Leslie Tilley is the fairy godmother that all secondhand items wish they had. Working her magic at 4f Lighting, Leslie elevates standard objects to an artistic status. From cigar boxes to garden rakes, she helps vintage and secondhand goods gain a new visual and functional purpose. The process is deliberate and very planned out, and the end results are amazing art installations that are truly one-of-a-kind. Check out what Leslie had to say about her creative process, and be sure to look at her Krrb corner (trust me, you’ve never seen a colander look this cool).
The way I work requires a fair degree of accumulation. I just collect things that appeal to me, often without knowing what I’ll do with them.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and where do you currently live?
I was born in Berkeley, CA, and for the last 20 years or so I’ve lived just next door in Oakland. I’ve tried living other places from time to time, but I always end up back here.
What is the best thing about living in your neighborhood?
My neighborhood is almost entirely residential, so it’s not all that interesting, though Oakland as a whole is—in good ways and bad. One thing I like best about where I live are the wide skies we get from living on the side of a hill, with the bay spread out below. But my favorite thing is the cottage I live in. It’s at the back of a deep lot, with a seasonal creek and a huge live oak behind it, and a little garden space on the other sides, so there are lots of birds and small-to-medium critters around. And then inside it’s two floors—not huge, but big enough—with a lot of windows, so the light is great. Upstairs is the living area, and downstairs is the office where I do my day job and a small workshop where I store parts and tools and do the rougher parts of lamp construction. It’s perfect, though in a very imperfect way.
What’s your favorite place you go locally to discover hidden treasures?
Estate sales are sometimes good, especially if the homeowner was a packrat. Otherwise, I shop thrift stores and a couple of places dedicated to landfill diversion: Urban Ore and the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. They’re great because you never know what you’re going to find. It’s always an adventure.
Have you ever taken home an object you found in the street or dumpster? If so, what was it? And where is it now?
I seem to run across a lot of washers and other metal bits in parking lots that find their way into lamps. Orphaned lamps wind up curbside pretty often, and then I mine them for parts. I have a small desk I rescued from a friend’s bulk garbage pickup and fitted with a new top made from a bluestone garden paver. Does that count? It’s in my living room—with a lamp on it, of course.
Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?
Neither, or maybe some of both. The way I work requires a fair degree of accumulation. I just collect things that appeal to me, often without knowing what I’ll do with them. Then eventually I find a use for them, usually. If something has been around too long though, especially if it’s bulky, it gets the heave-ho. My place just isn’t big enough to accommodate a lot of extra stuff.
What is your most cherished thrifted, secondhand, vintage, upcycled object you possess? What’s the story behind it?
That’s a hard question. I have a lot of things I love that came to me secondhand. My cat, for instance; she’s a rescue. Or the floor lamp I bought in Olympia, WA, when I was on vacation, and then took apart in my motel room and brought back on the plane. My house itself is, in a sense, upcycled too. It was built out of materials salvaged from World War II barracks at Oakland Army Base—hence all the windows.
Do you have any favorite websites or blogs you like to visit?
I spend far too much time on eBay, coveting mostly, though I do buy things from time to time, mostly percolators. The same with vintage stuff on Etsy. I love the art on Colossal, especially kinetic sculptures and light installations.
As a kid, were any of your toys and clothes hand-me-downs? Stories please!
I had a few toys of my mother’s—a couple of tea sets and a doll. I didn’t take very good care of them I’m afraid. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs, and I HATED them. They never fit right and tended to be odd colors or fabrics. I think the reason I wound up with them was that the girl they’d belonged to didn’t like them either, so they hadn’t worn out. When I was about 15, though, I raided Mom’s closet and took some of her clothes from before she got married. I remember wearing a seafoam green formal to a Halloween party that year. And there was a gray suit jacket I loved—padded shoulders and a nipped-in waist. It was great, and totally different from anything my friends were wearing.
Four F Lighting is a great name for a shop. Is there a story behind it?
Four F (or 4f) is short for form follows former function, which is a design joke I came up with to describe my lamps. There’s a famous quote from Louis Sullivan, a modernist architect who was Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor, “form ever follows function,” meaning that the shape and look of an object should be determined by its purpose. My father is an architect, and I studied design in college, so that idea has been with me my whole life, pretty much. But now I make things whose form is largely determined by a purpose they no longer serve. So I find that highly amusing.
What did you use to make your first “kitchenware” lamp, and what was the initial process like?
It was an Italian stovetop espresso maker, a big, bulbous, gorgeous cast aluminum thing that sadly no longer worked. The physical process involved drilling a lot of holes, as I recall, but the design process was totally freeing, because there was no way I could screw it up. The thing was already broken—I couldn’t make it worse—so I could do anything I wanted. I think that was the first time I was ever able to work without constraint. It’s no wonder I got so hooked on it.
How do you go about redesigning a vintage piece? Is there a process that all your lamps go through before you start to restyle it?
It really depends what it is. With appliances and old lamps the first step is disassembly: taking out the electrical guts and breaking the thing down so I can put it back together again. And then cleaning the parts I’m keeping. It’s appalling what collects on things after a few decades.
What is the strangest/most interesting object you’ve gotten inspiration from?
There have been so many. One that comes to mind is the washing machine drum I found recently at Urban Ore. It had been used as a firepit, so it had a really beautiful color and patina. I paired it with a nicely beat up old wooden camera tripod to make a floor lamp. It throws great shadows around the room.
What’s your most favorite combination of objects you’ve used?
My current favorite is a sconce I made from the business end of a leaf rake, a brass hose nozzle, a wooden plaque, a couple of tile trowels, a valve handle and other bits and pieces. It’s staying on my wall until someone buys it.
You said if you don’t love how a piece turns out, you can’t let it go. How do you salvage “rejected” lamps?
Usually it’s just a matter of tinkering with the proportions by swapping in different parts, or maybe trying a different light bulb. But if something really doesn’t work, then I just take it apart and reuse the pieces in another lamp. I have one now that has major parts from two previous incarnations. And who knows, if it doesn’t find a home soon I may take that one apart, too.
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning your own business? What is the most challenging?
Making things that suit me is the best part. Being able to trust that if I’m pleased with something I’ve made, someone else will like it too. And I like the feeling of competence: knowing how to do something well and efficiently. The most challenging part is almost anything marketing or sales related, particularly face to face. I’m pretty introverted, so crafts fairs, approaching shops about taking things on consignment, that stuff is hard for me.
What is the best part about interacting with your customers?
I like to hear their stories. I sold a blender lamp to someone a few years ago who told me later she’d given it to her brother-in-law as a housewarming gift, and he was showing it off to everyone who came over “like it was a new puppy.” More recently, a couple commissioned me to make a “Sputnik” star-colander lantern (a design from a few years back) for their nursery. They were expecting twin boys, and it makes me happy to imagine the little guys falling asleep under that quilt of light and shadow.
By the way, what’s your day job?
I’m a freelance editor. An artist friend says she thinks that’s where I get my attention to detail, but I think it’s the other way around. I do the work I do—both kinds—because I can’t not see the details.