Alex Cohen

 
 
History
 
Insights
 
 
 
Interview
 
 
 
 
AC
 

…I don't remember exactly what my age was, but... I would play with Lego’s a lot, and I would draw. And I think part of Lego’s, for me, was…the fact that whenever I got Lego’s, I would not put them together as per the instructions. I much preferred to have a bunch of random Lego’s - like a box of assorted Lego’s, but not necessarily with instructions to them. Whereas my brother lived by instructions. So even to this day, he'll be drawn to things that are step-by-step, like the scientific process and stuff like that…and anyway I got into making…for example…I don't know why, but I remember creating this… dump truck.

I was really attached to the hinge piece. There was this one really interesting piece in Lego’s, it was like a hinge. It was a simple mechanism, but it was relatively complex for, like, a play toy. And literally you could attach it to things and create a hinge. And I remember being really intrigued by that one piece, and using it for all sorts of different expressions of whatever I was in the mood for at that moment. And for some reason the most vivid memory is this dump truck that could dump things, because it had this hinge piece. There were lots of things that I liked in Lego’s, but for some reason the hinge stands out.

 
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JH
 

That's so interesting… I mean, it's really, really specific. (laughs) That one Lego piece sticks in your mind from your childhood.

 
 
 
 

No, it really is! (laughs) I don't know why. It's incredibly bizarre...but it's the one thing that sticks out in my memory for some reason. Because I remember playing with Lego’s for a really long time - probably five or ten years. But for some reason the one that had the most…I think…EXPRESSIVE possibility…was the hinge piece. And I remember everything from vehicles to - I had this one flat board, that you could attach things to and make, like, a landscape of things, like a city, or…I remember I made a parking lot at some point, and I used a hinge piece for a gate. That opens and closes.… (laughs) …I loved the hinge piece.

I would also draw…I did a lot of copying, actually. I would see something I liked and I'd be really impressed by it, and I'd be kind of momentarily infatuated by it. And would start sketching it, and re-drawing it, and re-drawing it. And I did this, actually, for a really long time. I use this technique even to this day - I'm much better at drawing things from real life, like, seeing it and drawing it, rather than drawing it from my mind. And I think…I don't know, I guess it's just like a time-worn thing, copying things that you like, and that's part of the creative process in general.

And now that I think about it, even as a kid, I would draw interiors; interior spaces. Like stairs, and lamps, and couches…and I don't know why, exactly…For a while I really liked stuff from this book - it was intended to help you draw, and I was really into, like, getting better at drawing. And…I'm trying to think. Why interiors? Why spaces like that?

 
 

Well, why even drawing? What was it about drawing?

 
 

Oh, the act of drawing? (laughs) I think that's kind of my raison d’être, to a certain extent, because…that's the thing that has stayed consistent. That I go to whether I'm working or not. You know? I'll do graphic design for work, but I usually don't do graphic design in my free time. But I will draw, always...And doing it for yourself feels like a free-flowing process. Where you don't have to actually be consciously thinking about what you're doing, and it can just come out of you. Which is something that I like about it. Like, I can just grab a pen and paper, and that feeling, of having a pen and paper, is just viscerally much more comfortable than sitting there…at a piano, for example. Or at another creative outlet. Even at a computer, I feel more….even though I spend most of my life at a computer, I feel more stifled, in a way, than I do sitting with a pen and paper.

 
 

Is it a more spacious feeling, or…

 
 

Yeah! Spacious is exactly the right word. It feels much more spacious. Even the boundaries of the edge of the paper…they're not even real. You can draw off the edge of the piece of paper, and you can draw over other ones, and you can make other things work with it…and I did this even with graphic design, a lot of times. Like, when I'd start a project, I'd do sketches, by hand. And that process will always go much faster and come much more naturally than if I just go straight to the computer. And I think the reason I started doing that, if I can come up with any reason, was the feeling that I had. It's much more spacious, and I guess that's carried on from an early age, definitely.

 
 

Yeah! Okay, so you were a kid who did a lot of drawing, and Lego’s, and… so what else? What else did you love?

