The multi-disciplined life of designer Lola Lely
Photographs Willem Jaspert
Words Julia Jarvis
She trained as a tattooist, studied furniture making and became an expert in dye making: she’s also a product designer, artist, silversmith and storyteller. Is there anything Lola Lely doesn’t do?
It shows a particular strength of character and a precocious sense of self to set out at 17 years old from London to Mexico City with no plan – except to travel and to visit the Blue House (home of artist Frida Kahlo) – and even more to walk in from the street to a tattoo studio and ask for a job. But that’s exactly what the designer Lola Lely did, spending five years training and working as tattoo artist travelling around the Americas, from Guadalajara to Las Vegas.
Lely approaches design with the same gusto and sense of adventure as her travels. ‘I think it’s my curious nature, enjoying exploring and meeting people and being inspired by things,’ she says. ‘That’s the starting point of everything – and then coming back [to the studio] and wanting to do something with it.’ With these observations and experiences as raw materials, she begins to build a narrative, through research, collaboration and making.
‘Being a designer means you have to think and really engage with what you’re doing’
It would be natural to presume that Lely is ensconced in the thriving maker scene currently taking over London, but she shies away from the moniker. ‘I always feel I can’t call myself a maker just because I don’t make every single day,’ she says. ‘Although at the moment I feel like there’s almost more prestige in calling yourself a maker because being a designer now is dirty word; it’s just seen as so frivolous. But being a designer means you have to think and really engage with what you’re doing. I am designer in that sense.’
Lely does concede that one of her commissions, a maker’s trestle for The New Craftsmen in Mayfair, did help to blur the boundaries of how her work could be understood, ‘Catherine Lock [Creative Director of The New Craftsmen] had been following my work for a while and I think she sees me as “new craft” – I guess my work fits that,’ she explains. ‘The first thing craftspeople learn to make is a trestle table because you need to have a surface to work on and because it’s such a flexible thing, you can move it around your workshop. And because I’m not deeply in that world [of craft], I thought that it was a bit vague. What is a craftsperson? And what do they do? There’s so many different forms of craft I’m going to have to do some research!’
It’s apparent that, for Lely, the process begins with an interrogation of ‘why’ rather than ‘what’. Taking what seems like an anthropological approach, she first locates her subject and then visits them ‘to have a little nosey around and make observations’. For the trestle project, she noted subtle differences in uses between disciplines. ‘A metal worker will have a trestle but it might be higher and the surface will be slightly different to a jewellery maker, say, who usually sits and would cut out a little hole in their table and then fill it with something. Or with a woodworker, who’d cut out a hole for their jigs.’ These findings will then dovetail into other ideas and interests – in this case, ‘boro’ a historical Japanese textile tradition. Boro translates as ‘rags’ in English and relates to the patched workwear in dark cotton, made by Japan’s poor rural population prior to industrialisation in the early 20th century. Lely explains, ‘With Boro, the indigo looks like denim and that made me think of denim workwear and the aprons people wear in the workshops.’
The idea of patching extended to the production of the table itself, finding links with woodworking through her research. ‘I felt with woodworking, it’s such a wasteful thing to do: it’s always about picking out the choice cuts. Loads of it is abandoned, and actually some of the most beautiful bits have splits in the wood. So again, like patching in garment construction, you work it out aesthetically and patch it altogether.’
Like many Londoners, Lely is a ‘hybrid’ of influences who manifests herself through her work. ‘There’s a vernacular language: London meets Vietnam, or Hong Kong where I grew up for a bit, or Mexico. I think I borrow!’ Lely was born in Vietnam but came to London with her parents at the age of two. In their early days, she remembers, ‘My family didn’t speak much English, but the way they expressed themselves and befriended people was to knock on the doors of our neighbours and offer them food.’ It’s these simple but universal human behaviours – how we engage with each other – that Lely is fascinated by. ‘We aren’t that different. We all eat, have sex, make a mess; we all do these things but we just never think about it.’
Maybe that’s why was so excited to work with Fine Cell Work, an initiative working with prisoners, teaching them needlework. ‘The men were trained to embroider to a competitive level and have done some amazing work. I like the idea of mark making. It goes back to my tattoo background – there’s a lot of homemade tattoos in prison and I think these marks are trying to tell a story.’ Much could be the same of Lely’s work. But what is the story she is trying to make with her own marks? ‘I think design can help you change your behaviour. Or make you more generous with how you interact with people.’