Designer Olivia Lee On Balancing Good Design With Practical Purpose
As the daughter of two commercial artists who worked in the print industry, Olivia Lee grew up immersed in creativity. “We had a lot of materials and tools that maybe a more conventional home wouldn’t have, like commercial paint and set squares,” she recalls fondly. “Sometimes if my parents were rushing work, my sister and I would play with all the scrap materials on the floor.”
Beyond exposing her to the joy of being a maker, she is also inspired by how her parents approached their work. “They were designers at a time when it wasn’t a glamorous or trendy thing, and they had a very humble, resourceful and progressive approach to creativity. I saw them work very hard and they made a living out of it so that my sister and I could be in a position where we were empowered to make our own choices.”
(Related: How Do You Design To Shape A Better World?)
Olivia is quick to add that they never pushed her to go into design, and might have even hoped she would follow a more conventional professional path. But when she was contemplating what degree to pursue, it was her father who told her about a new industrial design programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS). As a student, she had always been passionate about both the arts and sciences, and wasn’t sure if there was a career that would allow her to continue embracing all these interests. So it was a liberating experience when she finally discovered the discipline of industrial design. “Suddenly, there was a name for what I loved to do. It’s a profession that really engages all my faculties.”
After getting a scholarship from the DesignSingapore Council, Olivia transferred to London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to finish her studies. She graduated with first-class honours, then worked for award-winning British industrial designer Sebastian Bergne. In the Shoreditch neighbourhood where she lived, “almost everyone around me was a creative of some kind”, she says of those years abroad. “I was surrounded by people who were taking risks, and it was no big deal, just a way of life.”
She returned to Singapore just as initiatives such as Art Stage Singapore and the Gillman Barracks were livening up the creative scene. After a stint at the Economic Development Board, where she handled the user insights and design sector portfolios, she set up her eponymous multidisciplinary studio. Today, the projects she takes on are remarkably diverse, from window installations for Hermès to an indoor air purifier for German company Mann+Hummel.
In 2017, she was named one of the most promising designers at the emerging design section of the prestigious Salone del Mobile Milano furniture fair, thanks to a whimsically inventive 10-piece collection. The pieces in the collection were inspired by technology-driven user behaviour, and included items such as a carpet that uses changes in texture to inform a user immersed in a virtual reality game about his real spatial environment.
She named the collection Athena, after the Greek goddess of wisdom, strategy and crafts. “If you extrapolate from that, she would be the goddess of technology today,” Olivia muses with a smile. “Technology is so pervasive in our lives now, but tech devices are not the nicest to touch and hold. They tend to be shiny plastic alien objects. Instead of allowing technology to subtly shape us, how do we respond to it and shape it to reclaim our human qualities?
It is a thoughtful question that is deeply perceptive about the possibilities of contemporary life, and that intellectual heft grounds her artistic flights of fancy. Currently exploring production for The Athena Collection, Olivia says that reinventing the flagship retail store experience for a fashion or lifestyle brand would be a dream project.
In the meantime, she hopes her journey will help encourage others contemplating a similar path. Besides running her design practice, she guest-lectures at NUS. “I meet a lot of young people who are struggling with whether to choose the road less taken, or play it safe. Maybe just by existing and trying, that gives them some hope that a creative career is possible.”
And while she doesn’t believe in pigeonholing herself as a female designer, she does point out that industrial design remains a male‑dominated field. To do her bit, Olivia tries to take on female interns whenever possible. “I see it as a form of mentorship. When you see people who look like you doing something that you want to do, you think, ‘I can do it too’. Most importantly, focus on doing good work that speaks for itself. That will dismantle preconceptions about gender stereotypes.”