Monday, March 1st, 2021 by Julian Karsunky
Architecture is a reflection of how we think of ourselves and our place in the world. The work of Alfa Smyrna, our March 2021 3D Artist of the Month, is inseparably linked to her life experience. Having spent time in Sweden, where she worked on the iconic IKEA catalog, Alfa developed a great appreciation not only for the Scandinavian aesthetic, but the lifestyle as well. Her personal philosophy naturally extends to her designs, which capture the simple and timeless elegance of minimalist iconography.
In our interview, Alfa talks about creating her own models, honest materials and the beauty of imperfection.
Harmony within and without: Alfa Smyrna, ‘Cara’.
Hi Alfa, thanks for joining us! To start things off, please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hello everybody, my name is Alfa Smyrna, I’m an architect and 3D artist from Izmir, Turkey.
Despite having a degree in architecture, you decided to pursue a career as a 3D artist.
Yeah, I graduated with a degree in architecture from METU, which had been my goal ever since middle school. At the same time, I’ve been fascinated with computer graphics to the point of obsession from the day I first encountered 3ds Max. I remember I had made a wine glass using the lathe modifier, and I continued to create renders for the whole day, trying out different lighting setups and working on glass material. From that point, I spent every waking moment learning 3D, almost 15 hours a day, and went to bed with a big list of things to try out the next morning in my mind. I was sure this was going to be my path.
After all, both architecture and CGI are lifelong endeavors, and thus require a certain amount of dedication. I ultimately decided to pursue a professional career as a 3D artist – a never-ending process of learning and designing in itself – and never looked back!
How much does your traditional background in architecture help you as an archviz artist?
While my degree has certainly helped me a lot in quickly analyzing how things are detailed and composed, I don’t think it’s a requirement to become a good 3D artist. As an image designer, apart from pure technical skills, attention to detail and intuition in design are much more important. That, and of course the willingness and passion to keep learning every day.
Should we even still consider architecture and architectural visualization separate fields or is that an artificial distinction?
Architects of today may benefit from a very basic level understanding of 3D, as it’s a useful design aid to analyze form and structure. But I don’t think architects need to learn 3D software beyond that, that time is better invested in studying architectural design and such. These are two different fields of specialization in terms of presentation and image design.
Alfa has a great appreciation for the tactility of what she calls “honest” materials.
Could you briefly summarize your career up to this point?
My work as a 3D artist has taken me all over the world and I have worked on a variety of projects, from off-project visualizations for real estate owners and catalog images for furniture companies, to environment creation for car commercials. Personally, I enjoy working on more involved, long-term projects most of all: I like the wide variety of challenges they pose, exploring new and creative solutions and discovering new techniques, all of which help me to improve.
What were some of your personal highlights or projects that you particularly enjoyed in the past?
Working for ICOM, the in-house communications department of IKEA, in Älmhult Sweden is among the most remarkable and treasured work experiences I’ve had so far. It was a great opportunity to work side by side with many renowned artists, interior designers, graphic designers, photographers, and copywriters, all of whom are at the top of their respective fields. Recruiting and fostering international top talent, ICOM is like an academy, offering chances to not only improve in your own area of expertise, but to explore other disciplines as well; I very much enjoyed working in this environment! There is so much I learned being involved in big productions like the iconic IKEA catalog.
Please tell us about your current job situation! Are you exclusively working freelance at the moment?
Yes, I’m currently working as a freelancer within a global network of clients and am available for both individual projects as well as in-house contract work. I specialize in interior styling and visualization, exterior renders, environment design, product visualization and rendering for TV and movies. Whether big or small, I believe that each and every project comes with valuable experience and an opportunity to improve!
How are you holding up in these trying times? Has the current crisis impeded your work?
The pandemic and the lockdowns greatly impact all of our lives, and business is no exception. With all of this looming uncertainty, many clients prefer to stay on hold rather than taking a step forward, so a lot of jobs are being suspended. Many of us, including me, work from home with our kids around. I’m a mother to a seven-year-old son, and since schools are still closed, he wants to draw teapots all the time instead!
On the other hand, I believe working under these restrictions forces us to be more creative. Moreover, we are suddenly surrounded by lots of new educational opportunities – I already gave an online lecture on visual design and composition at a Turkish university.
Sooner or later, we will return to our normal lives or adapt to the situation. Either way, I am trying to remain optimistic and do my best with what I have at the moment.
In case you couldn’t tell by her designs already, Alfa is a huge proponent of the Scandinavian style – and way of living.
Is there a specific design philosophy or school of thought you adhere to?
