Explaining how this interview came about could only happen today—it was via twitter. Alissia had started following me a couple months ago and as any curious designer would do I clicked on her link from her profile to her site. I was really impressed with her work and some of it seemed familiar like I had seen before mentioned on other design sites. I was an immediate fan. We’d chatter back and forth on twitter every once in a while. Time passed, then as I normally do on the weekends I was walking down the Hudson river. One thought that came to me was how I should really do more design interviews on the blog like I used to. Immediately I thought about approaching Alissia to see if she was interested. She was quite enthusastic about it, so we planned to talk via IM because that’s how everyone communicates these days (right?).
Below is a condensed version of that conversation. I decided to leave a lot of the “haha’s” and smiley faces in because that’s as much part of the conversation as the more serious stuff that we covered. Some of my favourite bits of the discussion wasn’t so much about pure design as much as how she’s using tech. like blogs and twitter—just like everyone else.
What is sadly missing from this conversation is some of the stuff that we talked about (along with her husband) when we met in Williamsburg on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It was fascinating to hear how the dutch government encourages design and the culture of design as a profession. Maybe we’ll have to do a part two of the interview down the road. Hopefully you enjoy the conversation. If you want to learn more about Alissia Melka-Teichroew I’d check out her main site at www.byamt.com, her great blog at http://byamt.wordpress.com and even her tweets at http://twitter.com/alissiamt.
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Michael Surtees: I had mentioned on twitter that I was excited to be talking to a pretty good industrial designer…
Alissia Melka-Teichroew: It’s funny since I do not see myself as an industrial designer.
MS: Yes, I wasn’t sure what to “label” you… What would you call yourself?
MS: Is there a difference between industrial designer and just designer?
AMT: No I guess there isn’t, however I see designer as more general and more open. Not in a box yet – so because of the jewellery I am a jewellery designer according to some people and then other want to call me an industrial designer because some pieces are in production, I worked at IDEO and studied what at RISD they call industrial design. When i say designer at least it’s in the middle—but i don’t really care. I guess I maybe have a bit of a negative thought when i hear the “industrial” word?!
MS: Makes sense, I’m not a big fan of labels like that either.
AMT: But realistically, who really cares 🙂 It’s your work that counts in the end.
MS: Are most of your projects self started or are manufacturers asking you to solve a specific issue?
AMT: That’s another thing, in my line of design (since I am not doing medical or anything for the greater good (let’s face it)) – I do not believe in problem solving. But to answer your question, I would say it used to be self-initiated mostly and has moved to being both. Sometimes I am still in sketch phase but you’re speaking with a manufacturer and they will want to know what you’re working on – they might build an idea of something they want you to do based on your own sketch. So then it’s kind of collaborative in a way—to come back to the problem solving, I feel like it’s an American approach to design.
MS: So is it design or art?
AMT: The design that I do (and my husband and Maarten Baas, Stephen Burks, Hella Jongerius etc,etc…) is not about problem solving. I believe it’s definitely design. But it’s just not based upon a “problem”. My diamond rings… There wasn’t a “problem” with the existing ones. I just question the fact if people really still remember the original value (not the diamond, but the act of asking someone to marry you) that is not a problem I think, that I solved. It’s just one of many ways to look at it.
MS: Were you engaged when you thought of the ring?
AMT: No, I was in a relationship with someone back in The Netherlands while I was at RISD.
AMT: Usually designs are not that personal. I mean they do not grow out of something that just happened to me personally.
MS: I noticed your ring on your site after you started following me on twitter. I thought the idea was great. I probably won’t be wearing that ring anytime soon since I’m a guy and like to keep things simple. but i def. would put one on my wall at work.
AMT: I made clear bands for my husband. He didn’t want to wear the diamond either 😉
MS: Does that design sans diamond have the same status? There’s something playful with the diamond that’s recognizable.
AMT: It’s his wedding band, since guys often don’t like wearing rings – this one is plastic, we have 100 of them and it’s clear plastic – so it sort of works for someone who doesn’t want to wear one. Also it’s the silver one that is sold or gold. So if someone buys the diamond ring in gold, silver or platinum sometimes they also want the band, whch is the same width for themselves. That is not longer really about the “fakeness” of the diamond ring. It becomes more serious then I guess it’s the life the product gets in a way – or in this case the line of products.
MS: Makes sense, there’s a personal significance to it. the obvious question to follow up with is what’s on your hand. Are you wearing one of those diamond rings as your wedding ring?
AMT: Actually (this story might be a bit long, i’ll shorten it)
AMT: I usually forget rings once I take em off at night -but IF I wear it yes – I wear a gold 4mm diamond ring as my engagement ring and the clear plastic 1/8″ ring as the wedding ring to match my husband’s but I picked the gold one as a temp ring since I asked him to marry me via SMS in 2006 when I was sitting on a stoop in Williamsburg on my way to Greenpoint. He was in The Netherlands, in Eindhoven. It was 11pm there and he was in the tub – he SMSed back with “Ja” = yes in Dutch. I got on the bus but we still hadn’t spoken on the phone just messaged when i got to Greenpoint we did finally talk and decided not to tell people yet, since it was a bit weird and sudden and we were both completely freaking out but after 2 days, we couldn’t take it anymore and told our parents. That’s when Jan told me to pick a ring I had a gold one that was miss-ordered so I took that one I felt I deserved that but I actually want another one. (haha). So that is the story.
