What happens when you cross Simpsons everything with outrageous sign-making talent and a love of gold leaf that just won’t quit? You get Alex May Hughes, duh. And we love Alex May Hughes. We love her enough to hop on a train and go all the way to Brentford to see her in the flesh (she was fully clothed) and find out how she works, why she works and what her workspace looks like. Spoiler: it was fucking excellent.
Emma: I LOVE it in here!
Robyn: Yeah, let’s just live here
*Alex’s place is decorated with 80s disco curtains and we are in love with it*
Robyn: Do you have lots of visitors? Do people come a lot and walk through designs with you?
Alex: Hardly ever – I do it all by email. I’m juggling like a hundred things so keep all the information there. The worst thing is when you’re discussing things by email and someone just sends a new whole new email and you lose the thread
*everyone groans in appreciation for that particular horror*
Emma: Do you like working on your own? I like working by myself – very much a creative introvert, whereas Robyn’s a creative extrovert
Robyn: Yeah, I need people’s energy or I just get demotivated and think, ‘I’ll just sit here and eat a sandwich’
Alex: I’m from a massive family – there are six of us in the house – and it can get really fucking annoying. So I like being on my own. I can potter around, do my podcasts, do my work. Plus there’s loads of people around here
Emma: Yeah, what is this all about?
*gestures to outside which is a very big, very blue, very concrete yard*
Alex: This guy Merlin found the space and took it over. He does classic cars, then there’s a seamstress lady and a really boujie wedding caterers. Then soon it’ll all be knocked down to build flats. Right now we got a weird mix of showhomes and a bakery and a pub…
Robyn: So there’s everything you need
Alex: Yeah, except there really isn’t anything here. There’s a Morrisons… We don’t really have anything except pubs. Brentford is famous for its pubs. And a bookies. And a tanning shop
Emma: So you can get a sweet tan?
Robyn: Emma, it’s like your ideal place to live
Alex: I do use the tanning shop, I don’t place bets, I do go to the pubs – I’m basically keeping the high street alive…
*Alex gets out a tiny and wonderful penis on glass and presents it to Emma – everyone shrieks*
Alex: Here’s your weird little dick thing and then I felt bad so, Robyn, you’re getting an R
Robyn: I was talking to Alex about how you love dick-everything and then you had that bad dick experience yesterday
Emma: I did have a bad dick experience yesterday
Robyn: We’ve all had bad dick experiences
Alex: What happened?
Emma: A brand I was working with decided they didn’t want to work with my anymore part way through a campaign because I posted a story about dick cupcakes
Alex: What was their problem?
Robyn: The dick apparently
Alex: I need to see the dick cupcakes
Robyn: It wasn’t even really like a dick – it was more of a nubbin
Robyn: Look here it is – it’s just so tiny
*All three of us stand around in a beautiful moment, looking at a picture of dick cakes*
Alex: It’s really inoffensive
Emma: They’re cute if anything. Somebody messaged me thinking they were manatees
Alex: You should have said, ‘No they’re manatees and frankly I’m offended you think otherwise’
Robyn: What do you wear to work? Overalls?
Alex: No, just trash shorts and a T-shirt. Just all covered in fucking paint. Which is ok for some meetings but sometimes you just feel like a crusty person
Robyn: But you do look like the real deal
Alex: And I work six days a week at least, so on Sundays, if I can be bothered, I work nice clothes but that’s just one day a week
Emma: I used to just wear joggers when I worked from home but now I try and get up and put on clothes that I like
Alex: Like a power suit and you’re like: ‘I’m gonna get shit done’
Emma: Yeah and I gel my hair and wear a monocle – things like that
Alex: I think I’m a bit the same. At first I was like, ‘I have to work at a desk’ but actually it’s ok to work from bed in a T-shirt too
Emma: Exactly, no one knows. Now Robyn and I have the blog and Instagram a lot I have to be much more free-form
Robyn: Does that not make you want to die a bit though?
Emma: Ha ha, sometimes
Alex: It just never ends does it? And then you go to sleep
Emma: And then I can’t go to sleep cos I still think about it
Robyn: It’s just impossible to say no isn’t it? Do you ever say no?
Alex: Very rarely
Emma: It’s hard cos it’s your money, right?
Alex: Yeah, but it’s to my detriment as well. Because even though you know from experience that things will be the worst and not even worth the money you still end up saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll do that for you, for sure. Don’t even pay me… it’s fine. I don’t need the money’.
Emma: How did you start doing this?
Alex: I’ve been doing it seriously for four and a half years
Robyn: Were you doing it simultaneously with a job?
Alex: Yeah – my dad was a fancy caretaker in this building in Mayfair and worked there for 30 years. They needed an office girl, so when I was a teenager I would go in and type things up. I did that on and off, and the money was really good and I knew the people and it was nice. Plus, I could use that money to buy materials
Emma: Do you think you could ever go back to full time work?
