What makes this success all the more remarkable is that it’s Turnbull’s second act. Almost two decades earlier, in 2003, he cofounded the menswear label Nom de Guerre. The brand’s Bleecker Street shop closed in 2010, but it remains influential among certain fashion cults. Turnbull might now be thriving in a totally different kind of career, but his sensibilities – minimalism, utilitarianism, an obsession with quality – remain the same. And as he makes some of the most rarefied audio equipment in the world, it’s his eye as much as his ear that sets him apart, a duality that perhaps made him especially appealing to a polymath like Abloh.
That versatility was immediately apparent to Turnbull’s Nom de Guerre cofounder, Isa Saalabi, who recalls visiting Turnbull one day in 2007 when Turnbull told him in lucid detail about the home-audio system he had just built, his first of its kind. “It was a very clear conversation,” recalls Saalabi, who photographed Turnbull for this story. “He talked about a vision for a sound system with this brutalist design, and he specifically said, ‘I see it as a sculpture in a Chelsea gallery.’ The vision was there from the beginning. And that’s what makes the whole thing so special and beautiful. This wasn’t something that happened overnight.”
What Devon Turnbull He does with sound is so specific, so rare and far-out, that even within the world of high-end home audio he’s an outlier in his devotion to utter sonic purity. “It’s countercultural,” he says of his role in the audiophile community. “I partake in a global underground culture within audio that prescribes a certain formula for sound production equipment.”
When it comes to analogue music, sound, of course, begins when a needle passes over the grooves of a record. A small electrical signal is generated that must be amplified to create a vibration strong enough to move air through the tubes of a speaker to make a sound. “I want to do as little as possible so as to not disturb the purity of that signal,” he says. Turnbull’s unique designs thus contain a surprising paradox. “You could call it a minimalist approach to audio reproduction,” he says. “But if you look at the stuff, it doesn’t look minimalist at all. It’s extremely heavy, extremely large.” Here’s an important fact when it comes to hi-fi audio: Larger speakers do not have to use more power. Ojas systems, counterintuitively, use massive horns, boxes the size of refrigerators, and subwoofers as big as dumpsters, because Turnbull is using super-low-wattage amplifiers to power them. Larger speakers allow for less distortion and high dynamics.
The result is a sound system with a visual impact that is nearly as great as its aural impact. Turnbull – who most days wears baggy cargo trousers and graphic T-shirts with a baseball cap, and has the cool, streetwise vibe of an ageing skater – says that he is “100 per cent acoustically motivated.” It just so happens that he has a highly aesthetic sensibility to go with his audio-engineering expertise.
Born in New York, Turnbull relocated to Iowa with his family when he was 11. After dropping out of high school, he dropped out of high school, then moved to Washington State at 17 to study “the science and business of sound,” as he calls it, at the Art Institute of Seattle. There, he learned to read a schematic of audio electronics – the drawing that explains how a piece of equipment is made – and took a class in graphic design, which he found came naturally to him. In 1999, Turnbull moved back to New York and started making stickers and T-shirts and hats printed with Ojas – a Sanskrit term that loosely translates to “life vitality” and that he used as his tag as a graffiti writer. He peddled his wares downtown and got some traction in the nascent scene that was budding at proto-streetwear shops like Alife and Union. A couple of years later, in 2003, he cofounded Nom de Guerre with Saalabi, who had worked for Marc Jacobs; Wil Whitney, previously the manager of the New York Stüssy store; and Holly Harnsongkram, a former fashion editor at W Magazine. Mixing their various backgrounds in art, graphic design, streetwear, and high fashion, they tore down the walls that stood between their various worlds and created a subterranean shop in downtown Manhattan where all kinds of ideas about high design intermingled.
With Nom de Guerre, Turnbull made frequent trips to Japan, where the brand did much of its sourcing and production. There he began to discover the roots of the audiophile culture that he would eventually dedicate his life to. But it was at a store in Paris – home to a flourishing hi-fi audio scene of its own – where he first heard a sound system that he has described as “psychedelic,” as compared to the stereo he had been listening to. “And then,” he says, “I was sure that that was my path.”