MS: That’s awesome. Do you design for yourself, have a person in mind or something else entirely?
AMT: Something else entirely I think, however it’s like buying presents. You usually buy something for someone else that somewhere you also enjoy because it is more fun that way—it’s more genuine if you do it that way. So yes in the end I do design things in a way that I believe in it but i do not design it with myself or a specific other person or target group in mind unless it’s a commission and they are looking for something specific or when i was working at IDEO or Puma of course. But I also believe that by designing using focus groups for instance is not the solution either.
MS: Are there consistent patterns that you come up with in the design process or does inspiration just strike you and a perfect design is completed quickly?
AMT: No i am slow, I ponder, but that is actually the problem – well I see it as a problem. Because of sales and manufacturing I am basically multitasking all day. There is no real time to develop anymore and i cannot stand that because I need to sit on things, play with material, play with the shape, figure out if what I am doing is really the essence of what my concept is – or just a side thought. So what happens lately, is I am mostly trying to block out the sales, “things i HAVE to do” and try to focus on a design. And depending on how i wake up I am successful at that. (haha) How frustrated do I sound? (hehe)
MS: The “hehe” changes the tone completely. Do you work a lot with your husband? Do you bounce ideas off of him or do you tend to be more solitary about it?
AMT: hmm it depends on the project. If it’s a quick project I will bounce ideas off him. If it’s (like the ball joint designs) I will do so less because i want to stay in my thought process and not ask someone who has completely different views on things. So i will tend to chat to other people about it more but i guess i am a solitary designer. Iwork well alone. However the TreeTrunk Stool was designed with another designer and I do work with Jan on projects.
MS: Are you constantly evolving how you design or is every project kind of unique it makes it impossible to design the same way all the time?
AMT: Hmmm hard one. I think each design is unique because of the circumstances. If something needs to be done quick, vs something that’s been in my head for years, vs a group project , vs being in school or out etc. But then again you always evolve you become faster, you understand your thoughts quicker as you become more experienced. So I would say a combination.
MS: Nice—are you typically sketching things out and using the computer to finish things off or playing around inside the computer?
AMT: ha well that is the other BIG frustration that i tend to keep quiet. I am not a good drawer I also dont take the time to practice so i tend to do all necessary to communicate an idea. Sometimes it takes me a while I wish i had more time to draw but we never learned it at the design academy. We had some classes but they were probably the least strict ones we had the teacher was super mellow.
MS: Drawing classes?
AMT: Yeah, it was only in the first year (structure is completely different then here in University/College) so the importance was not high as long as you could show what you meant that was the objective. However our final designs had to be far more polished and finished then here in design schools. So I play in computer, sketch, make models or have models made, etc, anything to make it clear.
MS: When you’re working out a concept, are there certain things you tell yourself or constraints that you put on yourself?
AMT: The most important one is that the object/design has to be strong enough to reflect the basic idea of the concept without me or the packaging telling the story so I find it very important the the story makes sense behind the design (for me – the viewer does not have to see the WHOLE concept/story) and all my choices: material, colour, shape, etc have to have a reason (I think i am very perfectionistic in a way, but also a purist sometimes in a sense – but maybe not) hah.
MS: If I compare your ring to your bags, there’s a certain playfulness or fakeness to it that’s pretty cool. Is there a certain philosophy to that idea?
AMT: I believe that humor is a very important element in life. I think it’s important for people to be able to humor themselves. I think that is why I always have this little element in there btw the bag was designed together with my husband. He is more responsible for that “fake” part than I am. I worked more on the carrying part – a man wants to hold the bag by the small handle, not hang it over his shoulder, like the woman would do.
MS: Do you find that your blog and even twittering change how you design at all?
AMT: Actually the blog is more like snippets like you used to photocopy things from books and tear things out of a magazine so i am trying to post things that i want to remember. I love it when people follow my blog of course, but i am trying to do it for myself, so i can go though it sometimes and remember things that i found. Twitter however I am still not certain about. I love meeting new people, connecting with them and staying anonymous with others but I must say sometimes twitter frustrates me. I start not liking people or what hey post or their links just from what they type on twitter. That’s not good (haha). Twitter should not be basis for me to like or dislike people I try and stay off it and only go on when i have a minute and want to find interesting posts or say hi to my friends abroad.
MS: I think the same thing can happen with blogs too—or at least for me.
AMT: Really? How? (I am new to blogging).
MS: Well it is important to try to separate the person and their thoughts, it’s easy to think of them the same. You disagree with an idea – you might not like the person when you’ve never met the person and they could be kind of different.
AMT: Right – makes sense, however on a blog I tend to not judge people because they are posting things for a reason and decided they needed to share with twitter it’s shorter more instant, things you normally do not share on your blog—I broke my toe–ate ramen–sat next to stinky dude etc…
AMT: Those short quotes can become pompous too–which deters me a bit sometimes, ok enough of that haha (o and i don’t like the suck-up mentality on twitter – last thing i will say).
