Photos by Gabby Jones
Devon Turnbull is very much himself.
He doesn’t chase trends; he can’t identify the herd, let alone move with it; and he doesn’t much care what anyone thinks—he just does him. And that’s paid off. During his creative career, he’s enjoyed various successes with little to no intervention on his part. Things just seem to happen for him. ‘I don’t really go after stuff,’ he says, ‘it just kind of finds me.’ His secret? He’s a keenster, an aficionado, and he has no ambition outside of knowing everything there is to know about whatever it is that has captured his interest, be that graphic design, streetwear, campervans, or—the discipline he’s currently best-known for—building hi-end, bespoke audio components. Once Devon zeroes in on something, his enthusiasm and ferocious single-mindedness take over and everything else falls away. Being recognised as an expert is just a by-product.
At the time of this interview, Devon, or Ojas (a moniker from his graffiti days), was selling the campervan he meticulously fitted out for the purpose of exploration and adventure, to free himself up for whatever’s next.
You’re selling the rig?
Selling the rig, yeah. I need cash flow. I need to free some cash up. I got a lot of stuff going on right now.
What are you doing?
Well, I just bought this other crazy-ass truck. It’s like a medium duty truck that’s actually very popular in Australia for off-road travelling. It’s basically a four-wheel-drive box truck. It’s like a Mitsubishi Fuso, if that means anything to you.
No, not really.
Mitsubishi Fuso is the most common box truck that you just see in Chinatown.
Oh, okay. I think I know the one.
Basically, Australians have reinvented this truck. In Australia, you can get all kinds of crazy accessories for them. But in America, it’s more obscure and everything you want to outfit them with pretty much has to come from Australia.
Really? That’s interesting.
You guys have a whole scene over there.
Let’s talk about this real quick, because I think it’s pertinent to the interview. You drove all over for how long, the last couple of years? You’re just constantly taking off with the truck.
My wife and I try to spend a third to half of our time on the road travelling around.
And you’re surfing?
Surfing is the objective. Sometimes we’re just travelling and seeing. We end up driving relatively close to some of the most beautiful places on earth and you can’t pass that up. That’s like a lost opportunity if you’re just driving within a few hours of the Grand Canyon and you don’t go camping on the rim.
So, surfing, hi-end audio, streetwear, campervans… Your interests are all over the place, aren’t they?
I mean, I try to find a common thread between all of my work and my interests in my life.
And what is it?
It’s hard to define, but there definitely is one.
Let’s go through what your interests are and what you’re doing. This is primarily going to be about your work with speakers and stuff.
Audio, yeah. Which is currently my main identity as a creative person.
But prior to that you were…
I think for a long time, people knew me as either a graphic artist or a graffiti writer, if you go back far enough. I guess even if you go back before that, I was in college, I was just a DJ. It all started with music. I actually went to college for audio engineering.
And then you became a graphic designer and a graphic artist.
Right, but initially I was an aspiring music producer or whatever. I was always really into records and DJing. I got my basic electrical engineering and audio engineering know-how in school. Then I came to New York. But in Seattle I met Alex Calderwood there and he was a super important influence on me and common thread through all of my work.
Alex was a huge influence on you, right?
Yeah. Alex owned pretty much everything that was culturally important in Seattle. He owned this huge nightclub where all the cool parties were, he had a gallery and a store attached to it, restaurants, a bunch of other really cool bars in Seattle, he owned or was partner with a couple of other guys on Rudy’s Barbershop. And he also owned the first Ace Hotel. That’s the foundation of the Ace Hotel chain which is, of course, now huge. Anyway, he was an incredibly creative and enterprising guy. I had weekly nights at a couple of his bars, and I was exposed to a lot of really great stuff through working for him. After school, I came to New York and thought the music industry would be my creative channel. At the time I was really into Antipop Consortium. Do you remember those guys?
Yeah, of course.
