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Person to Know: Industrial Designer Olivia Lee

By Sinéad Tan

Singaporean industrial designer Olivia Lee is currently in the spotlight for her well-received installation at Milan Design Week 2017.
 
Olivia Lee
Singaporean industrial designer Olivia Lee is currently in the spotlight for her well-received installation at Milan Design Week 2017.

Olivia Lee made waves most recently when her installation at Salone del Mobile 2017 in Milan, Italy, was roundly praised in the international press. The 32-year-old Singaporean exhibited the Athena Collection at SaloneSatellite, the emerging design platform of the annual furniture fair. The collection and its designer received effusive reviews and made Best-Of lists compiled by renowned industry publications and websites.

The Athena Collection is “an ode to the contemporary woman”, comprising 10 pieces of furniture and home accessories intended to solve lifestyle problems arising from modern-day technology. Among the objects on show were a pastel pink vanity table with a stand on which to prop up an iPhone while FaceTiming or taking selfies, and a cheerfully-patterned carpet with tactile details to create a safe physical space for those experimenting with virtual reality headsets.

Olivia LeeFrom the Athena Collection (2017): The ALTAR vanity set, shown with a table mirror attachment.
From the Athena Collection (2017): The ALTAR vanity set, shown with a table mirror attachment.

“I describe the Athena Collection as a smart-home concept without the use of electronic components – an analogue smart-home,” says Lee. “It represents my love of technology and the future, as well as my love of objects and creating beautiful things. I felt that there was an opportunity to bring these two things together.”

“I tried to bridge the relationship between technology and our physical environment without being intrusive or making ‘Frankenstein objects’. I’ve seen other items that try to bring (technology and design) together, and it ends up as something like a lamp that that suddenly wants to have Bluetooth, or a pillow that is also a wi-fi router – a madness of just trying to put the Internet on everything. I felt that there was another way of approaching it, by being true to the characteristics of furniture whilst embracing the tide of technology.”

Olivia LeeThe EMBLEM wall grid system from the Athena Collection (2017), which fulfils the functions of storage, acoustic buffering, and temporary seating.
The EMBLEM wall grid system from the Athena Collection (2017), which fulfils the functions of storage, acoustic buffering, and temporary seating.

The genesis of the Athena Collection was in Lee’s own observations about how our lives have changed as a result of technology. In fact, her qualities of curiosity, open-mindedness and perceptiveness have facilitated much of her creative work. “Everything inspires me!” she enthuses. “Sometimes I like to deliberately step outside the world of design and do something totally different, like take care of my plants, or learn how to cook something, or go see a history exhibition. I always make it a point to read up voraciously and keep up with good Netflix programmes. I find that the further away you are from the thing that you do on a day-to-day basis, the more refreshed you come back to that medium. I think it’s good to keep your net cast very wide – the more broadly you scatter your interest points, the bigger area you have to draw inspiration from.”

It may very well be that Lee is primed to perceive the world through a more inventive lens than most. The Central Saint Martins graduate was born into a family of art-lovers and grew up watching her parents – both of whom trained in graphic design – working with gouaches, Letraset typesetting systems and analogue photography at home. Naturally, they were supportive when young Lee regularly switched ambitions from becoming an astronaut, to a philosopher, to a detective, to an architect, to a poet (all professions involving an aspect of creation and discovery, she points out), and continued to be supportive when she eventually pursued industrial design as a career.

Olivia LeeThe ARENA rug, made from acrylic yarn and designed for the Athena Collection (2017).
The ARENA rug, made from acrylic yarn and designed for the Athena Collection (2017).

Lee explains that an industrial designer, as opposed to an artist or any other kind of designer, works closely with businesses that involve skilled manufacture. “We’re trained to design any kind of product that has the potential to be reproduced for mass-market,” she elaborates. Her portfolio includes collaborations with Korean electronics behemoth Samsung, British heritage brand Mathmos, and the crowd-favourite i Light Marina Bay Festival.

The guiding principle underlying all of Lee’s design ventures is her desire to find a balance between form and function. “I think beauty has a bit of a bad reputation – people tend to think that if you talk about it, you’re superficial. But I feel that a quality of beauty is more than just the appearance of a thing: it can be the way it makes you feel, the way it harmonises with the rest of the environment, or the way it’s been executed.”