Simplicity, and honest, natural materials. To me, simplicity "is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away", to borrow from a famous quotation by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
I am a fan of minimalism, not only in terms of visual design, but as a lifestyle choice. Not strict minimalism, ascetic sense, but what I call soft, warm minimalism. Take, for example, my own living room: while it might not be quite up to the standard of pure, minimalist iconography, I still make an effort to only have what is “necessary” and exclude everything I don't need. By eliminating what doesn’t matter to me, I make more room for what does. I then try to create a harmonic and enjoyable surrounding out of the remaining elements.
Being a 3D artist has also trained my eyes and mind to enjoy the beauty of imperfection. Imperfections are an integral part of our lives, which is why flawless CG scenes strike us as artificial and inauthentic. As time passes, natural materials only get more beautiful, and we begin to perceive them as part of our own experience and story. That is what I mean by honest materials.
What inspires you as a 3D artist?
Unsurprisingly, the Scandinavian and the Japanese aesthetic are huge stylistic inspirations to me. When designing, I’m constantly searching for the right balance, trying to find the sweet spot of a look that is natural, yet neither overstated nor accidental.
Having lived in Sweden for a while, you have a deeper connection to not only the Scandinavian style, but the region itself. Can you tell us a bit more about your time in Sweden and what you learned?
As I alluded to earlier, the Scandinavian style is a pure reflection of a certain lifestyle, which I was fortunate to experience first-hand when I lived in Sweden. In my personal experience, Scandinavians have a great appreciation for simplicity and nature. Recycling and sustainability are a big part of everyday life. There is no extravagance or pretentiousness, but an honest and sincere way of respecting Mother Nature’s resources and trying to live in harmony. This way of living had a lasting impression on me, it shaped my character and continues to influence my design to this day.
A self-made woman in every sense, Alfa created almost all of the models for the project from scratch.
Let’s talk about one of your most recent works in more detail, namely ‘Cara’, an elegant Scandinavian design cabin in the woods. Please tell us all about the project and the story behind it!
‘Cara’ is a weekend escape in Macedonia. My client is a wooden furniture-maker and this is his dream retreat he is planning to build on his property. The cabin has one bedroom and a shared living room and dining area with a passage, which I call a bridge, connecting these two spaces. There is also a semi-outdoor bathroom and a small carpentry workshop behind the cabin, which I haven’t rendered yet. As this project is not on a tight deadline, I was going back and forth between other jobs. I think I worked on it for about a month in total, so far.
Once the cabin is built, my client wants to use it to showcase his furniture in photo shoots. Until then, the 3D model serves as a showcase for both of our work: his furniture designs and my 3D models!
Speaking of models, you created almost all of the assets for this scene from scratch.
Yes, I prefer to create my own models. Of course, if I already have a fitting item in my personal library from a previous job, I won't hesitate to use it. But whenever time allows it, I like to build the models myself. Unfortunately, this is not an option when working under a tight deadline – the best option then is to buy assets online.
There was a time when my modeling skills were rather poor. To remedy this, I decided to do a modeling exercise and the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it! Having complete control over all the details is great. Furthermore, building and unwrapping my own models has made my texturing easier as well. Now, whenever I find the time, I like modeling new furnishing and props that inspire me. I put some of my models on TurboSquid. It’s only a limited selection for now, but I plan to put up more of my library shortly.
What software did you use to create this piece? Any plug-ins you found particularly helpful?
I mostly used 3ds Max, ZBrush and V-Ray. V-Ray is my all-time favorite software, and while I’d only consider myself an intermediate-level user, I greatly enjoy working in ZBrush as well. I used Marvelous Designer for textile layers, and GrowFX to model the vegetation. I love both of these tools a lot and they have great potential. GrowFX in particular has great support too. For scattering, I used both Forest Pack and MultiScatter. Last but not least, Prism, a render pass manager by Sergey Nezhentsev, and the Outliner plugin were a big help in managing my layers and render passes.
To Alfa, the beauty of simplicity lies not in the renouncement of the superfluous, but in the concentration of the essential.
Are you satisfied with the results? What has the feedback been like?
‘Cara’ has garnered a lot of positive feedback from colleagues, which makes me very happy. It is a great honor for me to be featured as your 3D Artist of the Month!
The pleasure is all ours! Have you used RebusFarm before? What do you think of our services?
I think RebusFarm is a great service for both studios and individual artists and a sure way to win the race against any deadline!
In closing, is there anything else you want to say? Any plugs, shoutouts or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
The world of 3D is a big ocean and every time you dive deeper, you are sure to find treasures. This is what I like the most about my profession!
Alfa, thank you so much for taking the time and all the best in the future!
Keep up with Alfa Smyrna her work here:
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