After growing up in Southern California and spending his formative years in the internationally-known rock band Thrice, the last place you’d expect Teppei Teranishi to end up is on an island making leather goods.
And yet, Teranishi now calls Vashon Island home, a 37-square-miles island 16 miles west of Seattle, WA, where he lives with his wife and three kids. As for leather-working, what once was a tour bus hobby has evolved into a full-time vocation, undertaken from a small studio space on the island where he creates made-to-order leather goods like market bags, portfolio cases and simple wallets with an eye for detail and quality. His work is minimal and utilitarian. He creates bags that are meant to be faithful companions that get better with age and leather iPhone cases that are handsome but primarily sturdy. At the same time, it leaves room for experimentation, like the indigo line he hand-dyed in small batches, or the baseball hat collaboration he produced with Seattle-based Ebbets Field Flannels.
Shadowing Teranishi around his studio is a similar exercise in disciplined craft and technique, with rows of tools on pegboards, meticulous stacks of leather on his work table, and an elaborate coffee roasting setup – one of his new island experiments. Tacked on the studio walls are a few well-placed mementos: drawings made by his kids; suspended clippings of found and dried rosemary; faded old photos of skateboarders, landscapes and vast ocean. What’s particularly inspiring about Teppei is how the natural influences of his varied, interdisciplinary past have given him a unique design sensibility that’s evident in his work and is entirely his own.
Catch me up to speed on your most recent projects.
I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting and prototyping with new ideas as well as ideas I’ve had for a while that I haven’t got around to fleshing out. The past year was an amazing time for me and I was lucky to be really busy, but I also found just straight working and keeping up on orders 24/7 tiring. I truly love the crafting aspect of what I do, but I started itching for the creative work, which for me is half the fun. I really enjoy the process of brainstorming new ideas, designing and prototyping. I just started a new section on my site called ‘Explorations’ where these experimental and creative deviations can live. It’s already really changed the vibe in the studio a bunch. There are so many ideas stacking up already!
Can you briefly talk about your background in music and how that evolved into what and where you are today?
I played in the band Thrice for nearly 15 years. The band was basically my high school garage band that somehow snowballed into a full-time gig so it’s pretty much all I did my entire adult life. Life happens, people start having families – I have three kids myself – and it was time to shift gears for a while since we were touring full-time to make ends meet. The band went on an indefinite hiatus about a year and a half ago and at that point, I had a choice of continuing to do music or trying something else. The leather thing was a side project at the time so I thought I’d give it a go.
Tell me more about your leatherworking. How did you learn the craft and start your own business?
I started leathercrafting on the road. I’d always picked up little hobbies along the way to keep myself busy. Knitting and crocheting in the back of the van was the first one. I started getting into sewing at home but it wasn’t that feasible to lug a sewing machine around the country so I got into leather since I only needed a handful of hand tools and could do it in the tour bus or backstage or wherever. I started selling stuff more or less to fund the hobby – leather isn’t cheap – and I guess it just sort of grew from there.
How do you describe your own aesthetic?
I like simple. I like understated. Not only in aesthetic but in function. Bells and whistles can be burdening and I personally appreciate things that in a way force me to simplify – things that make life better by paring down. We’re so bombarded in modern culture with stuff constantly in our face and all over the place. I think it’s important for us to be able to take a breath and give ourselves space wherever we can. Hopefully my products convey that sense of space and simplicity.
Tell me about living on Vashon Island. Can you walk me through a typical day-in-the-life?
Our lives really change with the seasons but a typical summer day – as summer is definitely the best season here – might be: wake up, brew some coffee. Go out and grab some eggs from the chicken coop, maybe grab some herbs or veggies from the garden, make breakfast. Hang with the wife and kids for a bit. Go to the studio, answer some emails, drink more coffee, make some stuff, drink more coffee, make more stuff. Break out around 5 or 6 with plenty of daylight left to go pull some crab pots that I might’ve been left out the night before, cook up some crab, play outside with the boys, bonfire, sleep. Repeat. Oh throw a little skate session somewhere in there too. That might’ve been a little more of an ideal day than a typical day!
You have taken on a few collaborative projects, including Ebbets Field Flannels in Seattle. What results can come from collaborations that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise occur?
I guess the obvious answer is that I’m able to do things that are out of my normal scope, like the Ebbets’ caps for Ebbets Field Flannels. It’s fun to be able to bounce ideas off other people and work in a symbiotic way. One of the hardest adjustments for me was going from an extremely collaborative environment with the band to doing things 100 percent on my own here. I never realized how much I needed other people to bounce off. That’s changing now since I have a buddy working with me but still, it’s always exciting to break out of our element and routine and try other things.
How do you feel living outside of the city affects your work and inspiration?
We have a property on Vashon Island, WA, which is basically directly across the Puget Sound from Seattle. It’s a 15-minute ferry ride from West Seattle and a 10-minute ferry to Tacoma. It’s a pretty small and unique community and fairly rural – especially compared to Southern California where I grew up and moved from. It’s a unique situation because we’re cut off from the world in a sense, but are also a stone’s throw from a major metropolitan city.
We love it out here. Life is slower and there’s space. It’s made us draw together closer as a family and be self-sustaining in a lot of ways, which is so gratifying. We have a great spot because on one side, our property borders a 10-acre field for the alpaca farm next door, and on another side, we have about 15-acres of forest. I love waking up in the morning and watching the alpacas grazing. We call them ‘our’ alpacas since for all intents and purposes, they may as well be, except we don’t have to feed them or take care of them!
What are some of your favorite possessions?
I probably would have said some of my guitars, but we were robbed a few years back and I lost a lot of guitars that were dear to me. In the end, I was totally ok with it. Not that I wasn’t bummed, but it was a pleasant surprise when I was able to shrug it off and say “meh, it was just stuff.” Other than that, I have a pretty embarrassingly large shoe and boot collection that seems to be ever growing. I’ve recently picked up a big-time affinity for coffee mugs so that’s also been a slow and steady collection as well.
Where do you travel for holidays or a weekend getaway?
Back home to California. I seem to be in and out all the time for this or that. We spend all major holidays there. The Christmas chunk is really nice since we get to break up the cold and drab north west winter with some California sunshine.
What are some of your favorite places on Vashon Island?
It’s funny because moving to the island, our choices have been narrowed by probably 1/200. Seriously. That being said, we have a decent selection of stuff and my favorite spot on the island would be Snapdragon. It’s all vegetarian – which I’m not – but the food is so good that I didn’t even realize it until after I’d been going there for a while. It is just hearty, healthy, fresh, yummy stuff. It has a cozy atmosphere too. In terms of shops, I’d have to go to Seattle, but my buddies at Glasswing just opened up their bricks and mortar and it’s awesome: with a great selection of men’s and women’s clothing, homewares and even a nice little plant section. Good stuff.
What else – or who – inspires you creatively?
I’m so bad at answering this question. I think it’s mostly because I don’t really draw off one person for anything specific. I might like certain aspects of this one designer and certain aspects of this one photographer and all these little likes – and dislikes – end up combining into the bigger picture of my inspiration. Sort of like a mosaic.
Teppei it has been great to get to know you and visit your workshop in Vashon Island. To find out more about Teppei’s leathergoods label Teranishi, visit his website here.
Photography: Michael A. Muller
Interview & Text: Leigh Patterson