Inside the studio: Alexander Isley

[Alexander Isley] I started my company in 1988. For the first several years we were in New York City. It was the perfect place to live and work — the Center of Everything and all that, and my wife Veronica and I loved being there. I had a great team, and I was excited about the work we were doing. But at some point we both got itchy to try something new, and I decided I needed to work in a barn. Just because.

There were no barns to be found on lower Broadway — I checked — so I had no choice but to seek my fortune elsewhere.

For a year we looked around, from Vermont to Pennsylvania to Massachusetts and everywhere in between. During our search, we kept traveling through a part of Connecticut that we really came to like, and on Labor Day weekend in 1995 we packed up and headed north. Goodbye, city life!

None of my employees had wanted to make the move, so I started over with a new team in a new place. It was a complete life and work makeover. We didn’t know a soul here, but I knew that Lester Beall had worked out of a barn in Connecticut, and that was good enough for me. If you’re going to copy, you might as well copy from the best. I was certain I’d lose all my clients and go out of business in about 45 minutes, but this was something I knew I had to try.

All right, enough with the wordy preamble. Time for some pictures. Here’s where we work:

The older portion of our structure is from around 1805. It’s in surprisingly good shape. It has a rear section that was added sometime in the early 1980s. At one time it was painted red — kind of what you’d expect. I prefer the green.

The basic configuration is unchanged from when we bought it. To enter the main area, one needs to go up this stairway. I crack my head on the overhead section once every week or so, usually when I’m rushing somewhere. Other than that, all’s good.

I got the horse at a fundraising auction for one of our clients. I was trying to be helpful, ginning up the bidding to get them the most money, at which point I’d drop out. My strategy failed.

Before we moved in, the barn was a big raw space, around 5000 sq. ft. I designed the interior, cabinetry and lighting, and a lot of the furniture came from the most excellent Design Within Reach. I got one of the red Jens Risom chairs at an AIGA auction a few years ago, and it looked so lonely I had to go out and find it a mate. (I understand Mr. Risom is now around 95 years old and lives not too far away.) The pillows are from our client Jonathan Adler, and I think they look pretty great next to the Eames “circles” fabric on the sofa. OK, no more designer fanboy talk. I promise.

One thing that’s important to me is having a large space where the designers can easily collaborate. I don’t like having a lot of individual offices where people can become isolated. I think it’s crucial to be active and engaged and involved in everyone else’s business. I think it encourages an open exchange of ideas.

We have a lot of books. The shelves also do double duty as a place to post oversized work in progress when the other wall spaces have been gobbled up. Above is a sample test panel from the inscriptions we are preparing for New Jersey’s 9/11 memorial, which is now under construction. The names will be etched in stainless steel.

Here’s our conference room, with Charlie the office mascot holding court as usual.

OK, that’s a lie. I never bring him into the office because his favorite thing to do is eat paper, wait a few minutes, then throw it back up. So having him underfoot in this paperful place is pretty much a catastrophe. But he does help make for a more interesting photo. So let’s just call him a prop.

I enjoy designing books, but they really are a labor of love. We’ve designed maybe 60 books and have lost our shirt on every single one. I don’t know how other firms do it. But I’m a sucker, and if something really interesting comes along, we’ll sign up to do it every time.

This must have been taken on a Casual Friday. All of our team members are warriors, trained from early childhood to master a variety of unorthodox skills and make quick, non-standard decisions under extreme conditions.

Larger clients get their own room. We do a lot of work with cultural and educational organizations. Right now we’re working with Highlights and Girl Scouts of the USA.

At first I wasn’t so sure about going with the tall yellow cabinets, but I do heart my storage. We have a family of fake lizards tucked away in various locations throughout the office.

Another view of the kitchen area, with an old sign from an exhibit we designed for the Cooper-Hewitt. (Someone managed to unbolt and steal one of these from the fence surrounding the museum. On Fifth Avenue. In the middle of the day.)

I wish I could say this activates a bookcase that slides open to reveal a pair of batpoles, but it just operates our lights.

Like a lot of designers, we collect a lot of cool old things. Notice I said “collect,” not “hoard.” Thank you.

Same thing: Here’s a COLLECTION of name tags from different conferences and events. I think it’s important to participate in professional activities and keep in touch with friends and colleagues. If part of our role is to communicate and be out there and involved in our world, then we need to communicate and be out there and involved in our world.

For this we had to drag out an old photo, as the table is still completely submerged in a snowbank. It is nice to have cookouts, and I can’t wait for spring.

Our downstairs lounge, with one of my favorite vintage posters. I would never have thought to promote an airline by suggesting that jets are like paper airplanes spiraling toward the ground. Just … wow. And if you can’t find a good dog to use as a prop, you can always try a fake anvil.

As a farewell, our house mariachi band bids you a fond and heartfelt “Adios!” Thank you for stopping by.

Alexander Isley heads a firm providing identity and communication design for “education, entertainment and enterprise.” He serves on the advisory board of AIGA Connecticut and is past president of AIGA New York. He has been a critic and lecturer at the Yale School of Art since 1996, and is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale. His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art.

Isley is the former art director of Spy magazine, the complete run of which has been digitized.

See Sean Adams’ three questions (plus one) for Alexander Isley here.

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Comments (9)

  1. Posted by kim rogala on 02.28.11 at 1:36 pm

    Okay, Alex, first, this is hilarious. Love the nod to Green Acres. Second, I can’t believe I haven’t been to your office yet. And, third, I’m the one who stole the Cooper-Hewitt sign (I can turn invisible).

  2. Posted by Amy Graver on 02.28.11 at 4:04 pm

    I know those batpoles exist and that all your best creative comes from within the bowels of the batcave. Rumors tell of interns working down there for days. Fess up.

  3. Posted by mattkoyak on 03.1.11 at 11:12 am

    Best line off the week – possibly month: “…master a variety of unorthodox skills and make quick, non-standard decisions under extreme conditions.”

    It doesn’t hurt she’s dressed like a Ninja either!

  4. Posted by Barbara Wiedemann on 03.2.11 at 5:18 am

    Very fine. Thanks for communicating and being out there in our world, including North Carolina.

  5. Posted by Joan Smith on 03.2.11 at 4:43 pm

    Alex, this is great! Love the anvil. I kinda wish I worked there, especially to experience casual Fridays…And what is it with dogs, paper and throwing up? That was one of Bogey’s favorite tricks too.tion

  6. Posted by Jimmy Holcomb on 03.2.11 at 5:32 pm

    Alex! I love felt. But I love wire even more. The photo of you mesmerized by the PMS book is classic. I hope you picked the right color!

  7. Posted by LEE MOODY on 03.9.11 at 8:53 pm

    Love seeing yet another side of Alex ! How many sides ya got ? 🙂

  8. Posted by Carol Friedland on 03.18.11 at 10:26 am

    Alex. This is great. You really get a feel for the character of the place. I love the photo of the snow on your sign. I also love that the snow is not there anymore!

  9. Posted by austin lowrey on 02.10.14 at 5:24 pm

    bringing this up to date: 02.10.14 at 4:20pm mexico time.
    Great…enjoyed the visit and being in your space and
    your AURA. WE can always Du More. Hugs, Ole’A(ustin)

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