With acceptance and tolerance, Thailand has been very good at making beautiful things."
An Interview with Alexander Lamont
by Dr. Tom Vitayakul
Merging western vision and eastern artisanship, a Thailand-based English designer has his concepts beautifully crafted into objects of desire
Renowned for elegant and contemporary designs of furniture, lighting and accessories, Alexander Lamont expresses his dedication to meticulous workmanship of rare materials and an aesthetic taste refined by a life lived between East and West. Exposed to various global cultures since his childhood, he has lived his life in exotic locales. He recalls, “I talked with my mother, who was a psychologist, about my first 10 formation years. I wanted to know about our thoughts, connections and choices that we have made. An idea from this is in Aristotle’s and St Ignatius Loyola of the Jesuit Order’s saying ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.’ Your vital structure was built since you’re young.
“I spent my first three years in Kenya and then Bangalore following my dad. We lived in a house isolated miles away from a village and travelled in Somalia and Ethiopia. My dad was a project coordinator for intermediate technology and a photographer, seeing all the places in Africa. I grew up in a small environment but at four or five, I returned to the UK from India. I was too young to attend school but for trying out, I spent about five hours a day at playschool, singing English national anthem, playing with other white kids and going to church. It was a huge excitement. I had never been in such situations where there was so much stimulation. I kept asking questions in class.
“I have pieced the jigsaw of colourful, fascinating places. I came from religious and traditional families but I have a lot of enthusiasm and love jumping in and experiencing the world. During the long and dark winter, the village is very quiet and still but when working with my dad every Saturday or holiday, I saw exotic folk art, antiques and handicrafts. In 1976, he opened his company called Global Village Crafts. Upon opening the wooden crates, I experienced these smells, colours, textures, forms and expressions from all the goods and where they come from. He imported papier-mâché from Mexico, horn carvings from Nigeria, wood carvings and ivory from India and so many materials made in traditional ways. Working with him, I went on my first trip to New York City when I was nine. We travelled a lot and also went back to India. The world just kept getting better. When I was 11, we visited Thailand and I somehow fell in love with this place. After Bangkok, we went to Chiang Mai. It was a gorgeous adventure in a human’s life. Back at school, I led my normal life with nothing special and kept these experiences to myself.”
Alexander continues, “When I was young, I wanted to become a mountaineer scaling the heights. Then I wanted to be a butcher, touching and feeling up animal flesh like a cow’s tongue. And then I wanted to be a criminal lawyer or a journalist. I didn’t want to do what my dad was doing. Working with my dad is difficult. Through growing up and separation, I studied anthropology at SOAS University of London (the School of Oriental and African Studies). I came to learn Thai and live with a Thai-Chinese family in Bangkok for six months. My Thai became good very quickly and this gave me a break from my families.
“Then I no longer wanted to be at the peak of the mountains but down in the valley, learning about the people and traditions. In Sociology, there are macro connections as well as micro societies developing their own kinship, hierarchy, conflict resolution, environment and sustainability within itself. Focusing on Thailand and Bali, we studied northern Thailand and an Indonesian island about their contemporary society. White people like to study about tribes and try to understand them but I didn’t want to be an academic or an anthropologist. I’m interested in material culture—what and how they made traditional crafts.”
After graduation, Alexander managed a carpet company. He explains, “With handmade products, you have a physical relationship with them. I open, unfold and sell them. I have a lot of contact with it. I love carpets but it was very tough economically. I moved to Hong Kong and was happy to be back in Asia. It is a fun, active and beautiful place to be. I had a proper job selling antiques that I had to research and learn a lot. Selling important pieces requires knowledge and you have to go into the story. I’m totally enthusiastic and love the pieces. Clients have a genuine interest, even more than I have. It’s a lovely experience. These pieces are accessible, not like in museums. They are made from natural materials, by hand and displayed in a refined environment. Through interest and passion, I absorbed this.”
