Meet the Maker: Graf Lantz
You know that giveaway we’re holding right now? Well, Craftly got to sit down with the designers of those products, Holger Gräf and Daniel Lantz, founders of Graf Lantz. Through creative experimentation and explorations, Graf Lantz designs minimalist, functional, high-quality ageless products. Talking to them reinforced this belief that with perseverance, curiosity, authenticity, and help from others, you are able to move beyond your plans and goals.
Here’s a brief on their story:
“[Holger] Gräf earned his phd in structural engineering from his studies in Germany, while [Daniel] Lantz led an adventurous life and grew deep roots in Japan. Truly at the intersection of opposites, they came together in Los Angeles to create Graf Lantz®. With distinct and often contradictory points of view, they started creatively toying with designs in a simple, albeit luxurious material: Merino wool felt. Together Gräf and Lantz set out to sculpt the world’s oldest fabric into modern and unexpected form, crafting a definitive collection of handbags, accessories and homeware items for men and women that has captured the attention of affluent urbanites worldwide.” (graf-lantz.com)
Last month, I popped in their warehouse studio in Silver Lake, and saw behind-the-scenes on how their company is run. Within their warehouse is their office space, where an administrative team worked (and a cute dog ran to greet me!). Partitioned from that area was their modest living space, combining a bedroom and a kitchen.
CAN YOU TELL US THE HISTORY OF GRAF-LANTZ?
Daniel: If you want to get cheeseball on how we started, he has a doctorate in engineering and I come from living in Japan for a long while. We were hanging out for awhile, and we both decided that we wanted to do something for ourselves. I’ve never wanted a boss, and he didn’t want one either so it’s like, ‘Let’s just do something.’ So he---
Holger: Well, I wanted to do anything other than what I was doing [his job in engineering]. But I went back to Germany on a trip with the idea to find something to do different than the engineering that I did here. I saw these felt things. I was familiar with felt as a kid, and thought, Well, that’s nice. I brought the felt home and we started to experiment with it. Bought a sewing machine, took a sewing class and sewn some stuff. It was kind of organic in a way. Other people, they start with ‘I want to make a brand, and they have a whole business plan--’
Daniel: We did everything backwards. (laughs)
Holger: It was more like, we tried a lot of different things. And we basically started sewing-- I went to work during the daytime, sewn in the evening, until I was finally able to quit my job. At first, we didn’t hire somebody because we had small orders at the beginning. We couldn’t find anyone to make [our products] for us. It was too expensive or they wanted high minimums, so we just made it ourselves. Then we hired somebody to do it. And then another. And then another. Basically, out of that, we suddenly had a production.
Daniel: To me, it’s much more romantic.
Holger: (laughs) Yes, well, it might be more romantic, but I thought everything was also practical.
Daniel: The interesting thing between Holger and me, now that we’ve known each other for almost twenty years, is that his engineering background really goes to how the bags were first started. It’s like, ‘How can I apply engineering better?’ Of course, when I saw felt for the first time, I only knew how it was in kindergarten class when we’d stick things to felt and told stories with it. So I was ‘ehhh’. Then he brings this 5-millimeter felt. And to me, this is much more romantic because it’s like ‘Oh, discovery!’ ‘Oh, it’s interesting!’ ‘Oh! What can we make that feels good?’ So we started playing around with it. And couldn’t find anything that we liked [from others]. Like he said, there was no one that could make it right. It was disappointing. So we bought a sewing machine and taught ourselves and then it became this.
However, it became this far for a reason. We were dissatisfied with what we were seeing-- things don’t come together as you’d hope they would when you see a nice object. You want to connect with it. In Japan there’s a saying where you find satisfaction of finding something that fits with you, but it’s also familiarity as opposed to discovery. More importantly, when [a product] goes out to a customer, and the customer has that same ‘Oh, this is so different and interesting.’ It’s this idea of mixing two things, or opposites working together and material discovery-- always finding something---just to be different, you know, I don’t think it’s really our talent to follow fad as much as it is. Just to sort of figure out what we like. ‘Oh, we’ve made 79 prototypes of this, but this is the one that works because that button is there.’ You know? Like how does leather work with felt, they’re both sort of old and classic, but it’s a new thing that people are seeing. Or doing a nylon with a felt. Whatever these mixes are. Felt is one of the oldest materials in the world, and we’re giving it this modern feel.
YES, SO YOU TRY THINGS OUT BEFORE...
Daniel: Yeah, well one, we get the freedom. We made ourselves be able to do that on the fly. It’s what most people don’t have. But it all comes from that same place of feeling satisfaction and making sure customers feel that satisfaction. It comes together with these contradictions. It becomes their thing instead of the Graf-Lantz bag. The moment it becomes somebody’s thing, instead of our thing, that they have is kind of this feeling that we’re chasing, right? The minute that somebody else owns it.
