The Daily Heller: Alexander Isley Makes a Gift Out of Holiday Gifting

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Many design studios send out gifts to clients and friends; it’s a major expenditure in our all too crony-based industry. There are delightful gifts. Delicious gifts. Creative gifts. But the vast majority, judging from what I receive, are ephemeral promotional swag, destined for the swap meet table. Not so with Alexander Isley‘s much anticipated annual prizes. No, what he sends out are practical and beautiful mini masterpieces— a few are quirky, yet all of Isley’s gifts are both thoughtful and resolutely quotidian.

I have been fortunate to be on his gift list for over a decade. I am grateful, and I think after perusing his curated holiday fare below, you who are not on the list will wish you would have been better boys and girls this past year.

What inspired you do go this route, was it influenced by your time at M&Co?

I’ve been doing an annual gift mailing for over 20 years. I’ve only missed one year— last year, due to supply chain problems. We missed our deadline; this year’s rubber balls have been sitting in my office for the past nine months.

I think sending these things out is a nice way to acknowledge friends, colleagues, and clients (both current and potential). Back when I worked at M&Co, I was involved in developing their holiday gifts, and I’ve continued that work with my own studio. The main difference is I talk about the objects, explaining why I think they are good designs.

I’ve toyed with maybe doing the mailing another time of the year— perhaps to celebrate April Fool’s day or some other event— but I think it’s better as an end-of-year thing.

What determines your decision as to what you send?

I like to send fairly commonplace items that I think are designed well, and that might be overlooked or under-appreciated. They are usually pretty simple objects, and they need to be well-made, yet be relatively inexpensive to purchase and customize. Mailing costs are a consideration too— as much as I want to send out bowling pins, for example, the shipping costs would break the bank. It’s tough to find things that check all the boxes.

I keep a list of potential items to consider. I usually start thinking seriously about each year’s gift in August, and what we end up sending is usually not on that list. Sometimes we have to go to an outside resource to have the objects customized, but often we’re able to personalize them in-house, either with our Glowforge printer or through some other method. It’s an incredibly labor-intensive undertaking.

An important part of the project is the creation of the packaging. My not-so-hidden agenda is to demonstrate how, through the power of writing and design, even the most simple object can be presented in a new, engaging, and informative way. I hope on some level it demonstrates how we think and what we as designers can offer.

I’ve held on to just about all of them; the scissor has to be my favorite, it gets a lot of use. What has been your favorite?

I think the hammer is my favorite. It’s just big and dumb and simple and well-made and useful, and it feels good in your hand. Engraving on the curved wood handle was tricky, so it was satisfying to figure that out, and I like how the wrapper is held together with a single nail.

And have you heard about faves from the lucky recipients?

I got a lot of good response to the boot jack. My mom’s from Texas, and we always had one lying around our house when I growing up, so I never thought they were particularly unusual or exotic. I’ve always liked how simple and functional they are, and I thought perhaps recipients might like them as well. It turns out a lot of people hadn’t known what they were.

As it happened, the night they were mailed, Netflix’s The Crown showed the Queen using this mysterious tool to remove her Wellies, and I can’t tell you how many people wrote thanking me for reading their minds and magically presenting them with their new must-have object.  Perfect timing! Dumb luck!

Posted inThe Daily Heller