She also has a particular predilection for storytelling as an angle from which to begin the creative process, regardless of format or medium. Likening the process to planning a surprise party, she derives joy from being able to interact with and delight the audience, be it through telling a good story, presenting something witty or surprising, or incorporating an element of playfulness. This sentiment was unmissable in Lee’s 2015 project, the Marvellous Marble Factory, which was created using materials from Polystone (local importers of marble and natural stone) and was on display at that year’s Singaplural design event.

Olivia LeePieces of marble and other natural stone made to look like a box of candy at the Marvellous Marble Factory installation (2015).
Pieces of marble and other natural stone made to look like a box of candy at the Marvellous Marble Factory installation (2015).

The installation featured pieces of marble in the forms of ice-cream and candy, presented alongside an artificial factory set-up replete with a conveyor belt and machines made from old appliance parts. Lee expanded upon the inversion of experiences and the theme of presenting a traditional material in an unexpected manner by distributing ice-cream named after types of marble. “People thought they were eating marble-flavoured ice-cream!” she laughs. “I’ve always loved the qualities of wonder and a sense of humor. Being able to inject that in my work is great.”

In addition to her upcoming projects with a multitude of brands both international and local (Scottish whisky distillery Balvenie and independent Singaporean book-binder Bynd Artisan, respectively), Lee keeps busy running Wonder Facility, a co-working space for creatives that she established in 2016. The 1,000 sq ft studio located in an industrial estate is comfortable, bright and airy, with a fully-stocked pantry, plenty of tropical plants, and the resident artists’ works lined up on shelves beside tchotchkes and souvenirs. “Wonder Facility has been specially put together to create a sense of home, as a rejection to the super-slick corporate office environment,” she says. “I feel like this is a space that is trying to be human and not trying to be overly polished at the same time.”

While the trend of co-working spaces has been on the rise in recent years, Lee started Wonder Facility in order to fill a niche. As an introvert, the existing spaces were lively and conducive to networking but didn’t appeal to her need for a quiet, subdued environment. At the same time, she realised that many independent creators here are composed of teams of only one or two people, and understood the loneliness of working on one’s own every day. Consequently, she decided to set up a space where artists could work in relative solitude while still having the opportunity to learn from the expertise and ideas of others in a small community.

Olivia LeeIce-cream made from onyx and marble at the Marvellous Marble Factory installation (2015).
Ice-cream made from onyx and marble at the Marvellous Marble Factory installation (2015).

“Things have transformed so radically in the last five years,” she says, reflecting on the growth of the design community in Singapore. “When I first returned (from college in London) the scene wasn’t so bustling. It was around the time that Art Stage had just opened here, and there weren’t as many eponymous studios or much of an established design scene. The momentum was just starting to build, and it was a nice opportunity for (artists) to write our own roles and be part of the new wave that was coming up in Singapore.”

Lee excitedly references the introduction of Singapore Design Week in 2014, the increasing number of independent magazines, and the entrepreneurial spirit of fresh art school graduates as evidence of the positive growth of the country’s arts and culture scene. “We have a thriving network of designers, illustrators, graphic designers, branding agencies...it’s so exciting! I can see the same energy that I experienced when I was living in a young, creative design neighbourhood in London picking up here.”

Olivia LeePart of the Athena Collection (2017), the DAIS system of tray tables can be used for work or leisure and feature secondary storage space.
Part of the Athena Collection (2017), the DAIS system of tray tables can be used for work or leisure and feature secondary storage space.

She contrasts the current terrain with the traditional Singaporean assumption that creative fields are the domain of the academically weak (Lee herself is an alum of the prestigious Raffles Girls’ School and Raffles Junior College), standing in opposition to “sensible” pursuits in the vein of law, medicine, and engineering. Despite the improving perception of the respectability and legitimacy of careers in the arts, she highlights that the challenge of helping people understand the importance of the arts in society remains.

“We want people to see that design and creative work are valuable, not luxuries that are good to have but ultimately unnecessary,” she says. “Businesses, especially traditional ones, have to recognise that design is a very powerful tool for innovation and creating new value. This is especially true now that technology is beginning to disrupt professions and industries – there’s even talk of AI replacing humans in the fields of medicine and law, so even those aren’t stable. All of a sudden, the beliefs that people have held onto in the past are no longer valid.”

Lee’s wish is for Singaporean audiences to be more receptive toward local content, and to move beyond the idea that design in Singapore is not of an international standard or that only design work from overseas is masterful. She is optimistic that this change is already beginning to take root here. With enterprising, passionate creatives like her in the industry, the future of Singapore’s design scene is promising indeed.