piece from hand, you have relative flexibility in terms of tailoring each piece to the wood you are working with, rather than having a single template you impose on each section.

AD: Yeah, wood is a very active material. As a rule of thumb, the more figure and beauty you can see, the more it will want to have a say in what you can and can’t do with it. Of course, you can disregard that and just wrestle with it with hand tools all day until it does what you want, or you can overpower it with machine tools, but I find it’s much more enjoyable and generally gives better results when you learn to cooperate with it. With dried timber, that could simply be selecting your piece of wood to make a particular item based on what you see in the grain, but when working with a fresh log, a lot of that information is hidden inside and so the process becomes much more collaborative as you chop away to reveal new knots and figure. The grain will often try to guide your axe a little as you make cuts. I really enjoy this; you feel like there is a dialogue between your tools and your material, and while I’ve often wondered if this can be noticed by my customers, I can definitely tell when and where the wood had a say in the design.

FM: What's next? Have you considered expanding the business to partner with other stores or businesses? Will you move more into art, as you have begun to do?

AD: I work with a very select few companies who I have believed in and admired for a long time. I try to keep partnerships with stores and other brands to a couple at a time and chose the projects I’m most interested in that have the most creative and honest intentions. If a store's values are the same as mine then I’ll try to work with them, but as only one pair of hands I have to keep it to a few at a time.

As for the future, for the first time I’m trying not to think about it. I’ve been inclined to think too far ahead in the past and start myself on very long journeys with my career and my personal goals. In retrospect, I think being so focused and specific with my plans may have placed a lot of obstacles in my way which might have been otherwise avoided if I had been more fluid. Wooden & Woven, in contrast, has been completely organic and unplanned. I’m enjoying just seeing where things go and am trying not to chase after anything if it doesn’t come naturally. At the moment, opportunities are finding me and it makes for a nice change for me to just loosen my grip off the steering wheel and see how things develop.

All photos courtesy of Alex Devol