The woman putting Singapore industrial design on the map
At 34, industrial designer Olivia Lee is already on the watch list of design publications around the world. Dream wildly, she says, and make it a reality.
There’s a wonderful passage in Patrick Rothfuss’ award-winning fantasy novel, The Name Of The Wind, in which the main character Kvothe describes someone from his past.
“No matter where she stood, she was in the centre of the room. Do not misunderstand. She was not loud, or vain. We stare at a fire because it flickers, because it glows. The light is what catches our eyes, but what makes a man lean close to a fire has nothing to do with its bright shape. What draws you to a fire is the warmth you feel when you come near.”
This passage came to mind when I thought about how best to describe award-winning, local industrial designer Olivia Lee. She always seems to be in deep thought whenever I see her, quietly contemplating what’s happening around her.
Maybe that’s just her way. She wears stillness and confidence like a tailored gown.
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And while most taciturn people fade into the background, you always feel Olivia’s presence. You’re always aware of this intelligent and creative person in the room, and are often wondering, what is she thinking?
At the start of 2018, Olivia was a name every designer in Singapore knew. She was one of those brilliant young prodigies that had made a name for herself early on – topping her class at Central Saint Martins College Of Art And Design, and winning the opportunity to represent her class at a branding workshop in LVMH. She created a graduation project that went viral and worked for famed French designer Sebastian Bergne.
At home, she worked with the Economic Development Board to foster the growth of Singapore’s design sector. Olivia established her own studio at the age of 28, and has been named one of the eight most promising young designers at the renowned Salone del Mobile (Milan furniture exhibition) in 2017.
The accompanying press meant that Olivia was featured in almost every major publication in the country and is, today, arguably Singapore’s most recognisable young female designer.
Here, in CNA Lifestyle's series, where we speak with creatives making their mark in Singapore, Olivia discusses overcoming Singapore's supposed limitations, and how social media is helping to empower our female creatives.
LAST YEAR WAS A MEMORABLE ONE FOR YOU. LOOKING BACK, WHAT WERE THE HIGHLIGHTS?
2018 was indeed a special year. My highlights include getting to work with Hermes on their store scenography, being featured in Wallpaper Handmade, making Dezeen’s 10 Designers To Watch From Milan Design Week 2018 list.
I also exhibited my design commission for The Balvenie and was a panellist for The New York Times’ T Magazine. I received the Her World’s Young Woman Achiever 2018 award from President Halimah Yacob; was invited to the Istana for National Day; and most importantly, I married the love of my life, Hunn Wai.
HUNN WAI IS ANOTHER HIGHLY ACCLAIMED DESIGNER. HAVE YOU GUYS DISCUSSED COLLABORATING PROFESSIONALLY?
Many people have asked us this question and they usually mean if our studios would ever work on a project together and co-sign it. Of course, we would absolutely be open to the right opportunity. But we’d only do it if it was a resounding "yes" for both of us, as it has to be an endeavour that resonates with the values of our respective practices and merits our combined efforts.
The way we see it, Hunn Wai and I are always in a state of collaboration. As life partners, we are lifelong co-conspirators. We dream and deliberate all the time, whether in our personal or professional capacity.
FOR SOMEONE WHO DOES NOT KNOW YOUR WORK, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT YOU DO?
As an industrial designer by discipline, I am trained to conceive and translate concepts into something tangible that can be produced or manufactured at scale. We are encouraged to dream wildly and taught to find a way to make it a reality. Historically, that has meant anything from furniture and lighting, to vehicles and consumer electronics.
Today, the definition of what we are able to create has really expanded to include interior spaces, new materials and surfaces, user research, apps and new business models.
It is a fine balance of art, science, poetry, engineering and commerce. So, for anyone who has polymathic aspirations, industrial design is an excellent entry-point to becoming a multidisciplinary person.
IS SURVIVING IN SINGAPORE AS A DESIGNER DIFFICULT? HOW DO YOU BALANCE BEING A BUSINESSPERSON AND A CREATIVE?
Doing something well and knowing how to translate that into a healthy means of living is difficult, whether it is in design or any other industry.
One key challenge operating in Singapore is that we have a small domestic market, so it would be difficult to rely only on that as a creative practitioner. The upside is, this forces one to think globally from the onset.
I find it useful to look for the opportunities within our supposed limitations. Sometimes, all it takes is a little reframing to see a way out. This applies to both the creative and business practice.
HAVE THERE BEEN ANY LOW POINTS SINCE YOU STARTED YOUR CAREER AND HOW DID YOU GET THROUGH THEM?
I feel like nothing ever felt so destitute that I would be "low". I have been fraught with worry and felt disappointed, emotionally and creatively spent, mentally exhausted, frayed at the edges, but I’ve never felt despondent.
Over the years, I’ve made it a point to understand how I work best and what makes me tick. We are all unique individuals with specific needs and it is so important to acknowledge what will help us function at our highest levels.
This has given me the awareness and confidence to know when I need to step back or just get a good night’s sleep… And be kind enough to myself to take a break without feeling guilty about it.
WHAT BRAND HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO WORK WITH?
There are so many! I would really love to design furniture for Fritz Hansen, work on a new Aesop store, create a pop-up for COS, design jewellery for Cartier, create new home products for Google, create installations for Gentle Monster, develop a new dining experience for a restaurant like Noma. The list goes on.
DO YOU FEEL THAT YOUNG FEMALE CREATIVES ARE MAKING A MARK IN SINGAPORE TODAY? OR HAVE THERE ALWAYS BEEN AMAZING WOMEN CHANGING SOCIETY BUT WITHOUT THE ACCLAIM AND PRESS COVERAGE?
I think there have always been many amazing creative women in Singapore. I think one reason why we are hearing more about them is because social media has empowered them, helped them form their base and given them access to channels with a global reach.
The fact is that anyone today has the ability to create their own platform, profile their work and build their own tribe. The Internet has made talent more discoverable and the ones that really stand out get picked up by the mainstream media, amplifying the effect and creating a feedback loop.
WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON FOR THE COMING YEAR?
Many exciting and highly confidential things! [Laughs] I can’t tell you.