UK

Wood & Woven

Carving Away the Excess

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It isn’t mainstream, so there has to be a certain amount of education around what you're doing. But there is story around all of it.

__Alex Devol

One reason Woven rallies around makers and craftsmen is the conviction that draws an individual to return to traditional crafts. What would compel a person to spend eight hours a day making one handmade product, that a modern machine could effortlessly churn out 1,000 in the same span. It is this profundity of cause and craft that we seek, with each craftsman or woman having their own unique point of entry. In a post-industrialized world, these makers connect us to a love of labour our assembly lines and efficiency metrics can’t seem to provide, and remind us of what slow can offer, why less is still more.

For folks like Alex Devol, it’s all about carving away what is excess. From his remote woodshop in the northwestern English countryside, Alex has fashioned a career from fallen timber and bits of wood found not far from his home. It’s a picture of of stripped down simplicity, like peeling back the bark on a new tree. As serene as it sounds, Wooden & Woven was born from the crucible of discontent, and a mid-course correction for Alex and his craft. It’s a pursuit of what it means to make better products, tell better stories about what we make or buy, and trading in trend for products that will stand the test of time.

What distinguishes Alex’s approach as a woodworker is the honesty and experience he brings to design, hardwon over ten years among the ranks of fast fashion. After dropping out of university and flying to Australia on his would-be tuition funds, he fell into freelance work to make ends meet. At first it was illustration and art, that led into graphic and product design back in the UK. “When you take whatever job gets offered to you, you end up doing lots of interesting things,” he remembers. As a young creative, the perks were good enough, getting fed and a roof overhead, but as time wore on the practicality of life as a just-above-starving artist set in. “For the first couple of years you’re living quite hand-to-mouth. Then at some point you have a little freak out and think, “Am I going to do this for the rest of my life, or am I going to get a real job?” Entrepreneurial at heart, getting a “real job” for Alex meant starting his own brand selling his designs on hand-printed t-shirts.

The business did better than anticipated, growing over the first five years to a board of directions and thirty employees. It was a success by any meaningful business metrics, but as profits grew, so did Alex’s discontent. Believing he could somehow shake the feeling, he sold and moved on to work as a designer with a larger, even more prosperous fashion label. There he found himself on factory floors, overseeing an industrial volume of production in China and garmenting factories around the world. Elevated in position and salary, Alex realized how his success correlated to a deepening sadness. “I just became less and less in love with it and more and more upset with that industry, and upset by how people don’t acknowledge how irresponsible it is.”

For Alex, the enormity of fashion’s contribution to the world’s greatest ills – environmental degradation, social inequality – continued to erode his enthusiasm, and his conscience. “I had a bit of a crisis over it,” he admits, looking back. Not only did he feel the weight of working for an industry he knew too well to morally support, he painfully acknowledged that his actual work, the design and the products, weren’t worth keeping for very long. “I just woke up to how miserable I was. Sometimes in life you have control over what happens and sometimes you don’t. When things happen to you you ask yourself, why on earth am I living a life with such a huge part of that unhappiness by choice, when something can come along and make me unhappy that isn’t by choice? Even so, I put a huge chunk of my young life into fashion, and the more you put into it the more invested you are, the harder it is to walk away from it.” But when an opportunity came along, or an he describes it, “an intervention, really,” he took the chance – and the risk – to start over. With his personal life shifting, he saw clearly that his career wasn’t the contribution he wanted to make to the world. “That wasn’t the only motive behind doing something as carbon and socially neutral as carving spoons from bits of wood that I find, but I certainly sleep a lot better than I used to. I’ve halved my footprint and it’s still not that small. But it’s smaller than it was, and I’m trying my best.”

Ironically, Alex removed himself from an industry of trend only to find himself a part of the next big thing: the Maker Movement. As a sort of cosmic twist, carving wooden spoons landed Alex back among the fashionable, but with an entirely new set of peers. “I’m aware that it’s quite trendy at the moment to be making spoons. I’m not sure how that happened. It’s actually quite a traditional hobby in the UK, especially where I live in the countryside.” In school, woodwork had been his best class, a gift he genuinely enjoyed and carried on in his spare time making small gifts for special occasions, or in his spare time just to work with his hands. But after leaving his career in textiles it became something much more.

