Designer Customizes Boards for Backgammon and Other Games

On a recent fall afternoon in her sunny studio in London’s Belgravia neighborhood, the luxury board game artist and designer Alexandra Llewellyn lifted the polished eucalyptus wood tray that serves as a lid to one of her latest backgammon sets. Printed on the calf leather playing board inside was a tongue-in-cheek winter scene: a polar bear chasing a skier across the snow.

The set was released last month, along with its summer twin: a shark pursuing a swimmer through an azure sea.

“I love injecting humor when we can,” said Ms. Llewellyn, 41. “Games are about fun.”

As a child, she often played backgammon with her two sisters. And she vividly recalls a trip, at 9 years old, to see her step-grandfather in Cairo, and playing a game on the street with an elderly man wearing a traditional djellaba. “We didn’t share the same language, we didn’t share anything culturally, anything to do with our age, nothing,” she said. “But I just remember so well, we sat and we played backgammon, and we laughed.

“That was the beginning of this, really, for me.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the University of Leeds, Ms. Llewellyn worked at a craft school for adults with learning disabilities in Madrid — where she commissioned some students to make backgammon boards that she painted and sold — and then at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts in London.

When she established her namesake company in 2010, she started, of course, with backgammon boards.

“I saw it as this wonderful vehicle to start working with all these different materials and makers,” she said, noting that she now works with a roster of about 20 British master artisans including cabinet makers, silversmiths, engravers, stone cutters and leather workers. “And I also loved the idea of games just bringing people together.”

Chris Bray, the Times of London backgammon correspondent and author of nine backgammon books, said he had coached Ms. Llewellyn and her five staff members on backgammon regularly over the past four years to ensure they “understand what they’re actually making.”

“Everything has to be perfect, and her boards are,” he said.

It may seem odd that someone who has been playing the game for years would still need a coach, but, Ms. Llewellyn said, “It’s a very easy game to learn, but a very hard game to conquer.”

Over the years, she has incorporated other game sets, such as poker and chess, into her collections, as well as playing cards and card boxes. They are available on her website; other sites, including Mr Porter; and at Harrods, with prices ranging from $70 for a pack of gilt-edged cards to an inlaid games tables starting at $39,000. Next year, she said, she plans to introduce mahjong.

Ms. Llewellyn declined to disclose the business’s annual sales, but she said its 20 to 30 bespoke commissions a year could represent as much as 60 percent of its output.

Of these, “60 percent of the time it’s a gift,” she said, citing the games table recently made for a client’s partner that had lines from one of their love letters inlaid in a series of secret drawers. (She will not name customers either, but she counts Richard Branson and royalty among her clientele.)

For Ms. Llewellyn, each bespoke board is like a window into another world. “It could be that the client loves orchids, or it could be the story of the cows,” she said, gesturing toward a section of a backgammon board on display in her studio that featured two marquetry cows. An Egyptian client commissioned it as a gift for his mother who owned a dairy farm and, with his permission, she had it copied.

All her projects are designed and the artwork done in what she and her staff calls “the dungeon,” a small, cluttered room of about 65 square feet that contains a desk, a cabinet that holds paints and is piled high with bits of wood veneer, and a windowsill lined with pots of sharpened graphite and colored pencils.

The studio itself is used as a showroom and a space to meet clients, and sometimes doubles as a games room for clients and staff.

Ms. Llewellyn said the design process on custom jobs took three to four weeks and was done with the materials and makers in mind. She favors natural, sustainable materials, occasionally with an unusual twist: Backgammon doubling cubes containing gold crystal (around $1,250) or Martian meteorite (around $530), and a skull poker set (around $18,810) with 4,000-year-old bog oak.

Though techniques differ according to the project, many of Ms. Llewellyn’s designs involve marquetry, a centuries-old method of making intricate patterns with wood or other materials. The image “is painted with wood, using the grain,” she said, pointing to the lid of a custom hippopotamus backgammon board that used woods to create the ripples and reflections of a pool of water.

For such work, Ms. Llewellyn turns to Joe Geoghegan, director of Heritage Inlay Design in Brighton. Using a laser or working by hand, Mr. Geoghegan cuts shapes into slender strips of natural or pressure-dyed wood that may be dipped in hot sand (the heat creates a shading effect) or brushed with solvent to create a gradation of color. Mr. Geoghegan then assembles the wood to create a picture that he presses, using weight and heat, onto a hardwood panel.

To create a game board, the marquetry panels are set into a box created by a cabinet maker, often Phil Rose. And a specialist, usually Stuart Lee, then applies lacquer to seal the wood. They, like Mr. Geoghegan, are in the Brighton area. (“We call them the trio because they work on projects together,” Ms. Llewellyn wrote in a later email.)

Late last year, Ms. Llewellyn used palm trees, flamingos and other regional motifs for a backgammon board and five cigar humidors to be sold at the Surf Club shop in Miami. (Though the company’s focus is games, clients often request items such as humidors, mirrors or furniture, she said.)

Gabriela Navarro, head of creative at Fort Partners, the Surf Club’s owner, said the results were works of art.

“She’s able to tell a story, whether it’s a personal story or a story of the place, which is our case, and it’s conveyed beautifully and with a lot of imagination,” Ms. Navarro said. “Few people are doing that level of craftsmanship.”

And the fact that she is doing it with board games, Ms. Navarro added, “is just magic.”