 
 

Let's see…I loved to run. Specifically running. I didn't love team sports that much, because I was an inherently competitive kid, but I was really…not a good loser. And I took competitive games, and sports, all different kinds of stuff, very seriously. So I loved them, I loved playing sports and games, but I was really sad if I lost. And that eventually led me to stop playing competitive sports, and just keep playing for fun. So for example, Frisbee was a good outlet for me…it has become much more respected and well-established as a sport, but it still maintains at its core… it's supposed to be an "easy" sport. There are no referees; it's all honor-based. It's supposed to be pure fun, and that's how I see it.

There are some sports that I've been drawn to because of that fact, that they're less competitive, because knowing myself…for example, when I was in middle school, I remember being hyper self-conscious about the way I looked, and because of that, I went to these sports camps during the summer - tennis camps, and sports camps, just dedicated to all sports. And I remember loving tennis, and loving sports.

But I recall so vividly, in the same breath…a match where I played my heart out. I gave 120%, and I still lost. And I was just in tears, literally in tears, at the end of it. I just took it so personally, and I couldn't cope with constantly losing stuff that I was trying so hard at. And I would just go back year after year, and never feel like I was accomplishing anything. It was discouraging. So I remember reserving my physical activity for stuff that I really liked. And that became Frisbee, for me - and that's probably why Jesse plays Frisbee now; because we played it so much with my family. My brother and I would always play it in Central Park.

That was actually a big part of my childhood. Every other weekend, I think, during the spring and the summer, we would go to Central Park. We lived in a little suburb outside of New York, and so the trip wasn't too bad; maybe 35 minutes into the city…and it was just great. We’d just go to the city, we'd play some Frisbee in Central Park, and then we'd get smoothies, and watch a movie and have dinner… and it was a nice family tradition that we had.

 
 

So the essence of running or playing Frisbee, the feeling of it - again, it's actually the feeling, right? It sounds like that's what it's really about.

 
 

It is! It was the feeling. Yeah, that’s what am I talking about. It's always the feeling. I think what I liked about it - I've never thought about this before, but just going out to an open field… because all Frisbee games start with waiting for people to come on. And so you're just waiting, you're throwing around the Frisbee, you're not stretching or anything in particular; you're just kind of finding your way through it. So I guess if I were to make an analogy - when you first start sketching, you may not know what you're doing, but you just draw away. So when you first start playing Frisbee, there's no structure to it. You’re just throwing around a disc, you're running, you can be going fast, you can be going slow - the process is free-flowing; there's no structure. And it can become, at any point, what it wants to.

So the whole point is getting into the zone. Like the mindset where it's an extension of that free-flowing nature. You're really, truly becoming one with that act. And you know, not every time I play Frisbee will I feel that way. Sometimes it'll come so naturally and it'll be perfect, but other times, depending on the day, my mindset, the weather, and a number of factors, it'll feel like a chore…other things will come into play.

Like, for example…I'm not generally the most aerobic person. I'm not constantly on the move. So even on days where… lets say I haven't played a sport in a month or so, and I start playing Frisbee…and let's say the mood is right…I won't even feel out of breath. Even if I haven't played in a while. And I SHOULD be. Whereas even if I've been playing every day for month, and it's just a bad day, I may be out of breath at every point. It's just like everything aligns, and it's really inexplicable. And I was noticing this the other day, when I was playing Frisbee with my friends in San Francisco. Like, I hadn't played in such a long time, but I was playing amazingly well. And it was just this total essence of collective factors that happened to work out, and it was just the mindset that I had going into it was one of…probably freedom. I wasn't tied into anything at that point. I didn't have to live there, I didn't have a job, and I was with my friends, the people that I love, surrounded by all these great things. And it was, like, a beautiful day out. (laughs) It just happened to be a really nice event in general. It's hard to explain…

 
 

No, I totally get it! And…honestly, that feeling you're talking about, getting into that space, is sort of like the creative space. I don't know if this is your experience, but when you're in the zone creatively, when you're drawing or whatever, it has the same kind of… feeling of freedom. And flow, right?

 
 

Absolutely!

 
 

So it sounds like you experience Frisbee - that kind of movement and sport - it sounds almost like a creative act for you, or it can be.

