Image of a studio building covered in a mural by ALex Proba
Studio Proba was commissioned by Dashboard US and Radius Art Studio to transform a facade of a 8,000 square foot historic property in SE Portland into an interactive facade for Radius new home the Belmont Clay House: a state of the art clay working and firing center. It officially opened its doors October 12th 2021. Courtesy Studio Proba

For Multi-Hyphenate Designer Alex Proba, No Surface Goes Untouched

Founder of Portland, Oregon and Brooklyn-based Studio Proba sits down with Metropolis to discuss her expansive practice, marketing product design in digital environments, and embracing failure.

When it comes to the possibilities of surface design, it seems like the multidisciplinary artist and designer Alex Proba, has done it all. Launching her eponymous studio in 2013 as a side project while working full-time in graphic design and branding, the German-born, Portland-based designer has had her hands in everything from posters, rugs, tile, pool murals, Louis Vuitton window displays, and most recently, an augmented reality app that allows anyone in the world to play with making objects out of her signature shapes, patterns, and color schemes.

Following her Tomorrow Land installation at Design Miami 2021 and a new rug collection designed in collaboration with 27 high school girls from Ghana (100 percent of the profits go to Toni Garrn Foundation, which focuses on girls’ education initiatives in Africa to help close the gender gap in education), Metropolis catches up with Proba on the evolution of her design practice and what she’s looking forward to in 2022.

I never say no to types of projects that I’ve never done before.

Alex Proba, Founder of Studio Proba
Interior of a hotel lobby with a custom mural behind the front counter
A custom mural and rug in Hotel June’s Los Angeles lobby set the tone for the airy, bright redesign of a 1960s modernist building by Welton Becket. Commissioned by Studio Collective. Courtesy Studio Proba.

When did you know you wanted to become an artist and how has your idea of what being an artist or designer means shifted over the course of your career?

That’s a long story, but basically, I grew up in a household that was more focused on science—both my parents are doctors, my brother’s a dentist, and art or design wasn’t big in our family at all growing up. So in my head, I was always thinking of becoming some kind of doctor. I went to Ohio in 11th grade for an exchange program and that’s when I realized that design and art can be something more than just a hobby.

I got lucky with the family I was staying with, the mom used to be a designer at DKNY and they were super big into art and going to museums. Going back to Germany, I actually ended up in dentistry school as planned. While doing that, I began questioning my life choices in a way and secretly applied to design and architecture school where I did a dual study in graphic design and interior design. And once I got in, that’s when I told my parents and then I just went from there and finished school in Germany, then worked in London, Berlin, and then New York for architects before realizing architecture is not what I want to do.

So I went back to grad school for furniture and product design at the Design Academy at Eindhoven. Afterward, I went into graphic design and branding and worked for design agencies, like Modern New York before joining the global brand design studio at Nike. My personal studio was a side business. It wasn’t until 2018 when I decided to choose my personal life and my studio as my priority. And that’s when I went full-time doing my own thing.

Close up detail of colorful rugs designed by Alex Proba and high school girls in Ghana
In Collaboration with Toni Garrn Foundation, Studio Proba launched TGFxLittle Proba, a collection of rugs and posters designed by teenage girls in Ghana where 100 percent of the proceeds go to girls’ education initiatives in Africa. The collection includes 27 rug designs made of 100 percent New Zealand wool and Bamboo silk. Courtesy Studio Proba & Toni Garrn Foundation

It seems like you have your hands in a little bit of everything and your practice truly spans all scales. Can you describe your creative process and how your practice has come to embody so many different ways of creating?

Just because I did so many different things in terms of studies from, interior architecture, graphic design, and branding, as well as product design and furniture, I think doing and being interested in all these things plus having the personality of just getting bored really quickly. I never say no to types of projects that I’ve never done before.

Like the first time Dropbox asked me to do a mural for their office HQ in New York, I had never done a mural before that or even much painting. And I was like, “I don’t know how to do it, but sure, why not?” So I approach every project like that. And I feel, if you can do one thing, you can do the other, or you can at least figure it out. And if not, and you fail, that’s not a really bad thing because you learn from failure. Failing is the only way you move on.

So having the experience in both spatial and 2D thinking, helps because I can visualize things from tiny computer graphics to big murals without having to change my process much. Everything starts at the small-scale computer level for me as a graphic designer would start. And then the actual analog part or the painting part or whatever that part is, happens after the digital.

An image of a pool mural with a modern house and mountains in the background in california.
One of many pool murals Alex Proba has completed in Los Angeles. Courtesy Studio Proba.

I feel like in your practice, no surface is off limits for your designs and patterns. Do you have specific types of surfaces or objects you haven’t worked with yet, but want to in the future?

I think even though I didn’t have a business plan, or something planned out in terms of where I wanted to be each year, I have a bucket list of projects I really want to do at some point in my life. But they’re all over the place. I mean, pools were long on my bucket list where I wanted to do a pool so bad, I was just waiting for that opportunity for it to happen, and it happened, and it’s great.

I think one of the big things that I want to do that I always think about is to design, like, a Proba House almost where every surface is touched by me from doorframe to door handle to window frames or whatever it is. I’ve done courts but not basketball courts or tennis courts so that’s on my list, as well as kid’s playgrounds or even a dog park.

Digital rendering of a sculpture in a body of water at sunset.
Last December, Studio Proba partnered with Avana Projects and Enjoy the Weather on a series of NFTs to raise money for ProjectART, an organization and residency program for artists and underserved K-12 students. Courtesy Studio Proba; animation by Ariel Palanzone

Last year, we included some of your work in a feature on the Dreamscapes movement, where you worked with digital artists to create renderings of your products in these fantasy environments. What initially drew you to this method?

I think it’s a lot of things. I think one of the things was simply being a small business with limited space and limited funds like, it was like this new photoshoot kind of thing where you can show what you have designed, but also envision a space that you would be never able to rent. A space that doesn’t really exist and place the objects in those worlds. And I think that’s how it really started for me, mostly just being in a tiny studio in New York with the question, “Okay, how the hell do I even have a shoot right now of all these things?” Especially without even knowing if you’re going to sell any of those items.

And then there’s the second layer of being like, “Cool. Let’s design the spaces like your dream space for that product.” There’s something really nice about it. In terms of the Tomorrow Land sculptures I made for Design Miami last year, which are like these whimsical, Alice in Wonderland type things, putting the work into dreamlike spaces, is just perfect. It’s just a fun way to bring your work to life, even though it’s not real life. But you know that that real thing exists. So it’s like merging these two worlds.

An image of a Louis Vuitton window display designed by Alex proba
On August 4, 2021, Studio Proba was selected as one of 200 visionaries that would honor the 200th birthday of Louis Vuitton through innovative window displays. Courtesy Studio Proba.

What should readers be on the lookout from you in 2022?

I’m doing a mural for Louis Vuitton in the spring, which is going to be really fun. And then we’re doing a couple more pools, I hope. I did a small project with Samsung that I think we’re going to continue. And then, what else? A couple of gallery shows, one here in the U.S., one in Dublin. There’s a lot coming up.

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