On some weekends, Olivia Lee, 33, takes a virtual trip to Cities: Skylines, a computer game in which she builds cities, constructs roads and maps train lines for two to three hours. It’s a design getaway that feels as if it might combine the missions of the Land Transport Authority, Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the Economic Development Board. When she does return to the real world, she’s tired but radiant – to the bemusement of her fiance Hunn Wai, himself an award-winning industrial designer. As it turns out, the virtual world is just another element of design that inspires her work and life, and she loves it.
This self-confessed sci-fi nerd loves the dystopian prose of Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley, Jeff VanderMeer, Carl Sagan and Neil Gaiman, and she’s a fan of the zeitgeist-baiting Black Mirror Netflix series as well. Not unlike these visionaries, Olivia is always thinking about how our behaviours are affected by real events.
This fascination with digital habits in our everyday lives inspired her Olivia Lee studio debut, The Athena Collection, which launched at Salone del Mobile.Milano, a furniture fair in Italy known for kick-starting the careers of young designers. The collection includes a dressing table with built-in flattering lighting for selfies, and a carpet with tactile details and borders to distinguish virtual and physical space. “It represents design and technology for the contemporary woman. It shows how a woman can be ambitious, savvy and have a lot of technological know-how, but also be warm, tactile, rich and beautiful,” explains Her World ’s Young Woman Achiever 2018.
The Athena Collection propelled Olivia from an up-and-coming designer in Singapore to an international rising star featured in design journals like Britain’s Wallpaper and Icon, and online interior and design magazine Dezeen – the latter named her as a promising talent to watch.
Olivia’s industrial design journey might seem obvious with hindsight, but in a way, it was industrial design that found her. She had done her A levels at Raffles Junior College, but didn’t get the full-ride scholarship to Wesleyan University that she’d hoped for. Uncannily, a new course in industrial design at the National University of Singapore (NUS) listed all the subjects – engineering, design and business – that she was passionate about.
“It was like my ship had finally found its dock. In the past, I would pursue these interests through my extracurricular activities or by sketching under the table, but I could now do it for real as part of the curriculum,” she muses. Everything came together, and she excelled. In her third year at NUS, she transferred to the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London on a scholarship from the Design Singapore Council, to complete her studies. She topped her cohort, graduating with first-class honours.
Olivia’s aesthetic stands out: Her approach is diverse and adaptable, and she brings a sense of wonder to her work. “It’s that ritual of analysing and reflecting that gives me a foundation to draw and create new ideas.”
She’s always attentive and open to the possibilities that surround her. Observing shadows on the floor or the way leaves dance in the wind could spark ideas on how to create a new lighting system or an installation with a tropical vibe.
Her best friend since their early teens, screenwriter and playwright Teh Su Ching, 33, adds that Olivia also has a lot of empathy: “It makes her designs really good because she anticipates the needs of the people who buy her products, and she reaches into their innermost desires.” Case in point: Olivia created Su Ching’s engagement ring based on the latter’s love of Art Deco designs.
This combination of empathy and a good eye is apparent in her recent works for luxury brand Hermes, home-grown bookbinding business Bynd Artisan and whisky distillery The Balvenie. Suprisingly, though, after her studies, Olivia didn’t start her career in Singapore as a designer. She became a civil servant instead.
Following a stint in London working for award-winning British industrial designer Sebastian Bergne, Olivia returned home and worked at the Economic Development Board (EDB) as a senior officer managing two portfolios, developing user insights and design sectors in Singapore, with a focus on consumer-facing businesses. It cemented her understanding of consumer behaviour and the socioeconomic and corporate contexts in which design, creativity and innovation sit. She had wanted the opportunity to do something beyond pure design work.
It was about as satisfying as you can imagine. “I remember sometimes feeling very isolated when it came to my dreams. I think that initially, when you start out, it feels very lonely because everyone else’s lives seem so put-together and figured-out,” she says.
Her older sister Germaine provided encouragement. Germaine had asked her: “Olivia, why do you want to be what everybody else wants you to be? You should just be what you want to be.”
