What makes this success all the more remarkable is that it is Turnbull’s second act. Almost two decades earlier, in 2003, he co-founded menswear brand Nom de Guerre. The brand’s Bleecker Street boutique closed in 2010, but it remains influential with some fashion cults. Turnbull might now thrive in an entirely different kind of career, but his sensibilities – minimalism, utilitarianism, obsession with quality – remain the same. And because he makes some of the rarest audio gear in the world, it’s as much his eye as his ear that sets him apart, a duality that perhaps makes him especially appealing to a polymath like Abloh.
This versatility was immediately apparent to Turnbull’s Nom de Guerre co-founder, Isa Saalabi, who recalls visiting Turnbull one day in 2007 when Turnbull told him in detail about the home audio system he had just built, his first of the gender. “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 gallery in Chelsea.’ The vision was there from the beginning. And that’s what makes it so special and beautiful. It’s not something that happened overnight.
What Devon Turnbull made with sound is so specific, so rare and distant, that even in the world of high-end home audio, it is an exception in its dedication to total sonic purity. “It’s counter-cultural,” he says of his role in the audiophile community. “I participate in a global underground culture within audio that prescribes a certain formula for sound production equipment.”
When it comes to analog music, sound, of course, begins when a needle passes over the grooves of a record. A small electrical signal is generated which must be amplified to create a vibration strong enough to move air through the tubes of a speaker to produce sound. “I want to do as little as possible so as not to disturb the purity of this signal,” he says. Turnbull’s unique designs therefore contain a startling paradox. “You could call it a minimalist approach to audio reproduction,” he says. “But if you look at it, it doesn’t look minimalistic at all. It’s extremely heavy, extremely tall. Here’s an important fact in hi-fi audio: larger speakers don’t have to use more power.Ojas systems, counterintuitively, use massive horns, boxes the size of refrigerators, and subwoofers as big as dumpsters, because Turnbull uses amplifiers at very low wattage to power them in. Larger speakers allow for less distortion and high dynamics.
The result is a sound system whose visual impact is almost as important as its auditory impact. Turnbull – who mostly wears baggy cargo pants and graphic tees with a baseball cap, and has the cool, streetwise vibe of an aging skater – says he’s “100% driven by acoustics”. He happens to have a highly developed aesthetic sensibility that goes hand in hand with his expertise as a sound engineer.
Born in New York, Turnbull moved to Iowa with his family when he was 11 years old. After dropping out of high school, he dropped out of high school, then moved to Washington State at age 17 to study “the science and business of sound,” as he calls it, at the Art Institute of Seattle. There he learned to read an audio electronics schematic – the drawing that explains how equipment is made – and took a course in graphic design, which came naturally to him. In 1999, Turnbull returned to New York and began making stickers, t-shirts and hats printed with Ojas – a Sanskrit term that loosely translates to “vitality of life” and which he used as a tag. as a graffiti artist. He hawked his wares downtown and got some traction in the fledgling scene that was burgeoning at proto-streetwear stores like Alife and Union. A few years later, in 2003, he co-founded Nom de Guerre with Saalabi, who had worked for Marc Jacobs; Wil Whitney, former manager of the New York Stüssy store; and Holly Harnsongkram, former fashion editor at W Magazine. Mixing their different backgrounds in art, graphic design, streetwear and high fashion, they broke down the walls that stood between their different worlds and created an underground boutique in downtown Manhattan where all kinds of ideas on the top design mingled.
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 to which he would eventually devote his life. But it was in a store in Paris – home to its own thriving hi-fi audio scene – that he first heard a sound system he described as “psychedelic”, compared to the stereo. that he was listening to. “And then,” he said, “I was sure it was my way.”