We caught up with Cardiff-based graphic designer Alex Frew and had a chat about his passion for climbing, Cardiff life, what makes a good design, his work at Smörgåsbord Studio and how they built a contemporary and multifunctional country brand for Wales.
For those who do not know you, who is Alex Frew? Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Dundee in August, 1988. We travelled a lot whilst I was young as my father was in the RAF. We later settled close to my mother's family in a small town called Llanrwst on the outskirts of Snowdonia in North Wales.
I’ve learned a lot by growing up in such a small town. It can be suppressing and intense at times but you learn a lot about different people, how they think and how they feel. It’s all about people. Don’t get me wrong, it can go the other way – you can turn into an obese, alcohol dependant 40 year old living with your mother (and her grandchildren!). But seriously, for me it was a great upbringing which has definitely shaped me into the person I am today.
Growing up surrounded by hills has also been a huge influence; there’s a history of climbers in my family. Climbing takes me to places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit, whether it be a 2000m wall in Yosemite, California, or a damp cave in the South Wales valleys (much to the disappointment of my girlfriend Danielle). It gives me perspective and inspiration which you don’t get from many sports – it also keeps me fit.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I remember getting lost with my mother when visiting family in the suburbs of London. I was around 5 or 6 and remember trying to retrace our steps. We walked for what seemed like hours. I think this may explain why I need to get my bearings every time I visit a new place. Wherever I am in the world, I can usually point in the direction of home. I’m on a plane at the minute and I still know which direction Wales is!
What or who inspired you to pursue a career in graphic design?
It was my uncle Graham. He’s a product designer who lives in a castle gatehouse in Perth, Scotland. I remember thinking that this guy has got it sorted. He’s intelligent, chilled out and living in a great house in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know at the time that he worked 14 hour days and most weekends!
What makes a good design?
That’s quite a broad question. As a rule of thumb, I always come back to ‘personality vs. timeless’. Too much of one and you compromise the other. It’s all about the balance – like many things in life.
What was the most meaningful project you have worked on?
I suppose it has to be the Wales country brand. The ‘Welcome to Wales’ sign features our Dragon which is pretty cool when I think about it. (I actually think it’s a better dragon than the one on the national flag myself, but that’s a different conversation!). This is a relatively new project and so far it has been well received. I hope it will stand the test of time and have a positive influence on the way people live and work in Wales.
What would the dream project be for you?
I think I’ve already worked on a couple of dream projects. However, I would love to work on something to do with space. People say aim high, so I’m aiming for space! Branding an airline would be pretty cool too.
What was the best advice you have ever been given?
‘Measure twice, cut once’.
‘Make lots of tea’.
‘Work hard and be nice to people’.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
I go climbing which takes me to the coast (Pembrokeshire) or the mountains (Snowdonia). Climbing outside requires complete focus which means I have no room to think about anything else.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
I’m going to Chamonix next month. I’ve never been before but I get the feeling I won’t want to leave. I could climb all summer and snowboard all winter which sounds like the dream. California, New York, Amsterdam, Barcelona are also on the list.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you so far?
That you could die tomorrow, so live for today (within reason).
What does a regular day look like for you?
I hate routine. Somebody told me once that 'routine is the enemy of time' and I agree. Hopefully I will reach a point where everyday is different from the last. But for now this is how the day usually pans out…
I wake up around 7:30 and go for coffee around the corner from the studio. I then look through various design blogs and news sites for half an hour before getting into work. Lunch is either at my desk or a sit down at Cafe Minuet in Castle Arcade in Cardiff. I'm usually on Skype with our creative director most of the afternoon talking through ideas which can go on until 6/7/8 o’clock depending on how busy it is or how excited we are about a project. Then it's one of three options: the Pub, Climbing or Home. I tend to rotate these so it doesn't get too intense one way or the other. Like I said – it’s all about balance.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
To climb all summer, snowboard all winter and be creative in my work all year round. And have a family of course.
Can you recommend us:
A song: The Seed. The Roots
A film: La La Land
A dish: Huevos Rancheros is what we have almost every Saturday morning.
Alex answers Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire:
1. Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
We’re all covered in oil.
2. Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
19:30. I looked at the Mac.
3. Look at your watch. What time is it?
4. How do you explain this – or these – discrepancy(ies) in time?
Watch is slow.
5. Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
Not near the coast or in the mountains – It’s unpredictable.
