Studio Visit: Neal Feay Designer, Alex Rasmussen

A master of the beauty and utility of high-end anodized aluminum

Not many individuals consider or work with one sole material, but this is precisely what high-end fabricator Alex Rasmussen—of Neal Feay Studio—does with anodized aluminum. Growing up in his grandfather’s aluminum factory (located in a coastline alcove near the Santa Barbara airport) Rasmussen is a lifelong acolyte. He has dedicated himself to exploring the potential in the finer side of aluminum as a design medium, rather than just a practical, utilitarian metal. Seeing its potential early on, Rasmussen immersed himself in changing the perception of the metal, and continues to elevate it within the design world.

Prior to 2008, the Rasmussen family was almost completely committed to designing and manufacturing aluminum casings for HiFi. Sensing their business had to evolve in the midst of the recession, Rasmussen aimed higher. In a time when conspicuous opulence was scarce, he used his knowledge of anodized aluminum to introduce it into the design and art communities.

It paid off. From working with luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and various retailers, to the metal’s use in fine art and custom furniture, the applications became endless. Rasmussen extolled the virtues of aluminum to almost every corner of the design industry imaginable—yacht- and jet-owners/builders began to see the beauty in the silky textured feel and lightness. All the while, Rasmussen was carving out his own personal position within the market, crafting pieces for individuals and elite brands.

We visited Rasmussen at his 50,000-square-foot facility, an unassuming structure that’s a popular intersection for creatives from a myriad industries. Just days before, Henrik Fisker swung by to check out some new creations from Rasmussen. Christopher Pagani was also slated to come by, but decided he needed to bring father Horacio with him to take everything in completely. In the same week, Rasmussen was finishing a table for the Art Fair in San Francisco and shipping screens designed by Marc Newson that he engineered for the Design Museum in London for their upcoming Azzedine Alaïa show entitled “The Couturier.”

Why have you stuck with aluminum?

The most logical thing for me to do career-wise was to get really, really good at working with aluminum. Not just aluminum, but anodized aluminum. When you look at at a piece of anodized aluminum, you are looking at light going through a sapphire crystal, filled with dye and then hitting aluminum and bouncing out. The aluminum under the anodization is reflecting through that anodized surface. This gives it a look that no paint could ever come close to. Only anodized aluminum offers the aesthetic of anodized aluminum. There are so many possibilities in that beauty. Through the use of a CNC machine, there is an extremely high precision in aluminum—instead of welding or molding, we are cutting away to create structure. We work within a very tight tolerance that operates within one thousandth of an inch. That’s precision. We have designs now that we have to use microscopes to inspect.

And what do you see as its next direction?

Aluminum can be extremely lightweight and we use our precision tools to make things that are articulated. That is our future: things that open, shut. Designs that can deploy. There is so much opportunity in aluminum and we are just getting started. There is another thing that is just absolutely awesome about this material. We will never run out because aluminum is made from clay and electricity. And I don’t know if you’re aware, but well into 80% of all of the aluminum ever produced in the history of man is currently in use. It would be into the 90th percentile if Americans were better at recycling cans.

If you study the work of Rene Lalique and what he did in glass… Pre-war, all his work was in glass, not crystal. Post-war, they had to convert to crystal to justify the luxurious price points, but there are many similarities to Lalique and what we do. The exception is that Neal Feay hasn’t changed our material like Lalique. We only work with anodized aluminum.

What influences your work?

Historically, I’m influenced by architecture more than furniture and have a deep connection to the the fluidity of the ocean. Also, yachts—power and sail—and surfboards. There are a lot of beautiful lines in the functionality of surfing. Even back when I was designing electronics, I would often reference seafaring vessels. I remember creating styling details that would bring to mind yachting—that’s partly because we are surrounded by the ocean and I love it—but it also feeds into an aspirational aspect of what we create. Artistically, my passions tend to gravitate toward French or Japanese influences.

My grandfather is a huge influence. He developed multicolor anodizing in the 1950s. He passed away in 1980 when I was a teenager. I wish I could have spent more time with him, but I was busy chasing surf as a young kid. I regret that now. I did however start silkscreening for the company when I was eight. By the time I was 13, I was programing the machines codes. This pre-dated computers—there was no CAD or CAM. It was NC, not CNC.

When we had to reinvent the company in 2008, I quickly realized that we needed to get us back into multicolor. I thought it would be much more interesting to bring in fine artists that work in color and let them treat anodizing as a fine art medium. We developed techniques that would allow them to create art. These processes could be turned around for very commercial applications that don’t in any way remind you of the artist that we developed them for, but everything started with a purely artistic vision.

What’s on the horizon?

So many projects. We are working with Snøhetta from Norway. We are going to take 32,000 pounds of aluminum chips, which we are going to melt down and cap into eight-inch diameter logs. They are going to be headed down to Los Angeles where they will be extruded into raw material into the exact shape I want for the project with Snøhetta. I love it because not only is the project 100% recycled, but it 100% from my own chip.

Who else is working in this sector, doing what you are doing?

I have no direct peers. When we compete, we are competing against marble works, cast bronze, carved wood, but Neal Feay has no direct competitors in our material. Lately, I’ve been sucked into the the automotive side of things, partially because these marques just love metal. I don’t speak Ferrari fluently, but the guys who love Ferrari love what we do in metal.

If our work wasn’t the absolute best, there would be no way we could ever pull it off

We are pretty committed to staying at the pointy end of the sword when it comes to artistic design and fabrication. We are not mass-market in anything right now, though we do have some things that we make in large quantities, but it is the best in the world just by nature. The type of fabrication that we do and the type of equipment that we use, and the fact that we are in Santa Barbara, sort of just happily forced us to be in the world of luxury. If our work wasn’t the absolute best, there would be no way we could ever pull it off.

Red sail and cloth console images by Matt Anderson, blue wave images courtesy of Neal Feay, all other images by Alex Blair