 
 

Definitely. And, you know, thinking about it now…when I see it in the context of, like, competitive sports, and sports that I just play for fun, and then I see design in the context of, like, competitive design… in art school … it's not intended this way, but… you're competing against your peers. Whenever you're being critiqued, you're surrounded by other work for the same exact project, and you're basically being judged against every single other person in the room.

And that space always felt closed off to me. I never felt like I could totally be free designing until my final semester of my senior year of college, where I took this class called Poster Design. And even though I was competing against everyone else, there was a shift in the way I saw that class. Because I was almost done with college and didn't have to take that many credits that semester. I only took nine credits, which is just three classes, for one entire semester, which was amazingly free. And I could expend all this extra energy and time and effort on one class. And so I was like, "well, fuck it," you know? I don't have all this pressure; I don't have to prove anything to anyone - I can just make this class exactly what I want, because this is the end of it.

And I produced some of the best work I've ever produced - I think because of a number of factors. And I felt truly, actually validated during that class, more so than I ever had been in those past few years. I'd always doubted myself, and my ability to be at art school, and to be a designer, and… there was never a day, really, where didn't feel like I was an impostor there; like I was…like, pretending to be an artist.

 
 

I hear you in terms of the pressure being off, and you were about to graduate, and all that. But was it also the professor? Was there something about the way it was being taught, or was it the actual content of the class - what was it about…?

 
 

<Definitely the professor. She was amazing. She was the only professor that ever had really taken the time to compliment her students. So…a lot of the professors that I'd had previously were completely comfortable with respect to everyone's work, seeing that everyone was on the same page and had equal work to do, in terms of improving, but they would rarely compliment everyone. They would basically tell everyone how to improve their work. Which was superbly valuable - I'm not, in any way trying to downplay that at all, because it was definitely necessary for me to improve.

However, this professor, she was very good at actually expressing…just basically telling us that we were good. She would not hesitate to give us real, hearty compliments. And stuff like that really left a mark. Because one, she's an extremely well-known and well-respected poster designer, in the industry of poster design. She's been doing this for, like, 40 or 50 years. She's won many, many awards in the design community. Her word means a lot.

And she would actually compliment me, and say things that I took to heart. And I don't think I would ever become arrogant because of the compliments, because I'm just inherently really self-conscious about my work. And I think the fact that I had some validation, just one thing to hang onto, gave me enough energy to put in the extra effort. And it was just so valuable, and it was completely the professor. There were definitely other factors that played into it, but the professor was like 95% of the reason that it was so effective. That it was such an amazing experience - because of her, as a person, and what she did.

And instead of final grades at the end of the semester you get a little slip that describes your work, your improvement, and what you need to work on, and she said the nicest thing that I'd ever received from any professor - and probably…anyone. Ever. (laughs) It was the most validating few sentences. It was so amazingly profound. And for me, it just created this feeling of…it was more than validation. It was feeling at ease with the fact that I can be a designer, and that's okay. And that was the first time I'd ever felt that way. And that was just…it was a little sigh of relief. It was monumental for me.

 
 

Let me back up for a second - when you were in junior high, high school, whatever, you talked a little bit about sports and stuff - but what about school during that time? Were you still drawing? Was there anything else that was coming up creatively? What influenced you?

 
 

Let's see. I loved school. Inherently I loved the process of school - just learning things - I would say, other than drawing, the act of asking questions and learning about things and how they relate to one another in the grand scheme, is probably one of the things that's closest to my heart. And I think even more so…this is a pretty strong statement, but…even more so than actually drawing, and the creative act, is the act of conversation and dialog.

I don't think I've ever thought about it, but if I had to put my finger on it – it’s the space that is opened up when you have a conversation with someone who's willing to open up at the same time…to have a dialog that is not really about proving a point, or forcing your opinion on someone else. Which is the opposite of what I like. It's about actually talking about where you come from, and then listening to where they come from, and then finding that middle ground that's so eye-opening, and creates…nothing but empathy, and understanding for more things in general. So I think the beauty of conversation and dialog comes in that space that allows for this bridge to be connected to you and this other person, but also, it opens you up to everyone else who's gone through similar experiences.

