There are few people who will invite you into their home and cook you breakfast and dinner after meeting you for five minutes. Lili Tanner is one of those people. Not only is she incredibly hospitable, she’s a talented designer. Having led many past lives as an art and culture critic, ad exec and writer, she now hand makes gorgeous bags and jewelry out of her home studio in the Mojave Desert under the brand name, Lili T. Her accessories are perfect, because they hit that just-right note of stylish, classic and functional all at once. Each piece is handcrafted with care using quality materials, like leather and bronze, which means they’ll last a lifetime.
I had the honor of staying the night in her beautiful guest house and sharing a glass (or three) of wine while swapping stories about life, ad life, art, and family. Drop in on our convo below.
You’ve led many lives. Can you tell me about your background prior to becoming a designer?
I started out as an art and culture critic. Then I went into advertising as a copywriter and later creative director, where I was responsible for the launch campaign for the Smart Car all over Europe. I was living in Switzerland at the time. When I moved to Venice, CA, I stayed in advertising for a while. I had my own little agency on Abbot Kinney. It was also a non-profit gallery, called the Hot Coco Lab. I juxtapositioned young Californian artists and European artists in every show. The space was funded by the Arts Council of the Swiss government (speaking of public funding for the arts, which I’m obviously totally pro). After I bought my house in the desert in 2001, I gave up advertising for the most part and wrote columns and two novels — one of which was published in German, and I self-published it in English. It’s called The Lazy Poet and is an autobiographical story about my late husband’s and my love story after we met in Joshua Tree.
I’ve always been working with my hands. I learned knitting and sewing and all that good stuff in school, and I’ve always liked making my own clothes. So I had this idea for a leather bag, and I made if for myself. A woman in a pissy parking lot elevator in Santa Monica wanted to buy it off me right there and then in this not very retail business-evoking environment. That’s when I knew I was onto something. I also learned some simple jewelry making techniques, like wire-wrapping and such. It all took off from there. I’ve always been a person who had to experiment with things on my own after learning the basics.
Can you describe your typical creative process? Any rituals you abide by?
No rituals, really. Sometimes I have an idea for a bag when I wake up. Then I try to make it work in my head (while) still laying in bed…okay, if I make this fold like that and attach it like this — and so on. I have to go into my studio and make a prototype right away. Then, of course, comes the making it better part. There’s a lot of that. I oftentimes like my crappy first attempts at something, and I carry them around.
Like with this new wallet I’m making…the first one I didn’t sew nicely, but I still used it. It became a bit embarrassing when I pulled that thing out of my purse and people were interested, and I had to explain that it comes in “nice,” too…. It just doesn’t make for a strong selling position. I now have a perfect wallet with me – reluctantly. But when you ask about the creative process, ideas come by working. Working on one thing oftentimes gives me the idea for the next thing. Also, there’s been some cross-pollination between jewelry and leather work.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I love when I see people fall in love with a design. When it’s love at first sight. It happens in the studio when people come in and there’s something interesting laying around. Or when I post a new design and they want it right away. I make everything first for myself. If I don’t use it, I don’t make it. So it’s very nice to see that people appreciate what I think is useful and beautiful. The other rewarding thing is getting better and better at making stuff – be it jewelry or bags.
Tell me about your most recent designs. What inspired them?
There is this new shopper I’m making. My friend, Claudia, had been using my very first simple shopper and was happy with it for years. Then she called me one day and said that after multiple almost-heart-attacks because she thought she lost her keys or wallet, she needs a solution for those items. So I came up with a big inner pocket that goes to the bottom for a wallet and keys. I hate when weighty objects deform a bag and make it slump in a weird way. My bags are made from soft leather, for the most part, so the slumping is an issue. And I made a big outer pocket with a colorful zipper for the phone or a subway ticket and such.
The other new thing is the wallet. Here, the idea was not to have this heavy clunker with a single compartment for each card. We don’t need that. I have two compartments — one on each side and with different color zippers so you know what goes where. Be it money/receipts, money/cards, two different currencies, passport, and boarding pass… it’s all nicely organized but not over-organized. Plus, the pockets come from two sides so not everything lumps together in one big bulge. Contents are spread more evenly and elegantly…all the while being a very simple wallet.
What’s next for you?
I want to find a few more stores that are just perfect for my line. But I don’t want to grow so big that I can no longer make the goods myself. I enjoy that part more than administration, that’s for sure.
I read that you’ve lived in your current home for over a decade. What’s the story behind the beautiful house, and what inspired the interior design?
Yes, I bought this house in 2001 before all the high-desert craziness was happening. It’s from 1954, and I’m only the third owner. It was love at first sight and a gut feeling that this is my place. This was the first and only house I looked at.
I don’t have a concept of interior design. I find stuff over time and make it work. Not once did I go and look for something specific. It somehow comes to me and I know it’s right. That’s not a very satisfying answer, but it’s true.
I’m guessing the gorgeous desert landscape keeps you inspired, but if you’re ever struggling for fresh ideas, what do you do?
Nothing. Sit with it and trust that something new will come when the time is right. It always does. In every process of change, the time between knowing that something new will come, but you don’t know what yet and it’s too early to spring into action, is the hardest part.
If you only had one day in the Mojave desert, how would you spend it?
Stare into the distance in all directions and let the emptiness wash over me until it’s time for something different.
I’ve always been a person who had to experiment with things on my own after learning the basics.
Right now I’m obsessed with:
My most prized possession is:
The freedom to live my life exactly how I want to, not dictated by outer circumstance.
My favorite place in the world is:
Where I’m at peace with my loved ones and myself.
The best advice I ever received was:
“You just gotta be good at what you do.” – My guitar teacher, Troy, after my fingers don’t want to cooperate…
I’m happiest when:
I’m on the cusp of beginning to understand that I might be able to do something new I never thought I would.