Alex: Sometimes I dream about it. My boyfriend’s job is full time and, even though it can be stressful and horrible and he does long hours, he goes to work, he does the work and then he leaves. But when he leaves, he leaves. He doesn’t have to lie awake thinking about it. He doesn’t have to email people at 11pm. Imagine what that’s like – it must be so nice
Robyn: Like work is work and then it’s my time and it makes me money to do the things I like
Emma: Robyn, you need the security of a job-job, right?
Robyn: Yeah, I need to know a certain amount of money is coming in or I freak out. I get mega-anxious
Alex: I was like that until I had some savings and then I was just like, ‘Ah, if I get hit by a car at least that’s there’
Robyn: So, can you tell us how you actually make the signs?
Alex: Yes! If it’s simple I can just run the design through my plotter – which is a printer – and it makes a sticky stencil and I can put that onto the back of the glass and paint over it so great for something like a logo cos it’ll be really accurate. But then the Simpsons stuff or anything intricate has to be done by hand
Robyn: And did you study this at uni, or always want to do it and learn how to do it?
Alex: Yeah, that second one. I did a project about sign painting at uni, then afterwards I was living in North London and I thought, ‘I really want to do more of that’. So I started doing classes, got an apprenticeship with a guy and worked with him a lot. In my head it was perfectly normal and natural, when it’s actually really niche and massively fortuitous it all fell into place – it was just right place, right time
Emma: How could you – and would you – scale this up? Would you look to get to a stage where you had a workshop of people doing this with you directing?
Alex: I really like making this shit and I’m really particular about it but that’s not to say I wouldn’t do that. They’d have to be really not-annoying though, and I’d have to teach them how.
Robyn: Do you work a lot with brands?
Alex: Not tonnes, no.
Emma: But it can be nice and lucrative, right?
Alex: It is but sometimes I’m like, no. Like [famous hair straightener brand] popping up and being like, ‘You’ve got hair – let’s work together’. But I’ve never used straighteners in my life, so it would seem inauthentic and weird. If it’s a booze company I’m way more into it.
Robyn: Like when Rankin shot you?
Alex: Yeah, that was for Bombay Sapphire. They wanted a big sign, but then there was this event and – weirdly – Rankin was there taking our photos
Robyn: Would you ever work for Monster Munch?
Alex: Yes! If they were like, ‘We want you to do a gold version of the roast beef flavour’ I would DO IT
Emma: If you could do something for any brand in the world, what brand would it be?
Alex: I would LOVE to do something with Guinness – I was thinking loads how I’d like to do something with them the other day
Emma: Can I ask about keeping creativity going when it’s your career?
Alex: Particularly over the summer I do a load of wedding signs and that’s really lovely, but it’s also a lot of the same, Right? So I can try and do things to keep it fresh, like use different colours together. But there are jobs that are way more creative and fun, and then there are things I just do for me. Like, the Simpson’s stuff is respite from doing heavy corporate work cos it’s really silly and people love it.
Robyn: So it’s kind of finding ways to keep a bit of fun-time Alex in among all the work stuff?
Alex: Yeah! Sometimes things can be a bit dry, and sometimes I’m like, ‘Argh my fucking job is so stressful’ but then sometimes I just sit there and think, ‘This is my actual job’ and it can be really moving. People want really personal stuff and send you the nicest messages. I always wondered if I’d ever get asked to make a divorce sign, and I got messaged about one a few weeks ago. She wanted it to say 19p cos that’s what he argued about in the divorce… I hope I get to do it
Emma: what’s your work music jam?
Alex: I like podcasts. I listen to murder podcasts, Ted Talks, Adam Buxton, Bob Mortimer’s Atheletico Mints, Criminal and Radio Lab, Richard Herring… Rule of Three is a really interesting one where they get comedians to come in and talk about their favourite comedy, and 99% invisible is a cool architecture one
Robyn: Do you have an artistic family?
Alex: No, but our house is full of stuff. My Dad collects and repairs trains. Very specific Gauge One ones – it’s really cool. And our house was full of stuff like old pub signs, which was really creative and cool. And my Dad is a handy man and tinkers with things. I’d say they were nurturing but not artistic
Emma: The pub signs and stuff sound exactly like the kind of thing that would start something like career off
Alex: That only dawned on me last year! All these amazing pub mirrors in my family home and I didn’t notice them at all when I was growing up
Emma: so they’re knocking this place down? That is so shit. It’s amazing
Alex: yeah, originally I had a studio in Perryvale which is by the Hoover building and I loved it because it was the first time I had my own space to work but it was just really far away. Then some guy I knew told me about this space and introduced me to Merlin… but it’s all coming down in like two to four years which sucks
Robyn: that is so shit
Alex: yeah, places like this are so hard to find, especially affordable ones
Emma: and no new builds ever include communal creative spaces
Alex: cos you’re never gonna make money out of something like this when you could make it in to loads of flats for £400,000 each
Emma: London is just one luxury flat now. They’re knocking Hackney down bit by bit. Also a good commute and being somewhere you’re happy with makes such a difference to the way you work and must be really important for the creative process. Like for me, getting the tube makes me hate the world and when I get to the office it takes me actual time to calm down again. Do you get that?
