The measure of an Alexander Lamont piece is its sense of feel and the emotions it awakens.
By Laurence Civil
Alexander Lamont has a curious fascination for adding different layers and textures to an object in a nonconformist way that simply works. How that is achieved is harder to define. He works with materials such as bronze, shagreen, straw marquetry, parchment, rock crystal, gold leaf, and natural lacquer, which demand discipline, patience, and skill in creating each piece.
“I am greatly inspired by objects of the past,” says Alexander. “I find in them a beautiful sense of damage, imperfection, patina, and spirituality from having lived so long. I work to create an integrity and quality in my pieces that will allow them to live and age and grow more beautiful over time.”
Alexander acquired his passion for beautiful forms and materials from his earliest years. Growing up in Nairobi, Bangalore, and Southwest England, Alexander accompanied his father on trips to Asia in search of folk art and antiques for the family’s import business. The exposure to travel, culture, and handmade objects provided a visceral education in design and form while at the same time informing his hands with the nature of surfaces, whether they are authentic or not. The measure of an Alexander Lamont piece is its sense of feel and the emotions it awakens.
He enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London where he studied anthropology but his connections with Thailand dates to his childhood, as a boy of nine-years-old traveling with his father to Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It was a deep-rooted affinity that kept pulling him back.
After running a carpet business (another very tactile experience) and spending five years in Hong Kong dealing in Asian antiques, Alexander moved to Thailand in 2000 and founded his company. “When I founded the company,” he says, “I had a general idea of the direction the journey would take, but then the specifics were vague.”
“My dad had places we would always shop in while on family holidays,” he says. “That was my indirect education in retails: by visiting the best. The one that most impressed me was Zona on Broome Street in the Soho district of New York. It was in the mid-80s when lifestyle shops were being born.
“They had carefully crafted music being played: Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and Steely Dan, which they also sold. They had a team of 10 buyers whom, I later discovered, bought almost everything they sold at the New York Gift Fair. They had 100 of the best books ever each with handwritten notes.
“To discover a shop like this is like discovering a great piece of music,” he continues. “While what they sold was total different to us, it was the way they did it that had a lasting impression. How to build facets into the unique customer buying experience; they did it so well and taught me the care and attention needed.”
That company now employs 175 people and produces furniture, lighting and accessories using the materials that he loves. He now employs over 100 artisans in workshops for shagreen, parchment, lacquer, eggshell, gesso, straw marquetry, gold leaf and bronze finishing. Their work forms an integral part of each one of his designs. With the design studio located above the workshops, Alexander has daily contact with the artisans, and the designs emerge from an ongoing dialogue between designer and artisan in the exploration and innovation of materials.
Each of Alexander’s designs is transformed from raw material to finished product through many stages by the hands of many artisans and over many hours. Four layers of red vegetal lacquer are first applied to the shagreen panels of a long box. It is left to dry and then rubbed back to reveal the myriad ivory beaded texture beneath. Another layer of lacquer is applied…and so it goes on until the perfect tone, color, and texture is achieved.
“What fascinates me is how to make a surface breath,” he says, “with the feel and look of having been in daily use for the past 20 years.”
“The material I started working with was lacquer because it’s essentially Asian and can be added to other materials,” he says. “It needs high humidity so it works here and becomes brighter and stronger with age. What I like most about it is the way the layers magically bond together.”
“The craftsman who most influenced me with lacquer was Jean Dunand (1877-1942) a Swiss lacquer, sculptor, dinandier, and interior designer, considered to be the greatest lacquer artist of the Art Deco period. He had worked Seizo Sugawan the Japanese laquerist who migrated to France and taught him the intricate details of Urushi lacquering.”
One of the best examples of this is his scalloped topped “Fourgere Dining Table” finished in the red “Calligrapher Lacquer” with one down gold that makes it look as if someone had been working at this best for the past 20 years; aged yet pristine.” He described what is special about working with lacquer is when applying the final layer when the paint is stretched to the magic moment to attach the gold.
“To be able to deliver our customers a total unique product we must create a product that is too much like hard work for others to copy,” he says. To achieve this we must own production. Our sense of quality is hard to define in words yet the eye appreciates its. The piece has to rock in a non-conventional way that is unique. The finish needs to be near perfections yet not industrial, minor flaws where appropriate can make the uniqueness.”
“I learnt a lesson the hard way about buying finished pieces,” he says. “I placed an order for part-wood, part-lacquer pieces in Pagan, Myanmar. Just before the delivery date they sent a message to say the whole order was cracked. These things happen. A year later I saw the whole same collection in a gallery in Los Angeles.”
“Our rebranding last year was the first step to redefine who we are and to allow us to expand. Adding my first name to that of the company gives a sense of ownership. After much deliberation I created a logo with two elements; the cicada gives a Japanese image of Asia and the chalice a link of East and West with a reference to my father and grandfather having been Methodist ministers.”
Fifty percent of all their sales are through their shops, currently seven, soon to drop to five, and in November up to six when they open at Central Embassy. This outlet will be the model for future gift shop. In order to grow there was a need to separate brand and factory who will no longer just be supply company shops but also independent showrooms in the U.S. in the key cities of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas.
“Its important to put our products into a market where they can be understood,” he says.
Alexander says metals are the materials they will be working with next. “Thailand is a major metal producing country and there is a lot we can do by adding betina for texture. Pricing is a complicated issue but we have pieces in the Bt3,000 Bt900,000 range.”
“We are very much a Thai company,” Alexander concludes, “working with stronger local materials than those imported.”