London based British designer Alexandra Llewellyn is known for her beautifully crafted games tables and boards, all of which are made in the UK London-based Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes is the co-founder of WickerWood, an integrated brand influence agency. She is perhaps most widely recognised for her intricate and exotic backgammon boards, many of which incorporate semi-precious stones, marquetry and hand-painted details.
Launched in 2010, the eponymous label is inspired by Alexandra’s childhood in Cairo and her love of travel, both of which encouraged her love for backgammon as well as a fascination with the language of ‘gaming’ – the idea that board games operate as an independent vocabulary requiring neither common language nor culture in order to be enjoyed.
To date Alexandra has designed and created countless games tables and boards inspired by themes as wide ranging as the desert, Frida Kahlo, falcons, cigars, palm trees, nude ladies and butterflies.
Tessa Packard [TP]: Tell us more about your childhood in Cairo and how your love of backgammon began.
Alexandra Llewellyn [AL]: I have played backgammon all my life, and my love of the game was cemented when my step-Grandfather introduced me to games of backgammon in the streets of Cairo. I loved playing games with old men who wore strange clothes, didn’t speak English and who seemed hundreds of years older than me. I was young, but I was struck by the idea that to play a game needed neither a common language nor culture. The game operated as an independent vocabulary. That was exciting.
TP: Like us, Alexandra Llewellyn is a relatively new company – can you share more on how your started the brand and the various challenges you’ve faced since launching?
AL: When I started my business everyone said that it would be an up hill struggle and everything would go wrong – this was SO annoying – but true! However this is how you learn and get stronger.
TP: What key advice would you offer anyone looking to set up their own business?
AL: Stick with it! Never give up and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
TP: Tell us more about the various design-inspirations behind your beautiful boards and where some of them have originated from.
AL: A lot of my inspiration comes from growing up in the English countryside. From nature and walks on a summers day. I am also continually inspired by working with extraordinary craftsmen – learning about new techniques and materials and continually experimenting. Much of my inspiration for my bespoke commissions comes from my clients, through conversation about what their likes and experiences. I love learning about and re-interpreting people’s stories – equally the stories of brands and countries!
I usually begin a commission with an interview and a list of questions that the client answers and adds to. I then begin to put together ideas and sketches and the design process becomes a conversation. Each draft a little different until we distil exactly what represents the client best.
TP: What’s the most outlandish or unusual design-request you’ve ever received for one of your custom-made backgammon boards?
AL: One of the most special designs we did was to create a 50th wedding anniversary present. I was sent a shoe box of 55 years worth of love letters – we used lines declaring love, lipstick kisses and old stamps to inlay in marquetry and secret compartments. It gives me goose bumps thinking about it even now..
There are lots of other stories, but for a lot of my designs I have to sign NDA’s….
TP: Is there one games table you’ve designed in the past that you are most proud of?
AL: I am proudest of my circular games table. I had a eureka moment when I realized that backgammon is a circular game – you play going around in a circle – however it is always square.
We now make our radial table that flips in it’s frame – flipping from round backgammon to chess or a baize card surface.
TP: If money was no object, what would be your dream board / games table to create?
AL: I would love to create a bejeweled design – hint hint Tessa….
TP: What are your future ambitions in terms of the business?
AL: To carry on creating beautiful games and objects. I am very excited about our current projects including a travel backgammon board, poker sets and a signature games table. I love the idea of creating games and continuing to bring family and friends together
TP: How do you like to unwind in your spare time?
AL: Walking and listening to great music – I love a day in London walking along the river and stopping off at all the galleries along the way. But there is not much spare time to do that – so in it’s place
TP: Where have your travels taken you over the years and is there a part of the world that’s particularly close to your heart?
AL: My most inspiring trip was going to Kabul to work with the charity Turquoise Mountain 4 years ago. Their aim is to revive the lost crafts of Afghanistan – after over 30 years of war all their master-craftsmen fled. I went to work with them on product development and we created a backgammon board – I was really proud of working with different departments they had set up on one product – with their wood carving, stone cutting, stone setting and miniature painting.
ON THE SPOT
Town or Countryside? Countryside
Favourite city? London
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? Nick Cave
If you could time travel to any era it would be…? Woodstock 1970s
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? Bizarrely Banh Cuon in Hanoi when the owner squeezed beetle juice into the dipping sauce.
The one essential you can’t leave home without? My sketch pad
Pet hate? Selfishness
Biggest extravagance? Taking all of January to travel to Jaipur to source stones
Favourite book? The Magus by John Fowles
What would your gravestone read? There would be nothing on it, just lots of flowers
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