Alexandra Llewellyn’s first game of backgammon took place with her step-grandfather on the back streets of Cairo, where, playing against “toothless old men who spoke no English,” she fell in love with the game as something steeped in tradition that could transcend language, culture and age. Little did she know that, some twenty years later, she would be designing and selling backgammon boards of her own, and that these would attract a client base extending across the world.
Of course, hers are no ordinary backgammon boards. Created on large-scale from wood such as laurel burr or walnut and designed to replicate the sound and feel of original Middle Eastern games, each limited edition board is hand-lacquered and painted with stylised images of nudes, peacocks, pheasant feathers and palm trees to give a high-luxe contemporary twist on the ancient pursuit. Meanwhile, bespoke commissions are also available offering clients the chance to work with Llewellyn on a board that is entirely unique to them. “One bespoke board I made documented a couple’s life together,” says Llewellyn. “Hand painted with places they have lived, shared memories and scattered lines from their love letters, each playing piece was engraved with places they had visited, and the leather was embossed with secret messages to each other.”
More like works of art than simple board games, Llewellyn’s designs recently attracted the attention of Afghanistan-based arts and crafts school, Turquoise Mountain, which invited her to collaborate on a backgammon board that would help promote and showcase the work of its student artisans to a western market. Set up in 2006, under the patronage of HRH The Prince of Wales and the President of Afghanistan, Turquoise Mountain is an educational institute whose mission is to regenerate Afghanistan’s traditional crafts and historic areas in Kabul, and in doing so create jobs, revive skills and promote equality amongst Afghan men and women.
Travelling alongside jewellery designer, Hattie Rickards, Llewellyn spent a week visiting the school, where she worked alongside Turquoise Mountain pupils to unite the disciplines of woodcarving, miniature painting and stone cutting in the creation of a magnificent ‘Tulip’ backgammon board. “I wanted to use as many of the skills taught at Turquoise Mountain as possible and loved the idea of painting onto wood – something they had never done before,” says Llewellyn, who exchanged drawings and ideas with pupils remotely by email before fine-tuning the details in person at the school. “The tulip is the national flower of Afghanistan, and I wanted to use lapis lazuli, which is also synonymous with the country.”
All materials for the board, which is available to buy made-to-order, were sourced in Afghanistan and all sale proceeds will go straight back to Turquoise Mountain. “Hattie and I felt strongly about what Turquoise Mountain was doing and spreading a positive story about Afghanistan rather than the negativity and blood shed that we normally hear about,” says Llewellyn. And the story doesn’t end there. “I will continue to talk about Turquoise Mountain and raise awareness of what they are doing, and of course sell the Tulip board,” says Llewellyn. Meanwhile, she says, “I hope to build on my experience at Turquoise Mountain by using backgammon to explore indigenous materials and techniques from other community-based craft projects around the world.”
Backgammon may well transcend language, culture and age; seen from a design context, it can also be a work of art, a showcase of traditional skills and techniques, and a positive story of hope that we can all play a part in. Now, how about a game?
The Tulip backgammon board costs £1800 and is made-to-order directly from turquoisemountainarts.org
Emily Jenkinson is interiors writer for the mydecomarketplace, an online shopping experience where you can search hundreds of home furnishings and accessories all in one place.