Fortunately, that’s the kind of customer that we have. Customers love our stuff. I think that’s one of the reasons, you might agree [facing Holger]. Of course, it’s not sane all the time, like ‘Oh, my god we ran out of black thread!’ And that chase, and just trying to figure out the right black thread. Like it has to come from wherever it’s going to come from. The nuttiness is always around. Just chasing the feeling that we know we did it good, and it was different, and it stood out. That we’d see it on the street and we’d know it’s ours.
That’s a lot of talking, but you asked.
(LAUGHS) I’M ASSUMING THEN THAT THIS IS BASICALLY YOUR PHILOSOPHY AS A COMPANY OR AS A BRAND?
Daniel: I think that is essentially our philosophy, chasing things well-made. Chasing the feeling of satisfaction of finding [that thing] well-made. I think people can recognize it. There’s a lot of other stuff to [our philosophy] like branding, which I’ll let someone on our team take care of it.
RIGHT. AS I GET OLDER, I UNDERSTAND WHY PEOPLE DO SPEND MORE MONEY ON GOOD QUALITY PRODUCTS.
Daniel: Like, we don’t make 20,000 of anything. We make 100 of something or 50 of something. So there’s a rarity we like about it as well.
Is that what you want to keep as you grow?
Daniel: We would at least like to keep that perception, honestly. If you’re growing, that’s probably not what you’re doing. But we would still have the freedom to be able to dictate exactly, you know, like some people have it made wherever they have it made, and they have to wait like 9 months.
WAS YOUR FIRST PRODUCT A BAG?
Daniel: Gosh, it's been so long now.
Holger: Actually, the very first one we had was a wine carrier, of all things.
SO YOU JUST WANTED TO TEST IT OUT?
Holger: Well… we got the felt and we didn’t really plan what to do with it. I mean, I saw some pillows that were cute. Then for some reason, I thought the felt would be good material for a wine carrier. So we made the wine carriers, and actually sold some to others like a consignment store. At this point, it was more like a hobby than anything else. Then we packaged some and sent it out to people with different styles. A couple weeks later we got an email from Dean & DeLuca, who asked if they can order some for Christmas. That was great. It was like our first big order. It was 2008, just before the big [financial] crash. After that, no one could afford these wine carriers anymore. Everything changed after the crash.
Daniel: We still wanted to see how it would go, like how people would respond to it. It was never really about making a company that sold wine carriers.
Holger: We had other smaller products. We went to local markets and schools, where people would sell this. People were asking if we made bags too. At some point, we thought about making a bag. So one day, we made two bags with similar construction but different styles, one was more strapped on, the other one horizontal. Since then, it’s been one of our bestselling styles. From there we brought these to shows and little markets and people liked them. Then they told us about trade shows. We went to the first one in San Francisco, and we got a couple of stores.
Daniel: That was an experience. Every one of these things that we’ve done has just taken us to the next step just in time. We packed all our trade show items in our honda civic and drove to San Francisco for our first show. We had no idea what we were doing. Then from there we went to another trade show. Then another and another.
It came together organically.
Daniel: Persistence is always valuable, but yes, it just organically--
Holger: But yes, at that time, it was like, ‘Oh, let’s go to this show.’ There was never much of a structure, but of course we had plans, but not a [strict business plan or office]. We were working out of our apartment in West Hollywood. We did that for the first 2 ½ years. It was a small place, smaller than here (referring to the kitchen and bedroom space attached to their warehouse).
Daniel: One time, two big bulks of felt fell on us while we were sleeping.
Holger: We couldn’t cook anymore because we needed storage. We would hang bags.
Daniel: It was like a cave of bags and felt.
Holger: We didn’t cook because we didn’t want them to smell. We had to do something about this. We moved into this [current] building maybe about six years ago. And now, it’s a whole different game.
Daniel: But yeah, it’s always perseverance. You know that as well. Everything you ever try to do that you feel good about you just have to work really hard at it. Nothing comes easy. We’ve also been blessed with people. We have really good people in Japan, good people here. We have a team now-- product development, branding, sales. This is like, ‘Oh, we’re a company now. We have to start being more responsible.’ You have to balance what a business is to your philosophy. Like the practicalities of business. So we’re learning everything as we go from learning how to sew to taking our business to the next level, but still keep the quality or improve the quality. That is an adventure. ‘What can we do with this now?’ ‘Where would this take us?’ ‘Oh, yeah. We have to try that one.’ We got to keep doing that, and it’s working.
By the way, the coasters, I was like, ‘No, we’re not doing coasters. You don’t have to sew them.’ I was all like that. (laughs) Holger was like, ‘No, the coasters will be great.’ It’s always like that. When one of those ideas come up and we push hard enough, it usually succeeds. Look at that pillow over there. That’s one of the first things Holger has ever sewn (pointing to a pillow on the couch). Stuff like that, we just try things.
WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE IN CREATING THE COASTERS (THAT WE FEATURED IN THE CRAFTLY NOVEMBER BOX)?
Holger: In Germany, felt has been around forever. The old days, the beer halls had these felt coasters. At that time, the coasters may have been messy because it was constantly reused over and over. So you’d use the coasters for what it’s used for, but in the summer when you go out into the beer garden, you’d place a coaster on top of your mug so that flies can’t get inside.