Antipop, yeah. Beans—I’m sure you knew Beans—he worked at Other Music. High Priest, all those guys were super cool. So, I came to New York and within a few months I started tagging, writing graffiti. Then I started making some clothes just for myself, hand stitching. It was graphic, but it was embroidery that I was doing by hand. Alife had just opened, and I wore a couple of these things into Alife. The Alife guys were like, ‘That’s dope. You should bring some of those things in and we’ll put them in here on consignment.’ I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I didn’t study design, no one ever told me I could be a graphic designer or a graphic artist, or design clothes or any of that stuff. But they said, ‘Yeah, bring some stuff in; we’ll put on consignment.’ So, I did. Later they called me and said, ‘Hey, this guy Beans was just in here and he really liked your stuff. He has a show tomorrow and he wants to borrow some stuff to wear on stage.’ I was like, ‘No way. He wants me to go to his crib and show him stuff and loan him some stuff?’ The next thing I know, I’m at Beans’ apartment. So, I’m like, ‘Maybe this is what I do now.’
You told me once that everything that’s happened in your career, in your life, you haven’t really strived for it. You’ve just been creative, and that’s drawn the right people and opportunities to you.
Well, I would say that I’ve never really had a strategy. Or I don’t think I’ve ever really had a frustrating time trying to get something that I want, because I don’t get too attached to stuff, I guess. Going with the flow has definitely been good to me. When opportunities present themselves, I’m usually pretty open to them. I’m just lucky that they’ve been good and led me to where I am. Although, I’m pretty bad at saying no.
That’s why you’re doing this interview. So, then what—Nom de Guerre?
I was selling (my clothes) to Isa [Saalabi] in Williamsburg, who ended up being my business partner in Nom de Guerre. Isa had this amazing store that he opened in 2001. It was amazing. I mean, that was a time when Williamsburg was a very special place. I lived on the south side of Williamsburg, and it was sparsely populated. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of people there, and I was by no means a pioneer. But it was a small enough community that you’d just meet people on the street or in cafes and develop relationships with them, which is way beyond that now.
You can say that again.
So, Isa approached me and our other two partners, Wil Whitney and Holly Harnsongkram, and we started a label and got this store in Manhattan on Bleecker and Broadway.
Under the Swatch shop.
Yeah, where everyone thought they were going down to the subway. People would come down to the store looking to catch a train.
Are you serious?
Oh yeah, all the time. We didn’t have any signage. I mean, not out of any master plan, we just didn’t want to say, ‘Men’s clothing—come on down.’ But there was no indication that there was a subway down there, but it was an open stairwell that went down into the sidewalk, and people just thought, ‘It’s underground—must be the subway.’
How was Nom received?
People liked it, but the main thing we always got was that our shit was way too expensive. That was the main criticism we got. For a long time, we made everything in Japan and even though we cut our margins, we just made such tiny quantities of everything. It was expensive. I mean, there’s nothing we could really do about it.
What happened to Nom de Guerre?
We did it from 2003 to 2010 and then just stopped. We closed the store. We were all a bit exhausted by it, I think. But by the time we stopped doing Nom de Guerre, I was really into building audio gear again.
I had studied audio engineering and a little bit of circuit design, troubleshooting and repair stuff in school. I always had, at the very least, from when I was even in high school, turntables, an amplifier and some speakers and stuff. But I guess it was in the early to mid-2000s that I started becoming more interested. I got rid of my Technics 1200s and got more interested in Hi-Fi. I still loved collecting records but didn’t really want to hang out in nightclubs.
And I started getting really into Hi-Fi and wanting to connect with music and records in a different way. I think through working on Nom de Guerre, I got exposed to a certain approach to system building through travelling in both Japan and France.
You became a fetishist.
No, not really, but I got into looking for the best quality sound reproduction, and that tends to centre on a lot of classic vintage components and super simple two band circuits—particularly a type of amplifier called a single-ended triode amplifier, which uses this first form of voltage amplification that we had in any kind of audio amplification circuit. It’s 1920s, 30s, 40s technology; super-efficient horn-loaded speakers with huge motors, huge magnets and even field coil magnets that need very little power to produce a very large, high level sound. It’s a certain formula, the speakers don’t work with modern amps and the amps don’t work with modern speakers. Because the audio industry moved from this pursuit of high quality to essentially value engineering and occupying less space and being able to get more volume per cubic foot your sound system occupies.
You’re losing me, but go on.
The speakers got smaller and less efficient, and you have to have a much more powerful amp to move those speakers.
