A major goal of synthetic biology is to understand the transition between non-living matter and life. The bottom-up development of an artificial cell would provide a minimal system with which to study the border between chemistry and biology. So far, a fully synthetic cell has remained elusive, but chemists are progressing towards this goal by reconstructing cellular subsystems. Cell boundaries, likely in the form of lipid membranes, were necessary for the emergence of life. In addition to providing a protective barrier between cellular cargo and the external environment, lipid compartments maintain homeostasis with other subsystems to regulate cellular processes. In this Review, we examine different chemical approaches to making cell-mimetic compartments. Synthetic strategies to drive membrane formation and function, including bioorthogonal ligations, dissipative self-assembly and reconstitution of biochemical pathways, are discussed. Chemical strategies aim to recreate the interactions between lipid membranes, the external environment and internal biomolecules, and will clarify our understanding of life at the interface of chemistry and biology.