Daniel: Have you been to Germany? The beer gardens are great, but there are always leaves falling with bugs.
Holger: At some point, paper coasters came in. They were cheaper and more sanitary because you could throw them away. They don’t use them in beer halls or beer gardens anymore, but the name is still around, “Bierfizl” which means “beer felt”. It’s a Bavarian term. It’s kind of a charming Bavarian word, basically. Felt has been always around in Germany though. When I lived there for 12 years, it was around but not popular. When I came back, I saw felt everywhere. In the last couple of years, it has become more popular around the world. Also using felt for trivets and placemats, there is more variety.
Daniel: There are reasons for that. One, felt is one of, if not the oldest, made textile in civilization. It has been around forever like leather. It’s also fascinating that it performs like some of the best modern stuff. It can take 500-600 degrees in temperature. It doesn’t burst into flames. You can put super hot things on it. The coasters are great because if the bottle or glass is sweating, the water goes in and wicks off to the side because the way the hairs are lain this way so it doesn’t get to the bottom. You don’t have to worry about it soaking through. If it happens, it’s probably the way it was felted. We never had a single complaint.
YOU GUYS HAVE TESTED ALL OF THIS OUT.
Holger: Oh, yeah.
Daniel: Totally. We’ve done more things to felt than you you can imagine. The dyes hold really well, the natural dyes that [our felt manufacturers] use. You can wash it with water and soap. It’s tough stuff. It’s industrial strength stuff. It’s completely like from nature. When you think about it, sheep have been putting up with bad weather for so long, so wool is really strong. It’s interesting that it has these sorts of connections. They have that kind of romance about them. People respond to it. We didn’t know what we were doing. We knew that it was cool and we studied the materials and the process.
Holger: We use 100% merino wool. Other companies may use wool in their felt coasters with a blend of polyester or acrylic felt, but you can feel it right away if it’s not 100% wool. It just feels different.
Daniel: Yeah, other stuff can peel off so easily, but in merino wool, there are long hairs. If you rub it and rub it and rub it, they will all hold together. There are all these different qualities about it that keeps it beautiful. We’re about how things age, if they’re made well as much as if they’re brand new. They age beautifully. You’ll be able to use them for years. It will show with age, but it won’t look like crap. It’ll hold for a very long time, it’ll feel heirloomy.
IS THIS THE SAME WOOL YOU USED FOR THAT PILLOW?
Holger: It’s the same, but this one [used for the wine carrier] is thicker. That one is 3 mm. This one is 5 mm.
THE PILLOW DOESN’T LOOK LIKE IT’S BEEN AROUND FOR YEARS.
Daniel: Oh, it’s been kicked around and thrown around.
WHAT IS NICE ABOUT THE COASTERS?
Holger: First of all, they work well. They are pretty and they feel great. They fit in a traditional home, a modern home. They come in so many colors. They are [versatile]. People love them.
Daniel: Sometimes it’s like a calling card. Some people get to know us because of those.
Holger: Right, and sometimes some are strangely passionate about them. One company told us, ‘Your coasters changed my life.’ It’s like, ‘Wow, ok!’ (laughs) It’s great! People are drawn to them.
Daniel: We’re playing with new ways like how it’s set up when they’re together and they become coasters when they’re apart.
(to Daniel): I’m curious, how come you weren’t interested in making coasters?
Daniel: Why? Oh, I don’t know. I had my eyes on bags so much at the time so I thought, ‘We’re not selling those. We’re making bags.’ But once we did, it opened up a new whole market for us. And no, I didn’t see the specialness of this. I had never used a coaster so it made no sense.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU SHARE TO YOURSELF BEFORE YOU EVEN STARTED?
Daniel: Always believe in yourself more.
Holger: Oh, if I could do it again? Personally, as I mentioned before, we did everything ourselves for a long time. I mean, at the beginning, we worked out of our apartment. We had limited resources. We didn’t have the money to hire others, so we did a lot ourselves. We never really spent money for the knowledge of other people, but I think we could’ve. If he had a team like this earlier-- I think that is one of the things we needed, the expertise of other people to move forward.
Daniel: Hmmm… I almost have to say the same thing. It’s so great have this team around. Others have said, ‘Oh, but you have to manage and delegate.’ It’s also good to have people around that don’t need to be managed or delegated. They know what they need to do, that’s their specialty. I certainly would probably agree with him about figuring that out sooner, but we’re so used to doing things ourselves and making do with what we have.
Holger: Yeah, we now know who to hire, [for example] someone in sales or production area. I made the first website, and if I did it now I’d go crazy. It’s all a learning process.
Daniel: Another thing is that we’re both social people and we have good friends, but we’ve never been about putting on a show. We live here. We just want to be genuine. It’s like, ‘Oh, my god. Do we have to put on a public face?’ It’s difficult because that’s not who we are. Our products show who we are. Simple, direct, and well put together.