Alex Devol, known as Woodwoven, has been creating things his whole life. When he was just 5 years old, he already had his work table along with the tools his grandfather gave him. Now, with thousands of followers in his social networks, Devol inspires designers with his traditional production methods and a clean and minimalist aesthetic.
Green wood is his favorite material to shape tableware and vases. Its products reflect the satisfaction that he obtains through smaller-scale production. In turn, he is amazed by new technologies and materials and don’t hesitate to cobine them with traditional methods. Alex Devol claims a new use of the products by the consumer where the material is very significant in the form. Its minimalist aesthetic reveals the quality of the object and the importance of the design and manufacturing process.
Alex Devol working in a piece of wood in his studio. Photography: Alex Devol
At what age did you start creating things with your hands?
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. It’s not just the material that’s responsible for me becoming a craftsman, I have a love of ceramics and sometimes I think it could have just as easily been clay in my hands. I think it is more the scale of the craft which is important to me at the moment. In the past, I designed products to be manufactured on a very large scale and I have recently found in contrast that there is a more rewarding experience to be had in returning to making by hand.
When did you decide to create your current business?
Wooden & woven was quite accidental really, I hadn’t intended on working with wood professionally. It came about as a result of selling my previous menswear business and wanting to spend sometime making for myself again rather than for a consumer audience. I had started to feel creatively quite fatigued after spending a decade working on very commercial projects in an area of design I was no longer passionate about and just wanted to get back to being hands on with material and process. I guess the Internet era took over from there and it has gradually developed into a professional practice thanks to people taking an interest and supporting what I do by buying what I make.
Designed and manufactured by Alex Devol. Photography: Alex Devol
What is the most interesting thing about hand-made products for you?
I’m actually not overly romantic about hand made versus machine made. I love traditional means of workmanship but I also think modern technology is wonderful. I’m not one of these who advocates one over the other. I think it’s fair to say that hand made is for the most part ethically and environmentally favoured, but the ways in which we use mass production and wasteful consumer behaviours are to blame for that, not processes or products themselves. Research and development into new materials and processes really fascinate me, and it’s amazing to see more and more new technologies being combined with craft and proven traditional methods. The idea that something is better simply for being handmade is nonsense to me, there’s a vast amount of shoddy hand workmanship out there. For me what’s ultimately important is the quality and ethics of a product, if something is poorly or irresponsibly made then it doesn’t matter whether it was conceived by a single craftsman or a production line.
You worked as a menswear designer, is there any relationship between your last job and your current project? What happened to you in order to choose this path?
I’ve worked in menswear, and in several other design disciplines, and yes there is definitely crossover. Art and design are very interdisciplinary these days, and I think that fundamentally all forms of design require the same forms of creative problem solving to be carried out successfully. Whatever your specific craft, in design you will always be nurturing an understanding of aesthetics and functionality as you improve and develop. At foundation level what you learn about one remit is often still very useful when applied to another. As a menswear designer you address form, texture, colour and so on in the same way a sculptor, painter or potter would, just for different purposes, and an understanding of aesthetics is often universal.
Vase designed and manufactured by Alex Devol. Photography: Alex Devol
For you, the process of creating is really important. What is the methodology you use in your work? Do you draw something previously or your creation comes with the lathe?
It really depends on the product. My work is very informed by the material, much more so than a conventional approach to making, but while some of my work is completely improvised and other pieces involve weeks or months of planning and process. In addition to that, I work mostly with green wood, trees that have only recently been felled. Their wood is quite a variable material with lots of irregular figures, rot pockets, knots and ripples… sometimes you find nails or bits of metal deep into the tree, all sorts of quirks. In these cases you will often need to deviate from your original design a little even if you have one.
Your products have a simple aesthetic. What attracts you to that simplicity?
I’m not much of a fan of heavily decorated things, I like material and process and I’d prefer to see one or both clearly in a finished product than a load of embellishments. I’ve always liked minimalist and modernist aesthetics, but in the past it was quite difficult to strip work back to that state, it’s usually easier to see flaw or harder to inspire beauty the simpler and more refined something becomes. I also spent many years working for commercial clients and while doing so, I learned that there is commonly a perceived value in overly-designed work. I’ve had to throw the kitchen sink at designs in order to please clients many, many times and completely forfeit my own appreciation of it.
Do you have any project apart from this one or are you working in anything special right now?
I have a few public exhibitions due before the end of the year, and an event in planning London Design Week. I’m also completing a Master’s Degree and studying ceramics part time which will all be completed by this autumn. I’m in the middle of moving studio, working on several private commissions and developing a new collection for 2018. There’s never a quiet moment.
What does More with Less mean to you?
In high school I was told by one of my first design tutors “If it doesn’t need to be there, then take it off,” then unfortunately for most of my further education and early career, I was encouraged to do the opposite. Now finally I have been able to return to good sense.
Designed by Alex Devol. Photography: Alex Devol.