“Initially I was just making things. I intended to have a sort of sabbatical after I sold my business. I just needed something to fill my time, and it was a sort of therapy. I had also become very detached from hands-on making things, and I really missed that. The first menswear collection that I made when I started my brand, I dyed all the t-shirts in my kitchen sink. But then the more time that passes and the more success you have, the more detached you become from that process. I became a businessman, and I never wanted to be a businessman.”

For him it was always supposed to have been about creativity and having a viable outlet to express his ideas. Making wooden spoons, bowls, boards, and whatever came to mind he could make from wood felt like getting back to that plan. It allowed him the role of visionary and designer, as well as the opportunity to develop a relationship with his material again. “Design is my history. Before I would have envisaged a product, and then most of my craft is trying to communicate the means in which that product would be made, to then hand that over to a factory. With Wooden & Woven, I don’t hand it over to a factory anymore; I’m both the designer and the maker, so I hand it over to myself.”

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This is an important distinction in a global economy, that when any production is outsourced the waters of accountability get murky. “Things have been so design-centric the last couple of decades. It’s all about who designed it, but it’s not really about who made it. Which is a shame, really.” A shame because they’re two halves of the same coin. With mass-production and outsourcing, the maker is of no consequence to the consumer, a bottom line devoid of their rightful humanity.

The duality of designer and maker has put Alex back in touch with the critical ingredient to meaningful work: an undiluted fascination. For him, it’s all about the material. “Even when it was fashion, I was always more interested in the material. It’s what I’ve always been passionate about, so when I discovered how active a material can be, it became so much more interesting. Clay and wood have so much personality, and that personality creates so much challenge.” Much of Alex’s current work is experimenting with “green wood,” or wood that’s recently been cut and still retains a high level of moisture. It’s an uncommon approach in the world of woodwork, and a style he’s in some ways pioneering. “I love working with a piece of wood that is going to constantly change shape, get tougher and softer, maybe crack, and make you have to work fast because it’s literally going to become unusable. These challenges make working with that material so engaging. It’s challenging me and making me work harder.”

Instead of attributing greater fame to products with no future, Alex is compelled to produce products worthy of heirloom status; objects that will last, ripen in meaning, be passed down over generations. He’s fashioning a tangible hope of moving away from this throwaway lifestyle we all find ourselves a part of in one way or another. “These things can’t be changed within our lifetime, or by huge grand gestures. It will have to be a generational thing, incrementally over time.”

It’s true, that in its own way, good design can change the world one bit at a time. But it doesn’t hurt knowing how to make consumers want what you’re selling. With the muscle of his marketing know-how and the endurance of purpose, Alex is the guy you want starting the trends of a new generation. “We aren’t going to be able to get away from trend and fashion. It’s human nature to create these things. But if something is going to become trendy, let’s at least make it beneficial.” And in so far as it isn’t misleading, he’s an advocate of old fashioned advertising, otherwise known as storytelling. “People seem to think that marketing and advertising are a bad thing. I think it’s an important thing. As long as you never do it in a way that it can be undone, where time will naturally undo it. I just think it’s awful that with trend, the same thing a year later won’t be worth what you paid for it. I don’t want to sell things that people aren’t going to like anymore after a while.”

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And when something beautiful and honest is easy to love at first sight, everybody wins. “There is an element of storytelling in what I’m doing now, even though I’m just one guy making wooden products. I’m just showing my output, and I think a brand has naturally been built around that. I think it’s necessary to get people to identify with what you’re doing, because it isn’t mainstream, so there has to be a certain amount of education around what it is. And there are a lot of people now doing the same, who aren’t trying to get rich, they just want to be able to pursue their craft and pay their bills. But there is story around all of it.”

In the world of small business, meaning is the message, and getting it right is just as much a craft as whatever it is you’re making. “It’s still craftsmanship, and to me they it’s equally virtuous and valuable. It wasn’t deliberate, but I have become a sort of storyteller. It’s creative writing or whatever it is. It’s imagination.”

Whether it’s crafting an earnest message, collaborating with his peers, or turning wood into unconventional decor, Alex has found true wonder among his work. Like any great inventor, philosopher, or scientist, he focus is on the process, examining, experimenting, and making untold discoveries along the way.