Alex: yes and no – on my bus ride before I could think about things and have ideas. Don’t get me wrong, like mainly I fucking hated it but when I moved into the flat I left on the first day, put in my earphones and then I was here and I was like ‘Oh I guess I don’t do this anymore’
Emma: do you have to build that down time into your day now?
Alex: yeah, kind-of. I’m here quicker and for longer but I get more stuff done. I was losing two hours a day on the commute and now I have that time back so even if I have a long day, I do most of the cooking and stuff and cos it’s so close I can still be home sooner and get that done
Emma: has having this made a massive difference to how you and your partner use your space?
Alex: well, we never lived together before we bought the flat
Robyn: that is bold!
Alex: I know, right. We’ve known each other of for like fifteen years, been together for like five years and we were like ‘cool, let’s do this thing’. We were living with our parents and saving up and stuff and then we literally moved in and I was like ‘I guess we live together now then’. I’d never given it much thought and then spoke to a friend and she was like about her relationship ‘we’re going through a blip, it’s so intense’ and I thought ‘oh god, maybe it’s going to be intense’ but it wasn’t. The flat is really small but if you do stuff to annoy each other you can just go into a different room. So basically I didn’t have the two things before so I don’t know!
*we spend 20 minutes talking about the merits of a joint calendar. Robyn remains sceptical*
Alex: how often do you two post on Instagram?
Robyn: like every day or every other day
Emma: yeah me too, I don’t want to have to schedule it in
Robyn: have you ever been trolled?
Alex: so I haven’t been trolled but there was this funny thing were someone sent ‘see, I told you she was using an airbrush’ to me but it was clearly meant for somebody else about me. I was like ‘that’s right, I do’ and they were like ‘looks great’. I just thought ‘ewww you suck, at least admit what you fucking did’. I sent it to so many people
Emma: ha, who did that exact thing to Lisa Dawson?
Robyn: oh yeah someone sent a message to Lisa Dawson, who’s an interiors big cheese, saying they hated her bathroom cabinet and it looks like shit
Emma: yeah it’s the worst
Alex: I’m so paranoid when I’m sending on things to, like, my boyfriend. But there is an unsend function for fuck’s sake
Emma: I did it to someone I was working with once. It’s BAD. I accidentally replied to her email saying, ‘This is the last thing I need’, meaning to forward it on to a colleague
Alex: THIS IS THE LAST THING I NEED!
Robyn: What did she do?
Emma: She fired me. But they say there are no accidents in life, so on a level I must have wanted her to know..?
Robyn: It’s amazing that it’s you that did that and not me
Emma: ha ha
Alex: there are worse ways to go
Robyn: speaking of which, I think it’s time for us to make a move
So there you have it, the most shocking revelation since Trump and the Ukraine, Emma ‘lovely manners’ Hopkinson got fired for bad attitude. Will the world ever be the same again? Probably not. Thank you to Alex for showing us all that Brentford has to offer, gilding our gonads (can’t think of a name for penis that begins with G) and letting us backstage in her Santa’s workshop of a work space. We wanted to live there. We wanted to steal all the signs. We didn’t do either and that, dear reader, is the definition of willpower. Enjoy our brief, but we think hilarious, Q&A below and then go straight Alex’s website to order a 3m doughnut sign so we can make her cutting-a-circular-hole-in-glass and -holding-glass-with-a-suction-holder-thing dreams come true.
In the age-old tradition of Paris is Burning, here is our rhyming Q&A. If you hadn’t grasped it yet all the questions rhyme with Hughes. Get it? Got it? Good.
- Underwater-enabling balaclava or levitating shoes? SHOES
- In bed all day or a quick snooze? SNOOZE
- Cry about the state of things or avoid the news? AVOID THAT NOISE
- Graceful competitor or hate to lose? 50/50
- Rep in Magaluf or entertainer on a cruise? CRUISE
- Holiday to party or take in the views? VIEWS (WITH BOOZE)
- Shed your skin like a snake or do rabbit poos? SNAKESKIN
- 1000 piercings or 1000 tattoos? ALREADY GOT LOTS OF TATTOOS, LETS STICK WITH THAT
- If you had one who would be your muse? DOES HOMER COUNT?
- Give up for a year – sugar or booze? BOOZE IS FULL OF SUGAR, SO MAYBE BOOZE?
- A herd of trained monkeys or cockatoos? 10000% MONKEYS
- Last thing that made you do an amuse? WATCHING THE SIMPSONS THIS MORNING (episode 5/25)