The big horn speakers are super-efficient, and that’s counterintuitive to a lot of people; they see this giant speaker that’s six, seven feet tall and several feet wide and several feet deep and people are like, ‘You must need a huge, crazy amp to power this thing.’ The other interesting thing is that even though these amps deliver very few watts—sometimes even less than one watt—they’re huge and heavy as well. So, they’ll be like, ‘Wow, this amp is crazy. This thing looks like it weighs 100 pounds, and it’s got all these huge vacuum tubes on it. How much power is that thing putting out?’ And you’ll just respond with like, ‘Four watts per channel.’ By modern terms, that’s just inconceivably small. I mean, if you go to Best Buy and buy a mid-level home theatre amp, it’ll have hundreds of watts per channel.
But the sound I was hearing coming from these systems was very, very attractive to me.
Sound is obviously subjective, but to me, these speakers project sound and throw sound… it’s like a big cinema screen versus a high definition television. It’s like going to a beautiful theatre with a film projector and seeing a movie on the big screen versus 4K, super high definition home television. That’s one analogy that I might use.
And this has all changed your taste in music.
Yeah. I started listening to a lot more jazz, a lot more classical, a lot more Steve Rice, Philip Glass…
John Cale. Exactly. I think also when you have a Hi-Fi which you treat in a really considered way and you like to sit and appreciate, it’s just a lot more like viewing art in a gallery as opposed to viewing art casually through either mass media or on the street or whatever. You just appreciate intricacies and subtle cues in a way that you never could before.
And now you build these sound systems for people?
Yeah. Alex [Calderwood] had moved to New York and was working on the Ace, New York. I told him I had this new passion project and I was building stuff for myself, and he was immediately like, ‘Okay, this is definitely something that we need to have as a component of the Ace when we open here.’ So, that was my first audio commission.
And did you take off from there?
Yeah, I started getting smaller private commissions from people. Then one of my best friends, Josh Rosen, was starting up Saturdays NYC, so they were my next big customer. I did a big pair of speakers for their Daikanyama store, the first store they opened in Japan, and I did speaker systems for all the subsequent stores in Japan. So, that kept me busy for a while.
Cool. And then you met Virgil Abloh.
Right. I guess around that same time I met Virgil.
You met him through his love of Nom de Guerre, right?
Yeah. He’d been referencing Nom de Guerre and the design work I did for Nom de Guerre. At the time, I was fully checked-out of that whole scene. I was kind of traumatised from having had a tough time in the menswear industry or streetwear industry or whatever you want to call it.
Then Virgil brought you back?
Yeah. Virgil tried to softly tell me that things were different and that the market had changed and that I should reconsider distancing myself from it. People told me that this guy is doing really important work and that he’s reaching levels of popularity and success that I couldn’t understand. I just knew that this guy was a super interesting, cool and kind person, and we sort of just developed a friendship for the next couple of years.
You didn’t understand his popularity?
No, I wasn’t really hip to his popularity. It was more just that I really liked talking to him and vibing with him. Eventually, the timing worked out and I had time to do some graphics for him. This is back when he was launching the first Off-White women’s collection. I delved back into the type of graphics work I was doing back before and during Nom de Guerre era, particularly the style of typography I started developed using these old floral holographic lithographs that reference 17th Century German calligraphy, and stuff. I feel extremely lucky to have made this personal connection (with Virgil). Just being able to have a role in everything that he’s got going on right now is a huge and inspirational part of what drives me creatively. We continue to collaborate a lot, doing work both on his Louis Vuitton stuff and Off-White.
And you were involved in his show, Figures of Speech, in Chicago, right?
Yeah, I just installed this speaker system in his mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. That was an amazing experience. Seeing your name on the wall of a major contemporary art museum is a huge trip, especially when it’s pretty nonlinear. I mean, I never had like a solo gallery show or really even showed in a real gallery outside of a street art context. So, to just go right into that environment was surreal and very cool.
So, what’s the common thread running through all this?
I guess it’s being inspired by niche creative cultures, whether that be graffiti, streetwear, DIY camper conversions… I kind of just, like, spirited enthusiasm about something that’s pretty specific and has a microculture that powers it and usually has a lack of commercial viability.
So, you’re a keenster.
What’s a ‘keenster’?
You’re super-enthusiastic about very specific but random stuff. You nerd out on shit.
Keenster. Yeah, that’s me.