It used to be that if you left your big-city corporate job, moved your family to a small town in New Hampshire, did some soul-searching behind the wheel of a camper van, and opted to spend your days doing what you really loved from the basement of your house, you were most likely a 55-year-old man having a mid-life crisis. Twenty-seven-year-old RISD grad Tim Liles — who followed that exact trajectory after quitting a footwear-design job at Converse last fall — understands this perfectly well: “My girlfriend is a couple years younger and her friends don’t get it, they all live in Chicago and think we’re just confused,” he says, speaking to me from week five of the couple’s two-month cross-country vision quest. “But in traveling around the country, I’ve met a lot of people my age who have quit a salaried job in search of something simpler.”
For Liles, the move was also a practical matter. Working at Converse taught him the ins and outs of industrial production, but as a former art student who still paints self-portraits in his spare time, it’s the sculptural, handmade side of the business that holds greater appeal. Leaving Boston for the coastal town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire — population 20,784 — meant that not only would he be able to afford a house big enough to build his own woodworking shop inside, but he’d also be surrounded by the kind of expert craftsmanship that his teachers at RISD practiced and he consequently grew to love. “When we moved up north and got some breathing space, we started to notice how beautiful the braided rugs and Windsor chairs are, the L.L. Bean thing that goes on up there,” he says. The pair began attending chili festivals and apple festivals along with everyone else, watching barrel makers and basket weavers give demonstrations. After meeting and arranging collaborations with a few such practitioners — The Country Braid House, Fred Chellis of Little River Windsors, Bill and Sherry Gould of Western Abinaki Baskets — Liles designed his debut furniture collection, New New England, which launched during ICFF in May as part of the Cite Goes America show.
Consisting of a skull-shaped rug, modified Windsor chair, and basket-woven lamp, it was his first attempt at merging his interests in modern design, craft, and storytelling. “Sure, you can be put off by New England style,” Liles explains. “But the fact that I’ve given everything a story, in terms of where the pieces are coming from and who’s making them — that’s the part I hope people connect with. Everything I own that I love has a story behind it.” When he gets home from the road trip, he’ll begin another long journey: mastering his own craft, woodworking. He’s not sure where it will take him. In the meantime, he paused for a moment while rolling through the Southwest to tell us a little more about where he’s coming from.
Design movement you most identify with: “I suppose I’m a part of the resurgence of interest in craft. In general people are looking for simpler things, so that’s going to carry over into design. In many respects, craft is more basic than industrial production and can help people innovate in ways more emotional than practical. I’ll always be attracted to this.”
Place you go to be inspired: “The beach. I’m not sure the beach itself inspires me, but being able to relax and let the truth speak to me from a peaceful place usually gets me somewhere new creatively.”
If you weren’t designing, what would you be doing? “Some sort of menial labor in a woodshop. Had I not gone to art school, though, I’d be a dentist right now.”
Craziest thing you’ve read in the Portsmouth police log: “Most of the entries on the log are disappointing. They’ll start out menacing but end very mildly: ‘Responded to Wedgewood Drive where a female was “flipping out” during a verbal argument about Facebook postings.’ The craziest one so far was the entry that caused me to start curating the stories on my blog: ‘Report taken from a caller who stated his wife was poisoning him with magic and he would like a report.’ Awesome.”
As a kid, Tim Liles was: “Obsessive.”
Right now, Tim Liles is: “Loving the desert.”