Craftsman's Journey

Charles de Lisle's wild ride as an award-winning designer is fueled by a deep love for making.

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“I had this epiphany that this seemed like something I wanted to do—it used all these different skill sets that I had developed.” The interiors, according to de Lisle, “weren’t just rooms filled with furniture, they were an experience.” Except it isn’t necessarily easy to jump from being a welder and ceramist—even if you’re one as skilled as de Lisle was—to being an employable interior designer. A woman he met, who worked at Knoll in San Francisco, was excited about de Lisle’s new ambition, and introduced him to multiple Bay Area designers. They loved the work he was able to show them, but when they asked if he had any experience he had to admit: No, he just made stuff. “It was a dead-end, a catch-22. You can’t get a portfolio unless you have a client, and you can’t get a client unless you have a portfolio.” He thought about going back to school to develop a portfolio, but decided instead to double down. “I spent a year developing a lamp,” he says. “I waited tables and quit my job so I could work at night.” His days were devoted entirely to product development. He found a company in Hayward, in the East Bay, that made exhaust manifolds for trucks and had bending machines he could use; he made a production model, found a lampshade manufacturer, figured out how to scale it, how to make it right, created a box and a label and put it all together. And then he did what every ambitious late-nineties designer did. He took it to New York City.

Maximo Bistrot (2011), Mexico City, MX

Maximo Bistrot, which is rated number one in the Mexico City Zagat guide, was de Lisle’s first stand-alone project.

Photo: courtesy Peter Norman

It was 1997 and one of the stores he went into was Troy, and Troy Halterman himself was at the front desk. He told de Lisle that he loved the lamp and would take 20. “I started making them in my kitchen, and then it got to the point where I was selling them in New York and L.A. and San Francisco.” A year later at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair he met Zahid Sardar, the former design editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Sardar introduced de Lisle to a friend, Jonathan Staub. Staub bought 40 of de Lisle’s lamps for a hotel project, and asked him if he wanted to come work for him and his cousin Marion Philpotts. They had just started an interior design firm that eventually became De Lisle, Philpotts & Staub. “A week later I was wiring lamps in my kitchen, and I was like, maybe this is what I was looking for,” he says. The Internet had exploded and newly wealthy engineers needed designers. Within three months the firm had so many clients that Philpotts started giving de Lisle entire projects to manage.

Rincon Residence (2013), Carpinteria, CA

The living room of this beach house (located near Santa Barbara, California) blends warm, but slightly more formal, tones with casual, understated touches.

Photo: Leslie Williamson/courtesy Charles de Lisle

The three of them worked together until four years ago, when de Lisle started his own company, and quickly realized that 2009 was the worst possible time to do so. “I didn’t have a lot of work going on, so I decided to take a break and booked a flight to Mexico.” It was there, in an eight-room hotel, that he ate a piece of fish at lunch and says it was “the best-prepared piece of fish I’ve ever had in my life.” Coming from the Bay Area, where people eat great food all the time, this was a surprise. It turned out that the chef and his girlfriend wanted to open a restaurant, and six months after his vacation they got in touch and said they’d found a space. They couldn’t pay him, but could he help them in exchange for showing him around Mexico City? “They had no real budget, so we had to figure out how to make things.” The furniture was produced by a guy who cut up a tree from his field with a chainsaw. The ceramics came from a second-generation ceramics shop in Mexico City, and the linens came from a couple in Oaxaca. Everything was made by hand, and six months after the opening, it was named the number-one restaurant in Mexico City by Zagat. Now de Lisle is working with them on a six-room restaurant across the street (this time he’ll be paid).

The dining room has a crafted, made-by-hand sensibility; the many custom-designed pieces include the Scout chairs and the staircase railing. The scrapwood Canteen table was designed by Piet Hein Eek.

Photo: Leslie Williamson/courtesy Charles de Lisle

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