So when you see that, with someone else who can go there with you, but is not coming from the same exact place as you… and then you see where they're coming from, and you actually internalize and intellectualize the things they're saying as relatable things…then that opens up all this mind-power…it's hard to explain, because it's this abstract idea of empathy. Which is, to me, just being able to relate to more people. So when you're talking to people, the more you talk, the more you can relate to OTHER people. But on more than a one-on-one basis. For me, it's like, one conversation is not just going to help me get better at talking to people that have gone through that same experience. The more that I do it, the better I get at relating to people. And to me, it's hard for me to imagine something that's more important than relating to other people in this universe where we're all in it together.

So something about school, learning, and having dialogs… in school, and high school, I was lucky enough to have some professors that were not completely by-the-book. In the sense that they weren't there just to – you weren't these empty vessels that they’d pour into, and then you had to pour it all back into a test. They would engage with you. Maybe briefly, but they were definitely willing get into things that you were genuinely curious about. And that was, I think, really vital. And I did this, in fact, since elementary school, and it was really what I loved about school. The fact that you can engage with any subject, regardless of the context, in the same way that you'd engage with something that you inherently love.

Like, art is something that I've always been interested in, but, for example, biology, I'd never thought about. But If I'm on the same wavelength and the teacher's passionate enough…if you FEEL the passion, if you can sense the passion in them, it doesn't matter what they content is. I don't care what they're talking about, as long as they're really involved and engaged, and they're not, like, talking to a book. If they're talking from their heart. It's tangibly different when they're talking through their heart. I'm using these abstract terms, but to me, they're very real, in the sense that I will actually go from shut-off to turned-on; completely by the amount of engagement they have with their own subject.

 
 

Yep. I totally get that. And it IS about the heart. Because you're right; you can't be passionate about something if it's not coming from…connected to your heart, right? Passion isn't an intellectual process.

 
 

No, it's not.

 
 

So, the feeling…again, it's the feeling of it. I totally get that. So the teachers you had, the ones that you're thinking of right now - you're saying that it wasn't necessarily about the subject as much as it was the person, and their engagement with the subject.

 
 

Absolutely. The mentors I think I would cite, in high school, would definitely be those that were most passionate about their individual subjects. My biology teacher, she was one of the most amazing people in the world. She had this insatiable urge to know about biology, and she taught it with this beautiful conviction, and she just had this great personality. Exuberant. And I think maybe my personality is more drawn to exuberant people, because I happen to be exuberant. (laughs) And so maybe that kind of helped. But she was definitely one of those people.

And actually, now that I think about it, and say those words, I almost immediately regret it; because my second-greatest mentor was a substitute teacher, and he was an existentialist, he was a pessimist, he was a realist…he never seemed super happy with his life. I think he'd gone from being a…he worked for UPS, and then he was a substitute teacher; I don't even know what he's doing now. But he's a poet, and he would teach different things and he would like, talk about it with me. And he would talk about all the things that he was inspired by. But he wasn't exuberant, as a personality. I think what he talked about was just really fascinating. And he had this…he would engage with me - it wasn't like he would be pedantic, or condescending - he would actually want to engage in it; it was visible. So I guess maybe, what I'm drawn to, is probably visible engagement. Because exuberance implies happiness, and a Joie de vivre, and it didn't seem like he had that kind of feeling, but it was definitely…a feeling of real engagement with the things he was talking about. And that's what I was relating to.

So, he would recommend a book, or a CD, or a movie, and I would go out and get them. I don't think I had ever done that before. If there was anyone that was a MENTOR-mentor, in that sense, that was him. He had my back for like three years, and senior year I got really close to him because I had all these free periods, because I chose not to take AP classes that I wasn't inherently interested in. I didn't want to waste all this time doing stuff that I wasn't really, truly passionate about. So I had all these free periods where I would talk to him in the library, and we would get things he would recommend to me, and I would read his poetry, and we would talk about all of these…anything, really. Anything. And he was always willing to engage. And when I told him I got into RISD, he was not surprised at all. He was like… he expected it. And he's one of the smartest people I know; he's just a brilliant guy. And I had always looked up to him for his sheer intelligence. He was convinced that I could go anywhere I wanted, and I was just so incredibly flattered and honored by that fact.