MS: What i was trying to figure out is when you’re designing and trying to to tell your “story” for the concept, are you actually writing a lot, is it more of a mental exercise? Jjust curious if you’re creating briefs for yourself, or more reacting to your environment when you design things?
AMT: I create briefs, that sometimes are coming from reactions to my environment. If i do something on commission, and it needs be done fast I will draw from my environment then create a type of constraint – a brief. But it’s often only in my head, especially when you don’t have much time or scrambled in a sketchbook somewhere in English or/and Dutch.
MS: I was going to ask you about that—what’s your first language?
AMT: French, well that’s the first I learned. Then my dad decided i was correcting him too often so switched to English. But when I lived in the Netherlands I learned Dutch on the street. Now Dutch + English but when I came here in 2002, definitely dutch. It’s weird I can’t stick to one in my sketchbook usually not french though unless a french intern is here which has happened a couple times.
MS: Do those language sensibilities help or hinder your ideas?
AMT: I think both because of semantics being more important than i realized then again it’s not only the language but the cultures (around a language) that do of course inform me about things. Since my parents are both linguists it makes the semantics bit kind of funny sometimes I am very picky.
MS: Picky in terms of what?
AMT: Words—how to describe something.
MS: So that’s why you use haha and hehe a lot ( :
AMT: haha—I think that’s because i like to tell you that i am smiling since we’re not face to face 🙂
MS: For sure
AMT: Chat can become impersonal otherwise – or unclear or misunderstood, but maybe that’s me. I mean I am picky with words when trying to describe work things.
MS: Very true – hopefully i’m not coming across to cold, you come across as quite energetic.
AMT: That’s funny, nope no worries, I am from the country of “DROOG” = dry 🙂
MS: Of course
AMT: Our culture is dry in humor but also in people. We’re sober peeps I would say in a way, not very extrovert.
MS: Do you think some of your designs are seen the same way whether they’re in North America vs. Europe?
AMT: I got the bubbly part from my mom’s North African side. No not really. However I do feel like things are finally changing here in the US and the designs I make are not always seen as Art any more. I do believe that people have less affinity with design here and less imagination in a way. What you see is what you get – is a big thing here. People are not taught to think further, to try and understand what this might mean so people actually pick up the acrylic diamond ring and will ask me what it’s for. That would never happen in Europe.
AMT: Then again, this non-affinity makes for great conversations with people and you can see that you can educate them in a way and educating means change, change in the way people perceive things (does this still make sense?). Uhm why “eek”?
MS: About people wondering about the ring.
AMT: Yeah, I know it’s not only the ring it’s many things. Hang out at the gift fair and you will run into these peeps.
MS: I bet, kind of depressing?
AMT: Sometimes, sometimes it’s just super funny.
AMT: And just unbelievable.
MS: Some of your designs have a lot of different dimensions to it, both physically and metaphorically. I like all the different things that the coffee cups and lids can do with Savarona. Was the clear idea, or did you realize that there could be multiple purposes?
AMT: That was the idea as you probably saw I was inspired by moulds, and how moulds in themselves are often interesting objects. Somehow that got me thinking about the multiple uses for one object. It’s funny you mention that one, since me and my husband were not really sure about that one. Maybe too complex and too simple/boring at the same time. Not sure why I guess that’s what happens with two designer’s in the house.
MS: As a studio, do you plan to grow in size with more designers or continue as is?
AMT: Actually I would love to grow and that is what I am struggling with now. I have someone helping me on the sales end, a couple days a week, but sales are down, so I cannot have this person coming in as often. Then once I don’t have to deal with that end anymore (she’s new so we’re still working on things together) I would like to move into having more interns or maybe a design partner. But growing is hard in my opinion.
MS: Stupid question from me—how do the sales happen? Is it mainly via your website or from somewhere else?
AMT: I used to do only wholesale so via email, fax or phone people contact you or vice versa, but now I also have an online store.
MS: Almost finished – don’t want to take up too much of your time since it’s such a nice day out.
AMT: It is, but cloudy now 😉 Actually I’m working after this.
MS: Just noticed that, my back is to the window.
AMT: Well lunch than work. I’ve actually moved spots 2 times (haha). Vacuumed a bit and just grabbed a sweater (hehe).
MS: What a multi tasker! What do you want to design that you haven’t yet?
AMT: I like multitasking—think better too, ooooh. Many things. Not anything specifically however i would like to design FOR companies. I guess more furniture, a carpet, more textiles but i think all things will come in due time. I would love to design a jewellery line for a high end brand. Have a piece with Cappellini.
MS: Is there something that you’re working towards?
AMT: Yes and no. I want to be successful at what I do. Would like to have designs manufactured by different manufacturers, want to grow my company and mostly want to keep doing what i love to do. Not do too many things that I don’t so just to bring in some money sometimes we have to do things we’re not really happy about, but I try to do little to none of that try to make the things that I do not believe in, into something I do when possible.
MS: That sounds like a perfect ending for this interview. Merci!