We continue our In Conversation series with Concept’s creative director Alexander May. After living between Europe and United States, the visionnaire of objects and ideas has recently re-settled in Los Angeles. We’ve chatted about objects’ occupation of a space—digital or tangible—the promise of the NFT, and letting the ides roam.
Let’s talk with your foray into the design world.
I come from a studio practice. As a sculptor, I flirted with set design and prop styling. When I started out eighteen years ago in Los Angeles, I found that an interdisciplinary application interested me: building objects and forms as they exist in space as well as coordinating and deciding how to manipulate space in all the ways. My canvas could be a fabric wall corner for a photo shoot or conceptualized stage. I was interested in porous materials and performance, too.
Were you conscious about this malleable approach to aesthetic back then or is this a discovery on your end when you look back?
I was always interested in things being intertwined, including my cities—I lived in L.A., New York, Paris, and Milan. After graduating from Bard College a decade ago, my design language was coming to life. In Milan, I realized that outside the typical foundations and galleries, emerging designers lacked opportunities.
Is this how Offsite.Studio came into fruition?
Yes, my ex-partner who is an architect and furniture designer had moved his office into a 16th century Baroque church, called San Paolo Converso, in the center of Milan. Imagine a 40,000 square feet space with frescoes. The church depicts this conversion moment of St. Paul who fell off his horse and found the light. I programmed the front location of this unique church while my ex had his firm in the back—there was a relationship between his philosophy and my practice as a creative director. Six years ago, the architecture firm left the building and Fondazione CONVERSO, took over. We inaugurated the space with an enveloping installation by Franco Mazzucchelli. We collaborated with Michael Dean, Inge Mahn, or Alex Baczynski-Jenkins. The programming emphasized a conversation between contemporary design and the unavoidably stimulating setting regardless of its religious aspect. I was constantly warped between the challenge of referring to the environment and not: do I remain neutral or go for it? This led to an extensive vastness about defining the minimal. Off-site was developing projects at the Torre Velasca which was a 1950s’ building which you would love or hate. We used it its empty store front in the city center, and suddenly there was a different relationship between the history of a building—this time from the last century. We utilized the ground floor access and did a project with Keith Sonnier. The only six films he ever created in his career were projected onto the building. The beauty was in the limitedness of its visibility to the period between dusk and dawn. It had a voyeuristic energy.
Were you in Milan when the pandemic hit?
During the pandemic, I moved back to LA—relocated here third time around! I knew I would focus on navigating through what I wanted to engage with the most, which was a dialogue between artists and designers with an inside versus outside perspective. Certain things make no sense but I tend to make them make sense!
How do you see the future of design—a notion that is so tactile and psychical—through the lens of NFT, Metaverse and other forms of digital realities?
From my perspective, design is now more exciting than ever, and the reason is that it offers a unique place for people to develop access. By that I mean things they’ve always been intrigued by or wanted to know more about. A photographer can design a chair or an artist by all means can create a lamp . Different and previously intimidating materials are easier to explore. It’s time to discover new access points and figure out how to build them. On my end, I am learning how to be open and craft my interest in Metaverse, web 3 and NFTs. Indeed this will be the year of NFT. There is ton of education that needs to be developed, and design can play a big role because whether you’re familiar with the sector or not, there is still a moment of pause and intrigue in there. People are drawn to an object or artwork—creators have a visual platform to communicate. Artists and designers are at this forefront of a movement by giving us another layer to articulate on how to deal with the objects and the content we are generating. And, NFT technology has a revolutionary impact on secondary market because it protects the makers’ royalties.
For years, design has followed a parallel trajectory on physical and digital realms. We have been talking about graphic design or digital design as much as we have on industrial design or even architecture. What do you think about platforms such as Metaverse blending the two, the cyber architecture, for example?
Again, this comes down to accessibly. All of a sudden, anyone can design their own floor plan. Locales of high-end experiences are now becoming a lot more accessible and functional. If communicated and explored in the right way, this can be quite exciting. There is space for larger ideas but it comes to down to whether they’re disseminated into something tangible and create value. The discussion is no longer about square footage but about your own particularities for how you build your own platform.
Art is experienced on an objective level—gazed from a distance with no touching—while design varies for each person. Touch is involved as well as use. How is this distinction translated into the cyber experience?
There is so much rapid improvement in the digital realm which is why it is exciting. New frontiers give the maker ample room to improve and rules are not as rigidly structured. The way NFT operates gives the makers multiple layers of experiential design. Different pairings with experiential design will be an interesting process to witness. You cannot number or “edition” an experience, so again we will wait and see! Concept is, in fact, interested building that bridge. We thrive to connect intangible and non-physical aspects with a physical component, and fortunately, design is the best platform.
Design, especially lately in my opinion, thrives on vintage. Young collectors seem more and more interested classic Danish furniture, American Mid-century Modern aesthetic or quirky pieces from the Italian Radical era. How will NFT pair with the traditional, say an Eames chair or a Sottsass lamp?
The answer is the provenance, and we move forward, the notion of value in design will be consistently established whether the work is contemporary or classical. Today, a chair from 1950s has its value established based on auction results and other traditional aspects. We can simply apply NFT to an acquisition and establish a secured relationship with the buyer. The same process of connectivity and security can be applied to a work by an eighteen year old designer in Japan or a Wegner chair. On a creative level, cross-pollination will evolve: a collector will be interested in a vintage chair from the ‘30s or in a contemporary piece that refers to that piece. The tangible and non-tangible spaces are activated
Tell me about your understanding of concept and how that ties to Concept.
While working on Concept, I asked myself: “Where would I like to ground myself when it comes to an idea?” One thing I’ve been contemplating is an acknowledgement of physical locations where ideas are developed. Kitchens, studios beds, rooftops, bathrooms… Not only sites of revolutionary a-ha moments but places where ideas freely roam. The idea of a concept is as broad as the world of design, art, and architecture—those of us who are in these fields utter the word countless times and there are many opportunities for the word to define itself. I live and breath concepts, and Concept itself reflects this search to push ideas to the NFT space. Everyone has their own take on this new wave—for me, it is a fine synthesis of different energies and visual references. To answer your question on a technical level, I tend to start with a glossary—a write-down of words circulating around a concept which is a good way to weave together energies.