Alexander’s story of his business emerges from luminous materials and refined craftsmanship. He ponders, “In 2000, after five years in Hong Kong, I started my own business in Thailand with my wife, who is a lawyer. Thailand is quiet, polite, sophisticated and has a deep cultural level. What are the most beautiful materials in the world—shagreen, parchment, mica, straw, bronze, lacquer, etc.? These materials allow artistic expressions for centuries and even beyond. When you look at things in Musée des Arts Décoratifs Paris or in books, they become more beautiful as they age. A sustainable product can last a long time for us to cherish it, like oil paintings. Now the industry creates things that are disposable and last for a few years. It’s planned obsolescence with weak and poor materials for clothing, furniture, etc. It’s incredible that we have to change them every ten years. With better materials, things look better, take time and effort to last and grow more beautiful. I’m also concerned about the environment because when making these handicraft works, we have to be careful with toxicity.
“During the first seven years, in our feeling, we found colours, textures, interests and stimulations that connect human pulse in the creation of objects, its vibrancy and energy at the world’s heart of luxury and quality. With acceptance and tolerance, Thailand has been very good at making beautiful things. People have patience, generosity and a good life. Thais accept and revere handmade things. These genuine pieces have gone through hundreds of hours of creation. They are sources of energy around you.”– Alexander Lamont
Alexander employs over 100 artisans in his ateliers for shagreen, parchment, natural lacquer, eggshell, gesso, straw marquetry, gold leaf and bronze finishing. His designs are infused with vitality, soul and character and with a sense that, like their creators, they have come on a journey of discovery. The exploration and innovation of materials is a powerful force that drives the creative direction of his company. He muses, “I’m interested in the meeting point of natural materials, time and form. The resulting works contain a vibrancy of surface created by the hours, hands and eyes that nourished them. When I started the business, it’s like a dream to make nice things. It’s the process of finding the materials, working, looking at the design team and craftsmen making things. Now, what I see is a precious group of skills matched with the materials. I have seen many people going into these paths which become their vocations.
“The design part is drawing details for prototypes and letting the team battle with those things. The staff in the workshop from local design schools are incredibly loyal, dedicated and smart—even more than me. I’m a creative director pushing the execution, like a magician. In a wider chain of the industry, we need schools to train people at higher degrees, like seamstresses and furniture makers. It’s a missed opportunity to not have technical colleges for good apprentices and artisans. We also need good resources for the industry like teak or strong, stable and solid wood. The sheets need to be properly dried, with good joinery, hardware, hinges, veneer as well as a sanitary certificate.”
On his business, he thinks, “I would really like Thailand to see this as a Thai business. Everything is made in Thailand with love and respect. As a farang, I’m here contributing, living and making it a vibrant place. I’m proud of the works and the Thais. We have to push for higher quality but Thailand is not happening where luxury moves to, not only in materials. I have about 25 international representatives in Los Angeles and New York City and plan for London and Russia in our 20th year. We are building our brand and structure.
‘Don’t do it so well, it’s too difficult!’– ALEXANDER LAMONT
“I love what I’m doing and my internal direction guides me to be the best. My dad is demanding and has high expectations. It’s like a steel rod in me not to be the second-best. He said don’t stop until you can get beyond it. It’s the perfectionist side—to be the master and in control. When my dad saw the business development, he said ‘Don’t do it so well, it’s too difficult!’”
In the future, he says, “At this point, the 20th year is to consolidate and focus more on our retail which gets more difficult. We are broadening our categories to allow customers to meet us at different price points with products like smaller gift items and strengthening our furniture and lighting collections. Over the last 10 years, crafts are disappearing. I have to be more creative, thinking of new ways and new things.
“For a tiny company like mine, it’s hard to fight at every level. We strive for high quality. My biggest challenge is being creative, to come up with new designs and the new full collection. It’s like putting yourself out there. Is it good enough? Being copied is also frustrating. We provide creative ideas and can’t protect them. Many are eager and willing to copy and forget about greater quality at a higher price. The bottom line is the budget.”
Alexander concludes, “You can’t take Thailand out of these pieces but you can put them in a totally modern interior in Italy and they blend in. People are curious about where it’s made. With great materials, craftsmanship and design, products like the hammered bowls with gilding fit in any environment. I have huge benefits for not being Thai because I don’t have to represent it or to bring Thailand, religion or anything into it. These are modern objects from my own inspiration. They give East-West energy, experience and my personal love that shine through.”