Geometric wooden rings that showcase the natural grain. Totes and clutches in hand-printed sustainable materials. Recycled leather hand-patched into striking bags.
This is the eco-friendly originality of Love Mert, a lifestyle collection created by Tahoe’s own Melissa Michelsen. Bespoke is proud to carry her minimalist designs, balanced with tastefully bold colors.
With its mix of modern and classic, form and function, her work reflects a creative tension between the city and the wild. It’s a contrast organic to her own history: she grew up in rural Vermont, and spent a few years flirting with artistic meccas like New York City and Portland, before finally making Tahoe her home. She loves being able to just walk out her front door and head down to the river, or hop on her mountain bike.
Michelsen’s artistic and entrepreneurial spirit is a family inheritance: Love Mert is named after her Danish great-great-grandmother, a gown-maker in turn of the century New York.
As the story goes, Love Mert began with a single tote for her friend’s birthday. Bespoke caught up with Melissa to learn more.
There are some great interviews and articles online about the Love Mert story. Reading them, I kept thinking to myself: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single tote.” Tell us about that first project and the road here.
I was taking some time off after college. I had moved out west and was getting into the snowboarding lifestyle here in Tahoe. I knew I wanted to get my act together, but I didn’t know what that would mean. Then my friend’s birthday came around and I thought, I’ll just throw together some of these scraps and vintage fabrics. I had always sewed and painted growing up, so I just whipped up that first bag. Then her friend wanted one, and her friend’s friend, and it went on from there. I made about a dozen bags and went to her house for coffee one morning with a bunch of women, and I sold them all. It kind of started by mistake.
I can’t imagine how many bags I’ve made by now. I never kept track. Probably over a thousand? My dad [Johannes Michelsen] is a well-known wood artist, and he numbers every hat.
Your dad makes wooden hats?? Yeah. All through the 80’s he was working in wood- turning, making bowls and traditional things. Then he started making hats, turning the wood so thin, and bending it as it dries into an oval, natural head-shape. He’s renowned in the wood-turning world, and travels all over to give seminars. He invents his own tools.
So I grew up in the woodshop, and that’s what led me to wooden rings and necklaces. When I get ring orders, he cuts them for me and sends them to Tahoe, where I sand and paint them. He got me into dying with vinegar, which gives you wonderful grays and blacks. I got really into that. One I’m wearing a lot right now is jet black with some facets in dark blue.
Reflecting on my dad mastering his craft, and my grandfather who was an oil painter, and my aunt who is also an amazing artist—they all do what they do really well. There’s always a part of me that wants to honor that artistic way, and really spend time on what I’m doing. Since the business has grown, it’s a challenge to balance the artistic side with making it work financially. I have a three year old and a three month old, so it’s busy around here!
I’ve just had to accept that I don’t know how to not make things for a living. That’s just who I am.
How does your Danish heritage come into play in your designs and business?
I’m very much attracted to Scandinavian design and the modern aesthetic. That’s why I’ve polished up my line in the past few years. I was doing more whimsical stuff, wild colors and stuff—that was who I was at the moment. As the business has grown and I’ve matured, my aesthetic has gravitated toward printing my own textiles, and toning everything down a bit.
Can you give us a sneak preview of what’s in store for 2013?
I’m just finishing up my new collection. I started taking leather scraps from around my studio and patching them together into bags inspired by the seventies and eighties, but with an urban, modern take on it. Everything is coming out really well.
Bespoke is my only local representation. I love working with smaller boutiques, because they’re able to tell [customers] more about the story behind the work. There’s a real sense of love for the brands they’re carrying.
I think things are really starting to turn around [for artisan makers]. People are paying more attention to where things are made. There’s more of an understanding of what it costs to buy something handmade in the United States. Working and selling locally, in smaller numbers, I can spend more time on each piece.
I want to find a way to make it more sustainable this year. Where do we evolve from here?