Chic Chats #7 – “There’s no doubt that if you’re a luxury brand, generosity has to be at the forefront of what you’re doing.” Alexandra Llewellyn founder of Alexandra Llewellyn Design
LC: Let’s cut right to the chase: how did you come to make bespoke backgammon sets for a living?
AL: Well, it came about organically really. I trained with a fine artist and then worked for one of the Prince’s charities in product development. My job there was to marry contemporary Islamic design with traditional British craftsmanship. Backgammon boards were one of many things I’d made for people in my life and there came a point, around six years ago, that I knew I wanted to set up my own design business and work with British craftsmen. The inspiration for backgammon also came from my step-grandfather, who was Egyptian. As children we used to play backgammon with really old men on the back streets of Cairo and the game became a common language – we could smile and laugh even though we didn’t use the same words or come from the same culture. As a result of that experience, I knew I wanted to create something beautiful (a conversational piece) but also functional (so that people would actually play).
LC: Your pieces do have a high price point. What is it about them that’s so special?
AL: I think what we do is very unique, as our boards can become an open biography, tracking the client’s life. So much thought and love go into everything we make. Each element is thought about. Some boards have literal moments of lives plotted out on the board, whereas others reflect one aspect that can instigate a conversation; for example, each playing piece is engraved with something totally different such as the most important job you’ve had, your wedding date or even your favourite flavour of jam! We also play around with form too: I’ve done a circular backgammon board – although backgammon is a square game, it’s also a circular game – inverting the design.
LC: What / who are your inspirations?
AL: Mostly nature, actually. I grew up in the countryside and the first designs I did were from images I’d collected in childhood. But also the materials themselves inspire me greatly such as the beautiful wood we work with to make the boxes. Then there’s the techniques – for example, marquetry – they’ve got such extraordinary roots and traditions. I enjoy applying these old techniques alongside contemporary imagery, hence why we often make geometric contemporary boards. But now it’s more looking at the placement of different colours of woods together, the materiality of it and using abstract forms. Right now I’m also looking a lot at Matisse’s cut-outs, looking at bolder, more abstract designs.
LC: Tell us more about the conscientious and ethical sides to this luxury product?
AL: There’s no doubt that, if you’re a luxury brand these days, generosity has to be at the forefront of what you’re doing. Backgammon has enabled me to work with all sorts of wonderful people and materials. At the moment we’re working on a chocolate backgammon board, helping to support women in the Congo. They are encouraged to plant the cacao beans and then the chocolate is bought from them at much higher than market value. We’re telling the story of the women, the picking, the chocolate and the textiles they wear… all on the board itself. We also created a special board for the Terrence Higgins Trust, giving 20% of the proceeds to the charity, and we just did a collaboration with a photographer for a charity called Wild Aid. Also, we’re working on boards to take to the refugee camps in Dunkirk. It’s mostly young men living there who have nothing to do and there’s a lot of racism there so we like the idea of bringing these guys together with a game that’s from a common region.
LC: Who is your typical customer and what matters to them?
AL: It’s a complete spectrum. A lot of our boards are gifts for men but it’s a spectrum of ages and people. We’ve just made one for a house that someone has been building for 20 years and the board tells the story of the house. I’ve also just done another for a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They sent me a shoebox of love letters from the last 50 years for me to translate into design – now that was a tearjerker! That one thing I love about my job: I get to create unique and very precious mementos that I know people will treasure.