“Dealing in carpets, antiques and handcrafts gave me a deep respect for the potency of things made by hand – an energy, a way of life,” Bangkok-based designer Alexander Lamont tells Handayani Tanuwijaya.
“When I travelled I saw more beautiful things in museums and art galleries than I did in shops,” says Alexander Lamont. “So I had the idea to make things that had the quality of form and of materials that I saw in museum collections, whether they were from the Art Deco period or from prehistoric China.”
One of the most celebrated furniture, lighting and accessories designers based in Thailand, British-born Lamont is known for his craftsmanship, for creating stunning pieces using ancient and modern Asian and European techniques. The designer, who opened a flagship store and showroom in Bangkok in February this year, specialises in using luxurious materials, such as bronze, gold leaf, lacquer, gesso and shagreen, for his astonishing creations.
Lamont’s work has a strong organic and sculptural feel. This quality has appealed to many international clients, including Louis Vuitton (Lamont’s custom-made wall panels feature in its men’s departments all around the world), and top hotels: The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, London; Mandarin Oriental Doha, The Setai Miami Beach; The Ritz-Carlton Residences in Bangkok. Over the years, Lamont has worked with many renowned interior designers, such as Peter Marino, David Collins, Bill Sofield and the late Jaya Ibrahim.
Born in England in 1968, Lamont grew up in the village of South Petherton in Somerset. He didn’t study design, but he says he was introduced early to the colours, smells, textures and forms at his family’s business, Global Village Crafts, a company that sells folk art, antiques and crafts from around the world, especially Asia.
“I started my training at the age of five by working and travelling with my father,” Lamont recalls. “I loved to unpack the wooden crates coming from West Africa, Mexico and Sri Lanka. Later, I studied Asian Languages and Anthropology at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.
“Next, I started a business in England dealing in kilims (pileless textiles of many uses) and carpets from the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran. The years I spent dealing in carpets, antiques and handcrafts gave me a deep respect for the potency of things made by hand, in communicating an essence of people and place. This potency is an energy, a way of life – it’s a simplicity communicated with skills and styles developed over centuries.”
Working for the family business introduced Lamont to the country that would eventually change his life. He was nine years old when he visited Thailand for the first time. He accompanied his father on visits to factories filled with the smell of peeled, steamed and burnt rattan. Those memories of Thailand remained, and were revived years later when he decided to relocate to the country.
“I first visited Thailand in 1981, and I immediately felt I wanted to live there one day,” he smiles. “I just loved the language, the weather, the smells, the energy. It was the very opposite of England, and I found the difference to be stimulating and exotic and full of the unexpected. I returned to Thailand in 2000 to start my business. Before that, I had managed an antiques gallery in Hong Kong for five years.”
A major event in Lamont’s life was his first encounter with the bronze caster Khun Charoen in Chiang Mai. “He is the sixth generation of a family making Buddha figures,” says Lamont. “I was introduced to him through a very dear friend and, fortunately, he was very happy to make my designs – even if he thought no one would buy them! That’s how it all started for me as a designer.”
Lamont describes his work as “making things that feel contemporary and striking and that resonate with something ancient and familiar”. Because doesn’t have a formal background in design, he depends on “emotional and personal influences”. Materials, he says, are “the most influential things that shaped” him as a designer.
“Their development over centuries and millennia through the hands and eyes of creative, innovative, unknown artists are a huge influence,” he explains. “Seeing an important object from the past gives me a powerful urge to create and make things. In terms of people and places, I am drawn to many figures of the 20th century, because we really know who these people were. Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, conveyed a great energy of urban rawness and creativity that has become the epitome of sophistication in art. Jean Dunand, Maurice Marinot and Alexandre Noll were exceptional designers and craftsmen of the early 20th century who focused on objects made of beautiful materials.
“It’s not like a job, I don’t sit down to design products. What happens is that ideas emerge from the meeting of my experiences and the materials themselves. The vitality, depth and substance of the materials are my inspiration. I always have some materials or techniques drawing me forward that are fascinating and aspirational.
“Verre eglomisé is one of the techniques we are developing now. It’s the process of applying both a design and gilding onto the rear face of glass to produce a mirror finish. We are also looking at new ways to work with Peking glass and Tramp Art techniques to create textures for lacquer items.” (Tramp Art was an art movement where small pieces of wood, primarily from discarded cigar boxes and shipping crates, were whittled into layers of geometric shapes.)
Lamont goes on: “It’s the things that we have not made that are the biggest inspirations. The things I create today are rooted in my experiences of travel, smell and touch. They are made with materials that are worked by hand, that have a story to their process and an energy to their surface. In that sense, I’m a big believer in craftsmanship. I believe that through patience, rigorous and skilled crafting, each piece becomes further imbued with its own beauty and spirit.”
In his Bangkok workshops, Lamont and his artisans work with beautiful materials from the region, such as glass, ceramics and yan li pao (fine woven basketware). His latest collection, Intarsia, which he launched at Salone del Mobile Milano 2018 last April, is “an homage to texture and balance”. It consists of cabinets, coffee tables, seating and lighting.
Intarsia is Lamont’s “personal statement expressed in surfaces and forms” that draw from his passions for antiquity and nature. One of the notable pieces is the Cicada Bar Cabinet, which features tiles of mica alongside reflective dark and pale figured veneers, raised on a bronze wrapped frame and with a stunning bronze-patina handle sculpted in the form of a cicada with its wings. All of the pieces in this stunning collection can be found at Prodotti Indonesia.
“Creating new things that ‘sing’ keeps me energised,” says Lamont. “I observe so much product coming out of companies that is functional, for sure. But I see almost nothing that sings. If it doesn’t sing for me, then I don’t want to make it. What I love about this career I have made for myself is that I can travel to countries that are rich in craftsmanship and work directly with artisans. My travels allow me to deeply experience countries – Japan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Italy – and work with wonderful people who share my passion.”
Lamont’s advice for young designers? “They should go deeper, find out what they can make that echoes the values, dreams and ideals they hold inside. We separate the artist from the designer, and, yes, these are ‘careers’ are different. But essentially, we are all expressing ourselves through different mediums. My canvases are not squares on the wall, but dimensional works that are meant to be held and to age beautifully over time. I love that idea.”
At the end of the conversation, Lamont reflects on his 18-year journey in the design world. “I recently imagined taking myself, when I had just started the business 18 years ago, through the Milan showroom and showing myself what had been accomplished,” he says. “I can tell you that tears came into my eyes. Personally, I would like to achieve an acceptance of who I am as a simple sentient being, completely separate from any of this design and work world. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the two.”