[Sean Adams] I’m not easily star-struck. I work with celebrities, and they are like most clients: Most are smart, a few are nitwits. For some reason, however, I end up with a mouthful of marbles when I talk with Alex Isley. I don’t know why he makes me nervous. He’s always disarming, down-to-earth, and couldn’t be friendlier. But I’ve been in awe of his work for a long time. And like most people we admire, he is so much more than just the great work. I’ve learned, over time, to make sure I have a drink before seeing Alex. Then I can relax and not sound really, really foolish.
Q1: What is the worst thing (not design) you’ve ever done?
If by “the worst thing” you mean the most evil, then I know this will be a bitter disappointment for you, Sean, but I don’t have any good stories to tell. I think one of my weaknesses both as a designer and as a human being is I’m way too eager to please. So not a lot of evil there … I don’t think.
If, however, by “the worst thing” you mean the most stupid, well, pull up a chair. I’m not even sure the best place to begin.
Maybe it was the time I had a construction job, riding on top of a load of plywood, and it and I fell off the truck into the middle of the highway. Dumb. Or maybe it was the time I was on my way to buy a new washing machine and instead came back with a car. Stupid. Or perhaps it was when I threw a pumpkin out of Tibor’s 12th-floor office onto the street below. Lucky that car was empty.
Or get this: We just spent the past two years developing and producing our own product, a line of children’s meal trays. They were made out of a material that was tested nontoxic and dishwasher-safe. We got a press agent. Went to Toy Fair. Won some awards. The week 10,000 pieces were delivered, we found the material might be unsafe. Naturally, we disposed of them. That one was very dumb plus very unlucky — a really tough combination to beat.
Q2: Who was the biggest influence on your life, good or bad?
I know this isn’t a very original answer, but my parents informed who I am and how I approach things. I didn’t realize it while growing up, but their personalities and backgrounds gave me a lot of valuable tools for being a designer.
My mom Jane is so smart. She was a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson in the late 1950s, a time when not a lot of women held that position. As a kid I would look at her old clippings and imagine how fun and challenging and interesting that life must have been.
She went on to teach English and was a real stickler. She hates this, but my brothers and I called her the Grammar Slammer. She’d send us to our rooms if we ended our sentences with a preposition. She taught me how, by taking a pencil and a piece of paper and writing, you could convince people of things. Plus she likes to laugh.
My father Max was an architect. He studied under Walter Gropius and Eduardo Catalano — and Ivan Chermayeff’s dad! — and he had a great collection of books about Moholy-Nagy, the Eamses and all these other modernist designers that I used to scrutinize as a boy. I’d watch him sketch a building at his drawing table at home and, a year later, we’d be able to walk through it in real life. That to me was complete, 100% magic. Once again with the pencil and the paper and the power of an idea.
Q3: What were you like in high school?
Miserable and optimistic. Like everyone, right?
I was fortunate. For my senior year I went to an arts-focused high school, where I got a taste of design and art and film and set design and literature and how they can all work together if you just try. Added attraction: The ballerinas modeled for drawing classes! To a 17-year-old, all this was pretty amazingly great, and I became very happy. And determined. I’d come to understand I wanted to make things for a living.
Bonus Q: What is the best perk that comes with being a famous designer?
OK, now that’s funny.
Editor’s Note: We’re honored by Alexander Isley’s presence on Felt & Wire. The hallmark of his work is that it feels spontaneous and exciting, and is simultaneously graphically disciplined and astute. These qualities become more apparent over time — surely the best indicator of great talent. Isley is the principal of Alexander Isley Inc. of Redding, Conn. His consultancy focuses on brand development and communication design in education, entertainment and culture.