Aleks Dawson

Read the full interview here.
Dhwani Garg
The first question is also the most obvious: Can you tell me about your background?

Aleks Dawson
I was born in Australia and spent a significant portion of my childhood in Papua New Guinea. My mother is Serbian and I have dual Australian and Serbian citizenship. I have been in the US almost 13 years. I am currently designing at Tommy Hilfiger and also teach branding and typography at Parsons, and previously taught at RISD and Northeastern.

1. Dawson, Aleks. Re:Ornament,
What drew you to the field of ornament design? Was there a particular moment or experience that sparked your interest?

Excerpt from Aleks Dawson Re: Ornament Thesis Introduction:  
“I’ve always been attracted to ornament. One very early memory is that of the clanky century-old upright piano we had when I was a kid,[…]. I adored this piano: not just for its Cajun honky-tonk sound but for the inlaid brass work it bore on its front. The brass inlay had fin de siècle, William Morris-esque flourishes, and while I knew it referenced nature, these were plants I had never seen—whimsical and strange, yet somehow deeply familiar. They were fascinating to me, and I loved to sit at that piano and touch that brass inlay, wondering how it got there and who had made it; wondering why every other piano I had seen was so plain in comparison; and always thinking we were lucky, in a way, to have such extravagance in our home. 

In Papua New Guinea I saw ornament and pattern I had never seen before. I marveled at everything from bilum bags to mud masks, head dresses, piercings, body painting and basket weaving; right through to the ritual scarification that even some in my school had on their bodies. These patterns were so totally foreign to me and yet somehow deeply familiar[…]. This experience—coupled with my parents showing us Europe at a young age— had a significant bearing on my interest in ornament, pattern and design. Such widespread exposure to so much visual stuff—and from so many divergent places— greatly impacted my perception of the world and its seemingly universal love of the ornate.

[…]. Wherever we go, I habitually seek out examples of local ornament, always looking at the “vernacular,” and always questioning what these visual languages mean, where they came from, and what their future is in the broader context of an increasingly homogenized global visual aesthetic. As I have grown, I have come to believe that ornament exists far beyond appliqué. Ornament is so much more than “just wallpaper,” which in my experience has been a consistent critique leveled at it by its detractors, including some here at RISD. I believe this antipathy toward ornament and pattern stems from the lasting influence of the likes of Owen Jones and Adolf Loos, who in his 1910 lecture Ornament and Crime equated ornament to the Papuan’s savage “urge to draw on one’s face and everything within reach.” Modernists following Loos took his ideas further: from Le Corbusier arguing that a house should be a “machine for living” to Mies van der Rohe advocating “less is more.” The idea that ornament was somehow outmoded or simply not “modern” coincided with unparalleled industrialization and mechanization in our world. […]. If modernism stood for cleanliness, clarity and rationalism, ornament represented the antithesis. Ornament was materially and aesthetically demoted, and it has languished on the peripheries of our collective visual vocabulary ever since. And while ornament appears to have resurfaced in various kitsch and revivalist trends, it has not held the same aesthetic legitimacy it had prior to Modernism’s damning indictment.”1

FIG. I: Pattern Box
I had the opportunity to read your thesis, and I was amazed by your work. However, I was particularly drawn to the project Pattern Box (Fig. I). I would like to know what tool you used to create those patterns and if you could walk me through the process. 
In the Fall of 2018, Bethany Johns and Paul Soulellis took the Graduate Studio II class to the Providence Public Library’s Updike Special Collections. We were shown dozens of rare books and manuscripts and essentially tasked with choosing one as the basis of our formal investigations for the remainder of the semester. I was immediately drawn to Owen Jones’ 1856 Grammar of Ornament, a truly monumental work of publishing that achieved never-before-seen standards in chromolithographic color printing. I had seen reprints of the book before—I even own a Dorling Kindersley reproduction— but to see the colossal original folio edition in the flesh was nothing short of revelatory. Over the proceeding weeks I continued to iterate work based on Jones’ magnum opus, and twice made appointments with the Updike curators to see the book in person. I eventually produced the below set of sixty 17×14 inch lasercut patterns on bristol board based on Jones’ original plates, with the size and heft to match that of his original edition. This work was the genesis of this thesis, and I must thank Bethany and Paul for introducing me to Jones and encouraging me to push further with this investigation and celebration of ornament.

I made the 18×15” box with stained birch veneer ply at RISD’s Co-Works. I lasercut sixty 17×14” bristol board sheets at RISD’s Co-Works. I used to be a graduate instructor here, so ran teams of graduate and undergraduate students who worked here—we taught many different making skills.