From Digital Design, to Handmade Hairpins, to Modeling, Margaret Alba Can Do It All

We talked to the multi-hyphenate designer about her wide-ranging projects.

Edited by Lola Oyibo March 18, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Margaret Alba and some of her many projects, from hairpins to modeling to custom Instagram filters.

Image: Celeste Noche

In 2020, while many struggled to find inspiration in a pandemic, Margaret Alba unleashed her creative projects into the world. Her online presence is a cornucopia of art forms with projects ranging from custom Instagram filters named after women in her family to sculpting her own fruit-inspired accessories to 3-D-animating 100 detailed hairpins, while also modeling for brands like Gazzy by Gazzo and Microsoft. But she’s not just creating for creation’s sake. All of her projects have something in common: they are solutions to a problem.

Whether it’s a filter to give musicians a way to promote themselves or hairpins to tame an overgrown pixie cut, every new project or medium has a purpose. In college, professors told her to pick a lane and stick with it, so she chose graphic design, soon landing a job at J. Crew in NYC. But as a young designer, she wasn’t given the artistic responsibility she craved, and she struggled to fit in, eventually moving to Portland in 2015. Here, she vowed to explore her creativity in all its forms. “I’ve always been creating, but this is the first year I’ve shared it with the world,” she says. “Having people like the things I make just for me is very special. I think that’s the highest compliment.” —Lola Oyibo

This scrunchie with a draped string of beads is one of Margaret Alba’s more tangible projects.

My parents immigrated here from the Philippines, and I was [in Houston, Texas] for my whole life until I graduated college. [When I took the job at J. Crew] I expected a Devil Wears Prada kind of vibe, so I only packed high heels in my suitcase, because that’s what I imagined it to be. In reality, nobody wears high heels in New York, at least not walking and commuting. I felt like a bubble burst.

I’d never been to Portland. I reached out to a jewelry designer who I was freelancing for. I asked her, “Can I work with you in studio versus remotely?” And she said yes, so I packed two suitcases. I’d never met this person, I just flew over here. And I fell in love with it.

I love creating. It tickles this side of my brain where it’s like problem solving, almost like a puzzle. What’s the problem, and how can I solve it with design solutions? It’s addictive, figuring out how can I fit this all in the dimensions that are given to me? How can I put this in a format that makes it digestible for users? But also getting into that zone where you don’t haveto think; just hang out, forget to eat and forget you’re physical. That’s also addictive.

I had a pixie cut, and when it was overgrown it could not be held up by a hair tie. And then one designer gave me a hairpin and I realized that it could actually work with my hair, and I loved how it was metal, solid, and sculptural. And that started off my love of hairpins.

I love learning new programs. [Filter making] is completely different from Photoshop or 3-D programs. At first I was like, “This is overwhelming. I don’t know what I’m doing.” But I couldn’t stop. It came to a point where I could actually imagine something in my mind, and make it happen. When I started, I just did them for my account. And then a few other small businesses and creatives, especially musicians would reach out and be like, “Hey, I heard you do filters. Can you do like a themed filter for the song release that I’m doing?”

[Modeling] fulfills a creative side of me because it’s [still] problem solving. In commercials it’s not what angle would my face be in, though that’s important, it’s what’s the product? What’s my hand shape to really draw you to the product? Like, for earrings ... sometimes just having an ear doesn’t really do much. And so having a hand in there, what does a hand look like?

I’ve been asked to do a lot of shoots this year. But I wonder, is it because I’m BIPOC? And is it wrong of me to take up that space? That’s been a fear of mine, especially this year. I haven’t told many people about that incident [where someone online commented that my being cast in a commercial was “affirmative action”] because it does trigger feelings of shame and insecurity. Because a part of me believed it. Part of me thought, “They only want me because I look this way, not because of my talent or skill.”

I’m on this pendulum swing. When I first graduated, I was told you have to pick a niche, you have to pick only one. So I went that way and only did graphic design. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I actually really, really enjoy doing different things. I want to be able to share that without feeling like I have to constrict myself for the comfort of other people. I would love to show that this is actually a strength, not a weakness. And so I feel like I’m on the opposite side of the pendulum swing where I’m going to show everything. I’m going to try to do everything.


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