And one of the things that I think has carried over from that into college is that he's one of the people that validated my… my intellectual capacity. And no-one had ever done that. Because in high school, teachers would just give you a test, you would do well, but you wouldn't be validated in that way. But he was one of the people that actually, really believed in me, in that venue.

 
 

Yeah. And it sounds like he really could see you; like he really saw you for who you were.

 
 

Exactly! And that's kind of what was so important about it to me.

Now, if I could think of any other…in high school…I would draw in almost every single class that I took. (laughs) To me, almost intrinsic to the process of taking notes is the sketching act. So I would of-course find myself drawing. (laughs) And it's funny - there's doodling, and then there's drawing, and I would definitely find myself drawing very specific things in some classes. So like, if we were talking about a war in American history, I would find myself drawing, like, a battlefield, or guns. If I was in biology, I would find myself drawing animals, plant cells, stuff that was relevant.

And I did relatively well in the classes that I took, and my teachers really liked the fact that I was doing something that no-one else was doing. So in the history, of Blindbrook High School nobody had ever gone to art school. And my school is like…I don't want to say it's super old, but it's maybe 40 or 50 years old. It's a very academically oriented school; everybody goes to Ivy League colleges, or a little below Ivy League. Super competitive. And the fact that I wasn't in that mindset, I think, was refreshing to some of the teachers. A lot of them were my champions, I think, from an early age.

I just recently went back to my elementary school and saw some of my old teachers, and they were just really happy that I was still drawing. And that doesn't really happen a lot, in my school - I don't know how often it happens in life anywhere, where kids that are drawing at a young age continue to draw, and actually pursue that for the rest of their lives. It made them happy to hear that one of their pupils actually did the thing that they were really in love with.

 
 

Right! Well, it sounds pretty much like…and I'm sure not everyone was like this, but…somehow, you were given enough space that you were able to continue, no matter what, to draw. So somehow, the space was made for that. People weren't saying, "stop your drawing! Take some notes!"

 
 

No! I could not emphasize how blessed I am to have been born where I was, with the people that I was surrounded by. Everyone was my champion. I don't think there's any one person that discouraged me from following that which I loved. Which is an incredible blessing.

 
 

Yeah, and you know - I have to say, that really, that is a big deal. Because, boy…I'm not sure I've heard anyone say that. Not quite in that way, at least.

You know, the thing is, Alex…yes, for sure, you were deeply blessed by having these people – but what I'm also feeling as you're describing your life - it seems like you've always been so clear. Like, the most crystal-clear note of music, that just rings through, not wavering – that kind of feeling. It feels like you've always been that, and because you've always been that, people can hear that note, can see it and hear it. So that, for sure, those are great fortunes for you, but also, some of it is coming from you. I think what I'm getting at, is that, you know, it's partly because of YOU, and who you are. You know?

 
 

That's interesting. And I never thought about it like that…

 
 

Well, it's not the kind of thing you think about yourself. (laughs)

 
 

It's funny - in that context - and now I think about it, the purest creative act I have right now in my life is clothing, like, getting dressed in the morning. It’s interesting because I had some backlash from people that I loved, like my brother - actually, it was only guys that had this…it was a little abrasive to some of my friends, and my closest people, that had felt like I had changed. The fact that I had started dressing well.

So, when I was in high school, and before that, I really didn't pay that much attention to how I was dressed. I mean, I definitely chose T-shirts from this website I really liked, that was a conscious choice, but I wasn't really consciously thinking about style. I was thinking about the t-shirt as a t-shirt; like as a means to an end, and how there can be this clever image on a t-shirt, which is a cool medium for it, but it wasn't…it never seemed to me…I couldn't really put outfits together, or…I wasn't even interested in it. It wasn't something that ever occurred to me in a way that was intriguing or had my interest.

 
 

Yeah - what happened? How did it evolve?

