Made in britain: Furniture by Alex

For our latest interview on the Kwaleo blog, we spoke to British designer Alex Swain about his furniture label ByALEX. Frustrated with throwaway culture, Alex creates simplistic and beautiful products that are made to last. Their minimalist aesthetic, often a modern take on a design classic, ensures that ByALEX furniture goes beyond a current trend.
What's your background? How did you get into product design?
By accident really. Then again, I think once you've been designing for a few years, you naturally want to explore new disciplines. In 2010 I had been working as a brand and website designer for 10 years and started to miss the physicality of design. More and more of the projects that came through my design studio were digital, and so I started to develop some furniture ideas. Coming from a graphics background, my first idea was a coffee table using coloured pencils. This was soon superseded by a real need I had whilst living with a friend in a small flat. We didn't have a dining room so we had to eat off our laps. I hate TV dinners so I designed a small side table that developed into the A Stool. I made a prototype and a few friends thought it was interesting which gave me the confidence to approach a few big street retailers. About a year later, John Lewis gave me my first order for a small range of A-shaped furniture.

byalex design

How did you establish your brand ByALEX?

On a shoe string! I developed the brand identity and reached out to friends in the branding industry to help with the website build. I then found a lovely space in Clerkenwell to exhibit the furniture range as part of the London Design Festival. I sent out press releases and we had an amazing turn out. It was a great way to launch the brand and it definitely made an impact to how the brand was received in the months that followed. 

What do you find fascinating about design, in particular product design?

For me, all design merges together, and I am driven to create pieces that have a solid reason for being. I’d like to think a product can resolve a problem rather than just decorate a space. You do have to be mindful of the commercial side of selling furniture and sometimes this means you develop pieces that are good sellers rather than answering a problem. I am fascinated by how good design impacts life, making it more organised, more pleasurable and easier to manage. Design isn't an 'image' or look to me, it is how something is crafted, the functions it serves, the price it is sold for and how it interacts with the user's world. 

byalex design furniture

You're a British designer. What are the benefits of producing in the UK?

Making the A Stool in Scotland just feels morally great, and, of course, it is easier to manage. Inspecting quality is key, so jumping on a short flight makes a lot of sense. Britain has a wealth of design history, and it feels good to be part of the young and current movement. 

Who do you design for?

You have to believe in an idea even if you are working with a client or retailer, so I'm really always designing for me. Over the last few years I've received design briefs from much larger brands to create furniture and products. These design collaborations are very different to ByALEX because the commercial drivers often lead the project into market sensitive constraints. This is fine because I believe strongly that good design needs to be commercial — I don't see myself as an artist, more of a thinker or over thinker, ha! 

Could you talk us through the design process of your pieces?

I am a very curious person and look and listen more than I talk. New design ideas often come from seeing something in the street or out on a walk. I remember seeing a portable step in a college classroom one day and thinking, 'that looks like an elephant'. It's an abstract thought — I'm not mad — but this helped me develop my high chair design called Hatiban which was based on an elephant. As I mentioned earlier, other ideas come from a problem I've noticed. In 2013 I was asked by John Lewis to design a dining chair to celebrate their 150th anniversary. I thought their dining chair collection was large enough and wondered about the sustainability impact. I designed a chair using the most sustainable materials I could find: a bamboo frame with a linoleum upholstered FSC birch plywood seat and back rest. I wanted to create the most sustainable chair on the high street. I don't use software other than Adobe Illustrator, which is only 2D, so I rely on drawing ideas before getting designs modelled in 3D by the designers in my studio.  

What do you do on a typical weekday?

Running a furniture business is full on and every day is different. Most of my time is spent dealing with production and logistics. I try to have one day per week for creative pursuits, as recommended by a great mentor, Massimo Gray. This can mean a museum or gallery visit, a stroll around London or, of course, designing at my studio in Surrey.  

What's next for ByALEX?

Oak and Ash storage units called PLAYWELL. I developed the range using Lego bricks. Lego is made from the Danish word 'leg godt’, which means 'to play well'. The units will be sold individually and stack easily so you can keep adding to them. Stay tuned for the product launch details at the London Design Festival

  Interview by Dora Mentzel (from Kwaleö)

Made in britain: Furniture by Alex

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