Olivia Lee, designer

The last time I’ve met her has been toward a small vase and, in the same morning, in a park toward a gigantic log catch in the moment it passed away from a three to a piece of “dead” wood: an iron thunder striking on it burnt the surface and broke the legacy between it and his audience (the citizen repairing themselves from the everyday hot weather alongside the Equator). She found her way to give the log back to the citizen!

After the first piece of her seen in London few years before, I was not doubting which was the signature of such stunning creations. I’ve read the courtesy, of course, to double check: also these other pieces were a signature of Olivia Lee.

These two happening have been few weeks ago at Singapore, during the local furniture fair, IFFS, where she has been involved in two different exhibits. The small blown glass vase, Revere, is part of a wider catalogue of design made in Singapore (industry+). Revere acts as a flower pot set that search (and reach) the balance on the surface you put on after a while. And Float, another piece she signs in the same catalogue, is a coffee table obtained by casting large lotus leaves in transparent resin.

She returns back in Singapore on 2012 and these words lead us to know better her actual state and her next achievements: she is now in a Open Brief Year and I suppose she will enlarge for us the topic…


Which is a daily routine for you in this special year? When will it end up? Why you’ve moved to engage yourself in this Open Brief Year (that, of course, is a total invention by you as I guess) 

Open Brief Year is something I concocted to explain the unplanned state of creative being I wanted after I quit my job in 2013. The terms ‘Sabbatical’ and ‘Gap Year’ were imprecise for my purpose because they suggested either an interim or an outward exploration. Open Brief Year is a very personal exploration of the inner creative world and it is just the beginning. In school, I used to get chided all the time for being so fixed on my design outcomes that I refuse to allow happy accidents and interesting detours in my design explorations to change my direction.

I think that to be led by process is something we as human beings fundamentally find hard to do. It is because we need to feel safe and knowing where we will end up makes us feel safe. At least, that is how I used to think. However, I’ve learnt that plans are false constructs. Open Brief Year is not only for how I want to approach creative pursuits – it is this spirit of openness and levity that I want to apply to life.

In another way, Open Brief Year is a palatable way of saying that my plan is to have no plan! Quitting without a job or an objective is pretty unheard of in a pragmatic country like Singapore so what I’m doing is pretty radical. I left behind a well respected job to pursue the unknown.

I currently share a small studio with other designers and artists. My routine is to observe conventional offices hours and show up in the studio on weekdays no matter what. Opportunities have serendipitously found their way to me by word of mouth and when it feels right in the heart I follow.

One of my favorite painters Chuck Close once said, “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” I am a big believer that the creative life is one of continuous effort and an unending journey of being better (in every sense of the word).

Can you tell me from where you come and your personal history in ten lines? How did you end up to come back in Singapore? 

I was born in Singapore and had the unique circumstance of a rural childhood in a populated city-state. I lived in a hilly complex, riding bicycles in storm drains, climbing trees and catching spiders. I had neighbours from Croatia, Iran, Japan, America, India, UK and the Philippines. I grew up in an exotic mix of kitchen smells as us kids dashed into each other’s homes for water before returning to our games in the park.

I spent hours on my own in summer on craft projects and science experiments. I got in trouble selling my crafts to my classmates in school. They were concerned that I was making money off my friends. I was! I was 11 at the time. I was also a total geek in secondary school. I was in the Art, Drama and Computer club. In junior college, I earned the nickname of ‘the misplaced Arts student’ because I wanted to be in the Science Faculty but practically lived in the Art Room. I was by standards quite a misfit. I came to industrial design by total accident — a fateful pamphlet from my Dad that promised an exciting mix of art, engineering and business. A scholarship then took me to London, the birthplace of eccentricity. I had discovered the Mecca of misfits – home! The same scholarship called me back to Singapore where I continue in the tradition of ‘misfitting’.


Which is today the real meaning behind the word “designer” as life profession, especially in Singapore?

I don’t know about ‘real meaning’. I can say there is better awareness of design in Singapore than in the past. In fact, it’s a little en vogue at the moment. To be a designer in Singapore has never been cooler.

From the outside, it may seem glamorous or a status symbol. The reality is different. While people love the outcomes of design, the designers at work here still struggle to get people to recognize the importance of the creative process, its messiness and intangible value.

Empowering designers with the trust to do great things and rewarding them duly for their ideas will help design become a more viable and recognized pursuit in Singapore. Attention on design and the industry is great, as long as it is not hype because hype is ephemeral and leads to disappointment.


Being entrepreneur as designer has been rewarding since now? Are the reasons for which you’ve settled back residing also in the possible economic stimulus you receive there from your government or from the creative scene (clients, colleagues, academies)? 

There is nothing quite like creating. It’s painful, cathartic, self-loathing and exciting. It’s frustrating when things are not going well and thrilling when things come together. I love every aspect of it.

Fate brought me back to Singapore and it is only in recent years that I have come to understand how much support and interest is being channeled into the Arts. It is a good time to be here and in Asia too.


What has this city and Asia done for you until now? And what London did for you? 

Singapore gave me an incredibly strong work ethic and Asia is an intense tapestry of cultures that I have yet to fully-explore. In London, I acquired a taste for Marmite and its Swiss friend Cenovis. It also made me love long walks and the tradition of Sunday Roasts.


And what have you offered to Singapore? And, before, to London?

I offer to Singapore my idealism and hope for more creative chaos. I have offered London my love and a place in my heart as my other home.


Is there a happy moment in your life you remember with great pleasure?

One happy memory is when I was recently reunited with my friends in London for a wedding in Switzerland. It was autumn and we made a small fire by the lake. We grabbed some leftover food, wine from the cellar and old blankets to keep warm. We walked along the rocky shore to collect long sticks. Then, we started toasting bread together with cheese over the fire. I will never forget the smell of the smoke, damp pine needles and musty lake. The evening was filled with our laughter.


What is your favorite dish? And what is your favorite drink? 

Oh no! This changes all the time. I love Tenzaru Udon on a hot day and anything my mother cooks when I come home starving.

My favourite drink is something called “Snake Grass Water” or Laoshan Sparkling Oldenlandia Water. It’s like the Chinese version of San Pellegrino. It is an acquired taste because it is slightly metallic tasting and is made with a medicinal plant. Only old men in coffee shops drink them in Singapore and I always get a funny look when I order one. Haha!


What kind of music to you listen to? And which is the book or the books on your bed-table now? And, for instance, who designed the furniture you use and you prefer more to read, eat, listen to music? 

My music taste leans towards the melancholic, mathematical and atmospheric. A few must-haves on my playlist are Radiohead, Boards of Canada, Philip Glass, Max Richter and The Cinematic Orchestra. Right now, I’m reading “What are you Looking at?: 150 Years of Modern Art” and I just completed this amazing iPad game that is called Monument Valley. I have a mix of IKEA, found furniture and weekend market items in my home. I like to keep things eclectic.

These days I find it harder and harder to sit through a whole book without surfing the Internet. It’s terrible! I would prefer for a simpler time where I would read books for a whole day without interruption.


A talent (or a quality) you have and one you don’t have.

I really enjoy hosting parties and cooking for my loved ones.

I wish I could sing in lower octaves!

2 Responses to “Olivia Lee, designer”

  1. CC Curry

    Where can you purchase this beautiful Lotus
    Floating coffee table? I could really see this in my living room.


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