We speak to US designer Alex Proba about pivoting to tantalizing swimming pools: “My work is a celebration of colour and pattern.”
By Chris Beanland
When Pablo Picasso painted the bottom of the pool at the villa El Martinete outside Marbella in 1961, a new link between swimming and art was forged – now you could admire a painting while you did front crawl. David Hockney painted the floor of the Roosevelt Hotel’s pool in Los Angeles in 1988 and now on New York’s namesake Roosevelt Island you can find the coolest pool in the United States to take a dip in, finished off in style in pastel shades – like something from The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s 1960s heyday – by designer Alex Proba who herself once lived in the Big Apple.
But it’s not just in New York that Alex is painting pools. The former Nike Global Brand Art Director is in Portland, Oregon, now – from where she tells Glorious about her first forays into painting pools – and her revolutionary plans to design dreamy diving and swimming spots from Mexico to Brazil.
“I’ve had it on my dream projects bucket list for years. I love painting the unexpected, the things people don’t ever think of painting or are too afraid of doing. I think it’s in my personality, to be different and do things that I feel passionate about. Things that, in the end, make people happy but also surprise them.”
For Alex her apparently abstract designs – pops of pinks and yellows and blues that jump out and demand attention – are far from random Jackson Pollock-esque scrawls.
Alex told me that she started an Instagram account where she designed posters and a growing community fed back stories which informed her. “Sharing work, being judged by bad work… that all turned into something bigger, I did it for four years straight. A community of followers evolved. Most of the stories were really sad – turning something really dark into something happy and colourful interests me.” Emotion is key for her. “I am first and foremost a visual designer and artist and all my creations are supposed to evoke an emotion. My work is a celebration of colour and pattern, which I would see as a positive stimulation of the senses.”
Born just outside Cologne, Alex studied in Eindhoven and Hamburg and spent time in Berlin, before ending up in New York where she found herself working for creative agency Mother and then sport behemoth brand Nike. She talks about how architecture – her first career choice – was “too slow” and how design seemed more rapid, more rewarding. Now of course with the pools project she gets to blend a hybrid of art, design and architecture – changing spaces into something much more magnificent and significant.
Sport’s brand used to be ‘sweat’, now of course we only need to scroll through Insta to realise sport’s brand today is ‘lifestyle’ – and brands themselves realised a very lucrative one, too. Did sport play a role in her Nike design days and did her own sporting endeavours inform her work? “I used to play basketball for a long time, went to a basketball high school in Germany. With Nike, though, it’s less about sports, they sell a lifestyle – it’s a story. It’s very appealing to everyone. The story Nike is able to tell is so honest and true to anyone.”
After starting her own studio and moving to Portland (she now lives there with her partner but spends time working in New York too), Alex’s pool dreams began to become a watery reality.
What are her thought processes and what inspires her? “It can be sounds and smells, as well as memories. Sometimes all I need is a phone call with my grandmother to get my creative flow going.” Her granny was a florist, she told me, the “one person who understood her,” and her inspiration in many ways formed the use of colour in her granddaughter’s work, which ranges widely across furniture, tiles, large scale murals, even a new kid’s shoes range: “It’s coming soon, they’re being made in Portugal.”
Is there a process to her designs? “To be honest, there is no process, I am a maker at heart, and when I create I’m extremely happy. I try to create every single day, even if it’s only sketches of my ideas, at least it’s something. Sometimes there are moments where I use my creativity as personal therapy; sometimes when I am stuck with a project or an assignment I try to switch gears and create something off topic for a little while. A process would break me.”
The repeated talk of personal therapy is striking. Art and mental health are so linked. From The Scream onwards painters have explored the power of psychology. But, rather than being about pain, is there something about colour that can be uplifting in the way that Yayoi Kusama teases out? “Many people have a positive reaction, something uplifting in a way. It is graphic, what I do, it is abstract. I think about imagination – going to a happy place.” She adds that: “For me, colours come naturally, they just appear for me and I never have to think about them or reconsider my choices. My shapes come from my hand and are mostly inspired by things from the everyday and nature. Some people are good at maths, I am not! But I think I am okay with colour and shapes.”
Alex’s first pool was at the Marrow House in Rancho Mirage, Palm Springs, California. I’m intrigued about whether she thought about how different the designs would look seen through water? “I didn’t think about that for the first one actually. For the other ones, I planned that in, felt the water in 3D to see how it looked.” The pool sits behind the 1957 modernist house designed by Donald Wexler. Were there any particular physical challenges with painting the pool? “It’s physically challenging as each pool’s curvature is different and there are things you can’t reach easily – you are in the weirdest acrobatic position.”
According to the client, Jillian Sassone, founder of Marrow Fine Jewellery and owner of the Marrow house: “We love Alex’s organic shapes and colour play against the backdrop of the clean angles and lines of our mid-Century Wexler. It creates a lovely juxtaposition between the past and now.” After Roosevelt Island came a pool at The Hill House, also in Palm Springs, which was unveiled this year. “It’s magical. The perspective shifts based on the sunlight,” said Tamara Hill, owner of the Hill House. “It’s such a joy to swim in or admire while relaxing in the yard. And I love dining outside while it’s light at night.”
How much influence are clients like Jillian and Tamara granted, and were there ever any surprises when the end result was unveiled? “No, we go through a process together, and they hire me because they know my work, after all. The surface is obviously very different to other materials when I work on a pool though. Often a client will like a piece of my work, for example, a design with more yellow than pink, then they’ll say ‘we really like this, but you do your thing.’” She added that: “With bigger companies, they have more input. Google, for example, asked that I use their brand colours.”
The process of painting a pool is obviously different to painting a square wall or designing something on a computer. Alex confesses she spent “Ten to 12 hours a day painting. People would say: ‘Damn you’re fast!’ If I need to get a job done, that’s it, it’s the German in me!” The Palm Springs pools, for example, took just over a week to finish. But the colours of Palm Springs, the vibrant mid-century hotels with pastel balconies and suchlike, were not influences on Alex per se, she said: “But I love the desert and all that stuff.”
Of course the one thing you want to do in a pool is swim. “I like swimming, I spent the whole time in the water when I’ve been travelling in, say, the Mediterranean,” said Alex. But, interestingly, she admitted: “I prefer the ocean – I can spend hours in the ocean. I do love water, I’m fascinated with the underwater, you see something more than just the blue colour.” Though despite being from the land of ‘aufguss,’ Alex revealed “I’m not a sauna person.”
Now she has more pools in the works; in LA, Brazil and for a forthcoming boutique hotel in Mexico. And she’s working on countless other designs for products and walls. But the biggest splash in Alex’s world at the moment is definitely her beloved painted pools.