6. Do you believe in astrological predictions?
7. Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
Yes, we have three dirty skylights to look through in our bedroom.
8. What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
I try not to. It scares me.
9. What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
10. What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
11. What would you have “seen” had you been blind?
12. What would you want to see if you were blind?
Danielle my girlfriend. She’s sitting right next to me.
13. Are you afraid?
14. What of?
Death. Which is weird because I do a lot of rock climbing, which isn’t the safest of activities at times.
Although, maybe it’s the dying rather than death itself.
15. What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Sexy Beast. Ben Kingsley specifically.
16. Whom are you afraid of?
Nobody. Sorry if that is Cliche.
17. Have you ever been lost?
Geographically – yes. Emotionally – yes. Professionally – no.
18. Do you believe in ghosts?
Yes. Anything is possible. I’ve just finished reading Elon Musk’s book and listening to some of his talks. After this, you’re convinced we’re living in the Matrix. Then I’ll watch Homes under the hammer and that brings me back down to normality.
19. What is a ghost?
Hopefully not a young girl with long black hair, wearing a nightgown standing in the corner of a dark room… in my house.
20. At this very moment, what sound(s) can you hear, apart from the computer?
21. What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard – for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
A baby screaming in my bedroom when there was no baby there. It was a cat. But not my cat.
22. Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
Answered this Étrange Questionnaire.
23. Have you ever been to confession?
Nope. But I’ve got a great photo of one in Genova.
24. You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
I stole a guitar from school and sold it to my friends mum who then gave it to him for Christmas.
25. Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
A tin of sweets.
26. Do you believe in redemption?
Yes. But not everybody deserves a second chance.
27. Have you dreamed tonight?
Not yet. It’s 19:48.
28. Do you remember your dreams?
29. What was your last dream?
I can’t remember.
30. What does fog make you think of?
North Wales (home). And Bristol airport which was originally built so that WW2 fighter pilots could train in low cloud. That is why there is always cancellations in Bristol airport due to fog.
31. Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
Never thought about it. No is the probable answer if I was to spend time thinking about it.
32. What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
A blank canvas.
33. If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
Give away all my secrets.
34. What is a madman?
35. Are you mad?
No. But I can cook.
36. Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
Yes. I am awaiting my invitation.
37. What was the last weird book you read?
Charles Bukowski. Post Office. I couldn’t get my head round his (American) sense of humour.
38. Would you like to live in a castle?
Of course. I am Welsh, but born in Scotland. My uncle lives in a castle gatehouse which has been a constant inspiration since I was 10 years old.
39. Have you seen something weird today?
Yes. A picture of Kim Jong Un watching Trump bending over in white shorts whilst he was playing tennis.
40. What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
Burn after reading was odd at the time but I feel it wouldn’t be as weird if I were to watch it again. I watched the first 20 minutes of The Lobster also – that is fucking weird.
41. Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
Only if I was Batman.
42. Can you see the future?
No, I’m not looking.
43. Have you considered living abroad?
I have lived abroad and yes I do consider going again – everyday. The UK gets quite uninspiring at times. But a visit to the coast or the mountains (1hr drive) negates those feelings – for a while.
California. New York. Amsterdam. Chamonix. Not in that order. I’ve never been to NY or Chamonix.
The weather in California. The excitement of NY. The culture of Amsterdam. The scale in Chamonix.
46. What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
Rocky Horror Picture Show.
47. Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
Yes, because it would be big and free.
48. What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
Charles Bukowski. Ham on Rye. Yes, I read both of them but still didn’t understand his humour all that well.
49. Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
Definitely globes – more to look at. And I associate globes with the future whereas hourglasses feel linked to the past.
50. Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
Bladed weapons – Axes and knives.
51. What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
Loch filled Whiskey bottles.
52. Do you like taxidermied animals?
No. I associate them with the deep south/middle America which scares me. I’ve never been there.
53. Do you like walking in the rain?
Only when I have nowhere to be.
54. What goes on in tunnels?
Must go off in tunnels.
55. What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
A new series on Netflix called Easy.
56. What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
Fear. It makes me think of The Ringwraiths in Lord of The Rings.
57. Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
Lord of the rings. Thou shall not pass!
58. Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
Not after watching the Blair Witch Project. Graveyards – no. I like running in the night though.
59. Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
Do you want to be on the rides or do you want to be in the queue?
60. Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
61. Look at your watch. What time is it?
Thank you, Alex for the insight into your creative and personal realm.