Alex Earl | Feature InterviewMelbourne, VIC, Australia
Alex Earl has been lighting up Melbourne’s design scene for several years now with his bold and stylish product designs. Earlier in the year, following the launch of his critically acclaimed Sound System One and Telegon Wall Light ranges, we had the pleasure of sitting down with the man himself to discover more about the Melbourne Designer. Alex is no ordinary designer and our brief conversation with him revealed a passion for design that extends beyond the realms of obsession. His bold designs and keen interest in audio systems are examples of the very finest in Australian product design. Alex prides himself on the fact that his designs are guaranteed to last a lifetime and that their eventual owners will take pride in passing them on through the generations long after we are gone. Read on to find out more about Alex Earl’s inspirations, aspirations, achievements, design process and a passion that turned into a critically acclaimed career.
How was the Alex Earl brand born?
The brand evolved at first almost organically – I had been designing and making things for years – and then the scale of what I was producing increased to the point where I decided to take a risk (and a scary loan) and set up the workshop and showroom in Collingwood- where we still are today.
What is your earliest memory of being engaged with object making?
I’ve always made things, every since I can remember – I grew up on a bush property, my mum was a ceramicist and dad was a metallurgist/engineer so I had access to some pretty crazy tools in a huge workshop/studio. I made all sorts of stuff when I was a kid – I made small ceramic things which I sold in shops from the age of seven, used mum’s kiln burner to forge knives from old coach bolts (I still have the scars on my hands from flakes of red-hot steel – basically anything and everything. It’s a compulsion I haven’t been able to shake (I really still feel like I’m doing exactly the same things I was doing when I was seven).
How did your career with furniture and lighting begin?
After an aborted attempt at an arts degree at Monash, I threw away a scholarship and enrolled to study creative arts at the VCA. Although the course was multi-disciplinary and I majored in both sculpture and creative writing, I found myself constantly drawn to the sculpture workshop and the tools and materials I could work with there. I started my own practise about 10 years ago. Now we have a fantastic team here, and my biggest inspiration is often the people around me and the passion and skills they have.
Sound System ONE Photographed by Lynton Crabb.
How would you describe the style of your products?
I guess we are moving towards more complicated, sculptural and technical pieces – larger scale pieces that are really feature pieces – I’m coming back more an more to my background in sculpture and it’s been very liberating to approach design with a no-compromise philosophy again. We’ve got a small team here – but together we’ve got a wide range of skills. Working with people with different backgrounds and different skill sets allows us to create pieces that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. We’re a pretty fluid workplace – with every team member moving between different roles, and everyone’s input weighted equally. We’ve got a very international team here as well – our workshop manager is a qualified architect and designer from Kentucky, and we’ve got makers from California and Bavaria. It’s been refreshing having team members from all over the world bring to the studio their work and design philosophies and skills.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Growing up on a bush property surrounded by nature, a lot of my work draws inspiration from the natural environment and natural forms. I’ve always been drawn to materials – exploring what different materials can and can’t do, and interrogating established ideas about how things ought to be made. Often someone saying that something can’t be done, or that an idea is crazy, is a big catalyst for me – I’ve never been content to take someone’s word for something or to follow rules or orthodoxy. It’s probably really annoying, but whether something works or not I’d rather follow something through if I believe it can be done, or if someone else’s answer doesn’t satisfy me. I’m drawn especially to lighting and sound based things – I like to create objects that don’t reveal themselves until the moment electricity or external forces are brought to them, whether they be lights, amplifiers or musical instruments. I’ve always been drawn to working with timber as it is embodied with an amazing tension between the predictable and the unpredictable – and no two pieces of timber are exactly alike. Lately we’ve been working on combining timber, with all of its unpredictability, with man made materials- combining them in interesting and technically challenging ways.
Sound System ONE Photographed by Lynton Crabb.
Who are your greatest creative influences, in terms of artists, other designers, etc?
I’m not sure that I was really ever influenced by product designers as such, but a lot of early inspiration came from the works of people such as Albrecht Durer and Gaudi. I also would watch David Attenborough documentaries over and over again and I was drawn not just to the natural wonders revealed but also to the spirit of discovery, and the sense that the joy of observing the natural environment can continue unabated for a lifetime. In fact when I was seven or eight I wrote a few letters to Sir David describing some of the creatures I had found and was fortunate enough to receive hand-written responses from him each time. Reflecting on that now it reveals a deeply generous man whose passion embraces all and who would even take the time to foster the same sense of wonder in someone across the other side of the world. Funnily enough documentaries about the natural world are still the only television I watch.
What do you set out to achieve with each of your designs?
Our designs usually set out to achieve a resolution of an idea. The idea can appear fleetingly and the essence of it can be manifested quite quickly, but turning the initial idea into a resolved object requires discipline and patience. Ideas seem to come easily to us, but there’s a great deal of reward in methodically following the idea until it becomes a finished object. Our Sound System One, for example, is the result of close to four years of building, testing and refining and the Telegon Wall Light has taken close to a year.
Your business is focused on sustainable materials and manufacturing methods. Is sustainability an issue that is particularly important to you?
Creating environmentally friendly pieces works both in the design and construction process – by using fewer resources and resources that are renewable and sustainable, as well as by creating pieces designed to last many years, and designed to be timeless objects which people may want to own for a lifetime and pass down to the next generation. Something about love of nature and working in a way that showcases it but in doing so is also protects it.
Furniture and lighting seem to naturally go together, but you also produce sound products. Is there a particular reason you ventured into the audio arena?
Recently I’ve found that creating sound through sculptural objects is extremely satisfying – the disciplines of making sound systems particularly is amazing – where the appearance of the object can add so much to the experience and also to the manifestation and quality of sound – and where if something fails or doesn’t measure up to a standard it’s immediately obvious. The process of creating a complete sound system for example, is extremely long and the final product depends on such a fine balance of components, materials and applications that it’s a constant process of building, inventing, testing and discarding, with each step along the way revealing something new and driving the project toward an often-unattainable goal.
Sound System One has been the result of a four-year odyssey – following and expanding on theories of natural mathematics (Fibonacci sequence and golden mean) to create high-efficiency sound horns and then integrating them with state of the art technology – both proprietary and in-house designed and made. We’ve worked with a whole lot of local people with different expertise – from industry expert sound engineers such as Hans Verkerk and amplifier designer Jereme Clingan (of Clingan guitar tone).
You recently launched Sound System One and the Telegon wall light, what’s in store for you next?
We’re working on a project with Black Line One architecture and the dementia foundation – creating sound installations to raise awareness about the growing social issues presented by dementia. This year is really about exploring possibilities in all areas, and having fun while doing it.
Telegon Wall Light Collection Photographed by Lynton Crabb.
The Alex Earl philosophy has always been one of designing, planning and building everything from his workshop. Every Alex Earl product is made to order and proudly made in Melbourne. He never manufactures offshore and wherever possible Alex is determined to use Australian made materials. Holding a strong belief in being a responsible manufacturer, Alex Earl ensures all finishes are low VOC and respectful of the environment. Even the electricity used in the workshop and showroom is bought from renewable energy sourcing Green energy suppliers.
If you are intrigued about Alex Earl and his luminous designs you can find out more by checking out his website here.