The son of a colonial reproductions manufacturer and the grandson of a machinist, Charles DeLisle’s talents for design and making appear to have been encoded in his DNA. By the 1980s DeLisle’s artistic interests led him from his rural upbringing in Massachusetts to the Hartford Art School. Upon graduation DeLisle moved to California, where he took up welding and began fabricating lighting fixtures. In the late 1990s, after a move to to New York City, a lamp sale to one Jonathan Staub landed DeLisle a position at Staub’s fledgling interior design firm – later known as DeLisle, Philpotts, Staub. There, DeLisle honed the interior design skills that would lead to the founding of his own eponymous firm in 2009. Today DeLisle and his small San Francisco based team are turning out some incredibly unique designs, ranging from interiors to furniture and back to where it all began… lighting. Last month Charles was kind enough to offer us some insight into his thoughts on and approach to design. Enjoy!
Above: Originally designed in the early 1950s, the William Wurster Ranch in Portola Valley, California was revamped by DeLisle and Moller Architecture to serve as a playfully modern summer home for a young family. DeLisle furnished the space with a combination of custom designed pieces such as his brass Linden Chandelier, blue Laminate & Ply Table, and Woodside Cabinet, alongside vintage finds such as the fireside sconce by Gio Ponti and the 1940s Danish chair. The result is a beautiful visual play against the architect selected palette of light adobe walls, cedar paneling and polished concrete flooring. Photography © Art Grey.
D – Could you share a bit about your educational background and early career?
CDL – I studied ceramics at a fairly academic art school on the east coast in the 80’s. I [first began] throwing on my own and keeping a large trash can of porcelain in my friend’s studio, working at 2 AM, just making. A professor convinced me to move my major to ceramics. [It] was a great direction for me and taught me a lot about process and material. After graduating I moved to California and set up a studio. Shortly after I learned to weld, and kept working, always connection utility and sculpture… Down the road I fell into creating interiors and loving the decorative arts.
Above: A beachside residence in Carpinteria, California. DeLisle brought a streamlined contemporary approach to the space’s original more fussy architectural detailing. His interventions included refacing a traditional style fireplace and a newly designed stair railing. The playful Scout Dining Chairs were also custom designed by DeLisle. Photography by Leslie Williamson.
D: Can you offer some insight into your design process?
CDL: It’s a hodgepodge of what you would expect I guess. Sometimes [a] material [will] give me a storyline, sometimes a person I’ve met [and/or] collaborate [with], sometimes it’s an idea that falls out of the sky.
Above: The design of Maximo Bistrot in Mexico City was the first project DeLisle took on upon opening his own firm in the dismal economy of 2009. With business less than booming, DeLisle took the job free of charge and worked with little to no budget. Resourcefulness was the name of the game and he managed to outfit the space with bare bone choices, such as simple handmade chairs and second hand ceramics. The tree sculpture was inspired by the Mexican Tree of Life bas-reliefs he had seen in old haciendas. It seems the challenging circumstances suited DeLisle as well as the restaurant because within six months of opening, Maximo’s was named the number one restaurant in Mexico City. DeLisle is now working on a sister restaurant for the owners – this time as a paid designer with a budget.
D: When designing something… what do you most strive to achieve?
CDL: Not really sure, often it’s a balance, a beautiful form… a challenge… I see progress through manifesting many ideas in many different ways. I really believe you need to make many many mediocre things to land on one idea that sings. I guess I try to find those moments when unexpected parts come together to tell a new story.
Above: Set within a sea of stunning architectural detail, the Ernest Coxhead House in Presidio Heights, San Francisco showcases not only DeLisle’s design range but his facility in combining unexpected furnishings, finishes and objects to great effect.
D: What do you find to be the most challenging part of your work?
CDL: Finding time [and] quiet space. The design world has become bombarded with images… its sometimes so much clutter it’s hard to navigate.
Above: Real estate giant, Vanguard Properties, hired DeLisle to design their swank corporate headquarters in San Francisco. Set in a 100 year old bank, DeLisle created personal closet space for each employee, transformed the original bank vault into a show stopping dining room and generally worked his design magic in an already magical setting.
D: Could you share a surprising detail about yourself and/or your work that most people wouldn’t know?
CDL: I’ve loved cars since I was in 6th grade and still do. It’s an obsessive problem. Maybe it’s my interest in design and how that can affect you emotionally… Or that I love complicated machines and objects of utility. I am constantly changing what I drive… I love understanding different cars’ personalities. One day I will start collecting, it’s inevitable.
Above: DeLisle’s solid Brass Linden Chandelier is made from hexagonal tubes pieced together to resemble a dry twisted branch or fresh cut limb just beginning to flower. Available exclusively through The Future Perfect.
D: What do you wish you could have told your younger self or designers just starting out?
CDL: Myself? Probably to not second guess my instinct. Designers starting out – Don’t forget your pencil. Always draw, and learn how to by hand.
Above: DeLisle’s Chainsaw Chair was made from a 17 foot long slab of redwood which he pulled from the same grove where George Nakashima pulled wood for his redwood tables in the 1970s. To carve out the rough monolithic form, DeLisle collaborated with chainsaw artist Rick Yashimoto, carving his carefully selected redwood with, you guessed it! A chainsaw.
D: What’s next for Charles DeLisle?
CDL: New studio in Sausalito this year… Hoping to get back to working with clay and keep designing.
Many thanks to Charles DeLisle for taking the time to chat with us. We invite you to view more of DeLisle’s work at www.charlesdelisle.com.