By Gloria Nicola
As a child growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland, Alyson Magee dreamed of being a fashion designer. “As a little girl, I loved to draw pictures of women in crazy dresses,” she notes. This creativity was nurtured by her family. “I had an uncle who was a jeweler and I spent a lot of time in his shop, working on actual projects.”
Magee was also interested in architecture. But the many years of university training did not appeal to her. Instead she took a one year art and design foundation course in Belfast. “The year turned out to be very useful,” she explains. “It provided an excellent grounding in design and gave me time to reflect on my future directions.”
Magee went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree and in 1983 won a place in a three-year Master of Arts course at the prestigious Royal College of Arts in London. There she studied three-dimensional metal work and furniture and concentrated on jewelry, working with precious metal and stones. “But I didn’t really want to do what all my contemporaries were doing: set up a jewelry workshop and struggle to make a living. I didn’t want to work on my own. I wanted to be involved in a larger scale business,” she says.
Half way through her course, she had to pick a mass production project, selecting a product to design and organizing all the tools and equipment necessary to produce it. Magee chose eyewear. “At that point, 1984, eyewear I was seeing in England was not very innovative,” she says. I don’t wear glasses myself, but everyone in my family does. Maybe because all my life I was surrounded by people wearing horrible glasses, I realized there was a need for interesting eyewear.” But it was a difficult endeavor. Her professor even tried to discourage her. “I felt I was facing a brick wall, but fortunately another professor said, ‘If you feel strongly about it and believe in it, go for it.’ So I did.”
While working on the eyewear project, Magee needed to go outside the school for direction. She contacted Anglo American Optical, a UK-based company known for its innovative plastic eyewear designs. “Anglo American had a huge influence on me,” she notes.
So much so that after completing school in 1986, Magee decided to pursue a career in eyewear. She approached eyewear designer Alain Mikli, who already had a presence in the UK. He hired her immediately and she moved to France.
“Working with Alain was the best school,” she says. But it was my first job and after five years I thought it would be good to go back to England. There I worked for Anglo American, my spiritual family. But I only stayed a year. I missed France where I had a boyfriend—my future husband.”
She returned to Paris and worked at Lafont for two years alongside future business partners Nadine Roth and Pascal Jaulent. In 1995, the three formed the Parisian company Architectures—based on their common passion for contemporary architecture—and founded Face à Face eyewear. Magee is creative director of Architectures and sole designer of Face à Face. She lives in the center of Paris with her husband, a product designer, and their two children, a seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son.
“Our goal with Face à Face is to design innovative eyewear for active urban consumers who consider frames to be an important part of their look and creative personality,” explains Magee. “An ideal Face à Face customer is one who seeks out nice objects and lives in nice surroundings.” Her first collection launched, without her, at Silmo, the Paris-based international optical show, in 1995. It was the day her daughter was born.
“I found the whole experience of designing Face à Face very exciting,” says Magee. “It was the first time I could apply my own training and experiences to create a product that was completely mine. Since I had no optical training, my approach to frames comes from a pure design background. Because of my education in jewelry, I focus on the smallest of details. I see a frame as an object to be looked at, studied and enjoyed. To me, eyewear is much more than just something that helps you see. I do respect the optician’s needs. But I was always taught to forget about technical limitations—to design first and think of ways to make it function later.”
For Magee, seeing her creations on someone’s face is the real reward. “Creating eyewear and then seeing the final product on someone is like studying for exams,” she explains. “You sort of hold you breath and wait for the results. It always makes me feel good to see someone wear a frame I designed.” Magee recently saw a woman at an airport wearing one of her frames. “I went up to her and told her I was the designer. She was so excited.”
When starting a new collection, Magee always sketches her designs by hand first. Then an assistant inputs them into a computer and another assistant makes models. “It’s a real luxury to have an assistant because I do need to see eyewear as three-dimensional,” she notes.
One aspect of the creative process she especially enjoys is mixing colors. “I like taking really bright colors and toning them down with muted shades to make the product more wearable.” Her favorite color is green. “It doesn’t always work in eyewear, but I slip it in whenever I can,” she says.
Magee often works with the same theme for both metals and plastics when creating a collection. “The end result is so different in the two materials,” she says. The Face à Face collection is split evenly between metal and plastic.
For inspiration, she turns to many sources. “It’s almost a cliché to say you get inspiration from nature, but it’s true. Face à Face has always taken much of its inspiration from architecture and, of course, architecture is inspired by nature,” she says. “Often ideas are sparked by something as simple as a bright sunny day, talking to someone, having dinner, seeing a picture of a wonderful building or seeing the actual building.”
Magee also feels it’s important to look for motivation outside the optical industry. “I don’t usually look at product when I go to optical shows,” she says. “I go to furniture shows and look at product. I go to textile and yarn shows to see what’s happening in other industries.” And because she’s always been interested in architecture, she follows the works of several architects. “I especially admire Italian architect Carlo Scarpi, known as the jeweler architect because he concentrates on such small details as a special hinge or a door handle.” She also admires the pure lines and minimalism of Japanese designers.
Magee does feel eyewear in general is headed in the right direction and is now being treated as a fashion accessory. But she would like to see eyewear evolve further. “Eyewear needs to be seen in a broader context, outside the optical world,” she says. “A pair of glasses has to function, but it’s also an object to be looked at, admired and judged on its own merits, just like a watch. A watch functions, but it’s also a distinctive object.”
When Magee is not designing, she loves to travel. “I love Asia and I like Italy. I love everything Japanese,” she says. She also returns to Ireland frequently. “Ireland remains a place of inspiration and escape for me.” She has put much of her passion for architecture into restoring an isolated stone cottage in the Irish countryside. “We spent three weeks there last summer. I enjoy horseback riding on the beach with my children. It’s so peaceful with nothing around except cows and sheep. But I do get lonely after awhile. I like the energy of cities,” Magee notes. “It keeps me alive and on my toes. And I love living in Paris.”
The biggest changes Magee has witnessed in eyewear since she began her career are in technology and the use of materials. “Technology has become much more sophisticated and there are a lot more options in materials,” she says. “Titanium used to be the province of the Japanese. Now it’s used widely and successfully in France, Italy and other countries. Because of improved technology, aluminum is much easier to work with than in the past and magnesium is now on the horizon as a frame material. All of these advances provide more scope for design. Additionally, consumers’ attitudes have changed. People are more willing to accept new ideas and styles than in the past. As consumers become more accepting, designers are willing to take more chances.”