The Graf Lantz collection—a fusion of German precision, Japanese perspective and California soul—builds upon and reflects the disparate geographical backgrounds of the founders. Daniel Lantz was born in Utah but found himself living in Japan. Holger Graf was raised in a gingerbread village in Germany before moving to Munich to pursue his doctorate in structural engineering. The partners now live in LA.
Graf Lantz products are deceptively simple. Most are handmade of Bavarian Merino wool felt. In addition to being functional, they’re colorful, eye-catching and invite the sense of touch. In fact, the fabric seems to be addictive; people purchase one item and impulsively buy another.
Forbes.com spoke to Daniel Lantz to find out more about the founders, the company, and the impact of travel on their designs and personal life.
When did the company start up?
I met Holger, who is a friend of one of my associates, while I was on business in Germany. Ironically, we got into an argument that first night. Holger was right and I was wrong but it seemed to have sparked something. The rest is history.
We put down our roots in California in 2009, and started Graf Lantz from our apartment in West Hollywood. It was an 800-square-foot space, filled from floor to ceiling with machines, supplies, shelves and people. We are tenacious, one of our best qualities, and we liked being in the middle of all the work 24 hours a day. But the lack of space finally became too much and we looked outward.
We moved our factory into a beloved, century-old (1912) grocery store in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles in 2012. The building is in our DNA now and we will never leave it.
By the way, the constructive arguments between Holger and me haven’t stopped because they always lead to the best decisions.
How were your felt products inspired?
We made our first pieces using a rich but largely forgotten textile, Merino wool felt, which we still rely on heavily today. We chose it because it is soft like Cashmere and Alpaca but with unequaled fiber strength.
Germany is world-renowned as the source of wool felt coasters, traditionally used in Bavarian taverns. Holger grew up surrounded by them everywhere and later realized that no one knew about the capabilities of the material. So we seized upon the opportunity to bring it here.
To color the felt, we use sustainable OEKO-TEX dyes that are non-toxic and free of chemicals.
What were your first products?
We first developed wine totes, which are still a best-seller for us today. They are made of the Merino wool felt that turns out to be a natural insulator, and they’re trimmed with leather. Although the felt is soft, it offers strong protection for a bottle, is naturally stain resistant, and has water-wicking properties. The totes are very popular hostess gifts.
We then moved on to the Jaunt bag and then Bierfilzl Coasters.
What are your most popular products?
In terms of sheer numbers, our coasters are most popular. We sold 15,000 sets last year. Our trivets and placemats have also been in high demand, especially during COVID which set off a renewed interest in home decor. Over the last year, we sold 9,000 trivets and 7,000 placemats.
We also sell a good number of seat pads and tissue box covers.
One of your COVID masks was recently featured in The New York Times. How did the company pivot during the pandemic?
We developed a full line of face masks made of organic cotton and European linen that became very popular because people are concerned about having non-organic materials against their faces, and are worried about breathing through them all day.
We’ve sold over 300,000 masks and for every one sold, we’ve donated ten meals to Feeding America, totaling over 3.5 million meals to date.
Pre-COVID, handbags made up 70% of our sales but that figure has dropped to 20%. Masks now make up 60-70 percent of our business and we’ve gained over 70,000 new customers through our mask sales.
The most popular face mask is the one that was mentioned in The New York Times, the Zenbu Organic Cotton Mask. In independent lab testing, The New York Times Wirecutter recognized it as offering the best balance of filtration and breathability (when used with a filter insert).
We were delighted with this recognition because we designed and developed our face masks like everything else we do – with endless research and testing to execute a high-quality product we are happy to put our name on.
By the way, how did the company choose its not-easy-to-remember name?
Honestly, a lack of imagination and knowledge of how companies are named: Keeping it simple is always the game.
Who is your competition?
We don’t look at competitors because in general, we are not competitive people. We’re sure they are out there but we concentrate on our thing and leave that kind of detail to our fabulous team.
As far as role models go… definitely David Bowie. He’s always a role model for everything. I just know that if he had worked in felt, that would also have been awesome.
With the possibility of international travel on the horizon, what are your favorite types of travel?
Holger and I did the long distance thing between Los Angeles, Tokyo and Munich for years before finally landing in LA. We actually chose LA because going anywhere from here is pretty easy even on a moment’s notice.
We love travel more than anything, and all of the little bits of magic and inspiration that comes with it: the smell of airports, the way the stars look from different hotel rooftops, even the jet lag. We love it all.
Holger is one to dive into researching all he can about a place before traveling there, which has benefited us so much. There have been many times when he’s taken us to a spot I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy and we had the most amazing time. He is always a block ahead of us, exploring and getting lost in the sights of wherever we are. I personally like to just wing it and immerse myself in the culture once I get there.
As for destinations… oh man, we want to go everywhere once it’s safe to travel. Nature wonders anywhere, anytime is how we like to roll. The first item on my wish list will be going paragliding in Tasmania or maybe the Alps.
I love that you can just stuff an airfoil in a backpack and fly pretty much anywhere in the world, so that’s my dream of the moment. Holger would most likely be jetting immediately to a small town in Mexico that he would like to keep secret, to preserve its wonder. We’re just excited to have that feeling of boarding an airplane once again. Holger will be steadfastly in his aisle seat and I will be at my window watching it all go by.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.