 
 

Yeah… It's so intangible, because…freshman year in college, I wore t-shirts and cargo pants, and that was my go-to uniform, prior to the summer following freshman year. And then after that summer I got a job at Banana Republic, because…for some reason, I felt compelled. I can't explain why, but I was compelled to start working at a clothing store, and for some reason I kept getting this feeling that…I just was really interested in the way that they were dressing. And I had no clothes, none, literally no clothes that matched with this style that I liked. I was like "but this is really cool. Why doesn't everyone dress like this?" So what I started doing was, I started trying to do what I could with what I had. So you know, I would see collared shirts. And I had some collared shirts, but I didn't have anything that was exactly what I wanted. So essentially, long story short, I got to a point where I was trying to create these outfits out of what I had. I would basically put t-shirts on over long-sleeved shirts, and looking back…it was definitely an evolutionary process. (laughs) And it still is…I know my taste is changing every day. And it's definitely one of those things that, over time, grows.

And I remember so vividly that summer, when I had some friends visiting. I was going through this very real transition period, where I was much more conscious of the things that I wanted to be like, and to look like. And it was definitely a visual thing. It was very heavily based on things that I saw and wanted to emulate. And that became, over time, what it is today, which is looking at things and being inspired by them, whether it's on the street, or whether it's on a blog or on a photo that my mom took. And using that, in terms of either looking at the textures, or the colors, or the combinations of them…using that and incorporating that into what I'm wearing on an everyday basis.

And that act had become the forefront of my creative process. More so than graphic design, even though graphic design is my trade - definitely the thing that gives me the most passion, the most happiness, the most satisfaction by far is getting dressed in the morning. And I have no idea why. I'm sure it's exactly the same thread from when I was drawing, when I was learning, but…the feeling has to be exactly the same. It's just that when I'm getting dressed in the morning, it feels like I have all these choices, and I have to take one and create a brand around it.

Over time, I've started to embrace different styles. So for a while, I had to pick a wardrobe, and go with that. If I started off going all over the place, it would feel really incoherent. So when I first started buying clothes, they were very…they were actually all from Banana Republic, because I got a huge discount, and that's where I was being paid, and it was easy, so all my clothes were relatively preppy. And they were a little older, but they were definitely much more formal than anything I'd ever worn before. And that's how I started dressing, V-neck sweaters and collared shirts underneath, and some slacks and Khakis and stuff like that.

And then I started moving, over time, in a different direction. So I started looking at more stuff, and liking…let's see…I liked J-Crew a lot; I went through a J-Crew phase. Actually, it's funny - I liked J-Crew, and then I stopped liking J-Crew, and then I liked J-Crew again. (laughs) It really is this adaptive, constantly dynamic process. It's really about being aware of what's happening and what you're feeling when you're looking at something. And it always comes back to that feeling that you get when you're present with something. Whether it's a shirt, a bag, a work of art - it's like…very visceral; if I see it, I see it, and I cannot see it any other way. And if I don't buy it, I'll be thinking about it for a month.

 
 

Right? Yeah. It's like…gosh. I so know the feeling…. I don't know if it's exactly the same, but…like when I'm wearing exactly the right thing, on a given day…I can be more myself. Somehow I am more vividly who I am.

 
 

Oh, my god. That is exactly it. No, that's a beautiful way of putting it. That's exactly what it is. I feel more of myself when I'm in clothing that I'm happy with. That's what it comes down to. Everything, literally everything I do that day, comes more naturally - it's hard to explain, but you seem to have hit the nail on the head with those words. That's exactly it.

 
 

I totally know what you mean. And for me, what I know is that anyone looking at me on that day wouldn't necessarily go, like "wow! Look at that outfit!" You know? It's just how it feels to me. I can feel like "yes" - I am really who I am today. Because I'm wearing exactly the right thing. And it's almost like I feel… what's the equivalence of volume in color? It's not necessarily brightness, but I just feel more…vivid, somehow.

It sounds like, for you, the expression of your clothes is really an expression of your you-ness. And the fact that it's constantly changing and evolving is, you know, partly an expression of your engagement with the creative process. Like, you are just so…engaged in it all the time. In the same way that you have these connections and conversations that are ongoing, you know? In a way it's also a sort of a conversation. I don't know how, but…it's so cool. It's such a cool thing that you found that.

Was there one particular thing that sparked it, or was this just sort of something that…evolved? Did you see something and just go "oh my god", or…?