Born-Again Craftsman

For his new collection, the designer Timothy Liles returns to his handmade roots.

When an American has an epiphany, what does he do next? He hits the road and proselytizes, of course. And that’s exactly what Timothy Liles did for 12 weeks this summer. After unveiling his furniture series—New New England—at a satellite exhibition during ICFF, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire–based designer went on a nationwide tour to spread the gospel of that handmade collection.

Liles’s tale has a kind of born-again quality. As a student in RISD’s furniture department, “I fell in love with the metalwork and woodwork,” he says. After graduation, however, Liles went to work at Converse for five years and limited his design work to the Illustrator, Rhino, and rapid-prototyping exercises the sneaker company used to pump out more Chuck Taylors than he could count. “At first, coming out of so much shop work at school, it was refreshing,” Liles says. “And then, like a frog in boiling water, you don’t notice how you’ve become so adept at the software and rusty with the table saw.”

Living in Portsmouth, Liles and his wife began visiting regional craft festivals, where he met the artisans who had never stopped working with their hands. “As we went to see the barrel and basket and chair makers’ demonstrations, I found a small group of people who weren’t so scared of me or of new markets,” he says. Liles quit Converse last October, and two months later started work on New New England.

For the collection, the designer teamed up with three festival vendors: County Braid House collaborated on the Dia de Los Muertos–style Braid Dead rug; Fred Chellis adapted a traditional maple Windsor chair into the three-legged Crested Comb-back chair; and Bill and Sherry Gould mounted woven baskets upside down on ash legs to make the Sweetser lamps. “They made suggestions, they told me what the materials could and couldn’t do,” Liles says of his partners. “Although the pieces aren’t exactly what I envisioned, I like them even more because of their input.”

Liles says the project is not merely a joyride down memory lane. It has also infused his work with meaning. “The more things get laser cut and CNC milled, the less people believe those things have value,” he says, adding that his tour was more devoted to spreading that message than to selling New New England.

Next month Liles gets another chance to testify. During the final week of its Dead or Alive exhibition, the Museum of Arts & Design, in New York, will install Liles on the sixth floor as part of its highly selective Open Studios program. He plans to discuss his reconversion with museumgoers while he makes a dip-dyed variation of Braid Dead, extolling the benefits of both digital and hand-crafted design. They are separate but equal, he insists. “A computer can design a shape, but it can’t have invented it. It can’t recognize the emotional connections of a material, and it can’t recognize that every piece of paper or wood behaves differently.”

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