So she decided to leave the EDB to start her own multidisciplinary design studio when the fear of not trying exceeded the fear of trying. It was a recognisable “garang” attitude from her childhood, when she would play with mud and sticks and go to bed with grass stuck to her feet.
Brave new world
In 2013, Olivia rented a small desk space at local design and crafts store Supermama on Seah Street. “I gave myself a free pass for a year to take on projects I really wanted to do. People pay $600 for a gym membership each month, so why not rent a desk for a year?” she explains. She was trying to find her ikigai (a term the Japanese use to describe searching for your raison d’etre, or your sweet spot).
Within two weeks, Japanese entrepreneur Yoichi Nakamuta of Singapore design production company Industry+ (whose mission is to create work for and collaborate with Asian designers, as well as curate and host exhibitions) commissioned Olivia – as part of a Singapore collective of eight prominent designers – to produce high-quality, contemporary-design, made-in-Asia products. She created Float (a low table with real lotus leaves cast in resin) and Revere, a self-righting vase which mirrored a bowing gesture. The collection went to the London Design Festival and Maison et Objet. “It was a very well-timed project because it was a big sign that said, ‘Olivia Lee is back in business’.”
“If something makes me uncomfortable or scared, I ask myself why and try to figure out if it’s a mental block or something that can be pushed through.”
Her aforementioned fiance, Hunn, 38, the designer behind multi-award-winning product design studio Lanzavecchia + Wai, points out: “Olivia’s approach to industrial design is very intelligent, always full of narrative, and well crafted to ignite anyone’s sense of wonder. It’s extremely relevant in this day and age, when we need more romance and fantasy.”
The couple met while studying at NUS, but they really got to know each other through industry events and socials. They’ve dated for two years and will be getting married at the end of this year. They run separate practices and inhabit office spaces in the expansive Wonder Facility, dotted with tropical plants for a sense of warmth and cosiness.
When they’re not working, the couple check out new F&B concepts or host dinners in their workspaces – he makes the cocktails, she cooks. Olivia has a penchant for communal dishes such as soups, stews and handmade pasta with beef ragu. She and Hunn also explore design events to feed their minds. “We are two design geeks who love what we do,” she says of their compatibility. “Sometimes Hunn and I are out when we spot an interesting detail somewhere. We take a photo of it and talk about how it was created or how it could be replicated.”
The entire history of you
Growing up, Olivia was constantly surrounded by paint and paper, gouache, set squares, and analogue cameras. Her parents, both commercial artists, did graphic design projects for the print industry. “They had a home studio, which meant I could see what they were doing,” she recalls.
As a little girl of seven or eight, she would rummage through her dad’s toolbox. “I never felt that hardware or industrial zones were considered out of bounds, and I don’t think my dad [set boundaries] in a conscious way,” she says. “He was just like, ‘Come, let’s do it’.”
Seeing her parents balance all kinds of responsibilities showed her what it meant to have a strong work ethic. “They’re very good at grounding me and keeping me humble. [Top designer] list or no list, I still need to do the dishes,” she laughs. It gives her a healthy perspective. As artists themselves, her parents have a “pure pursuit of the craft” and remind her to keep things authentic.
Visions for the 21st century
Olivia now takes a very motherly and sisterly approach to coaching her young team, which comprises a design assistant and a roster of interns. Inspired by European studios where teams frequently lunch in, she finds that cooking a meal is the most honest way to show her appreciation for the people she works with.
“I was also very taken by hearing about how Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki would, late at night, make a big pot of ramen and dole it into everyone’s office mugs,” says Olivia, adding that it’s a way to raise morale and build communal spirit.
To mentor, manage and counsel her staff, she draws on her experience as a part-time lecturer at NUS, Singapore Polytechnic, and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. “What I can do is create an environment for them to feel confident and brave enough to make decisions without me,” she says.
Now that her star is rising, Olivia will face pressures, but she knows how to take a healthy step back and remain the creator she was before the validation came. “My work being good is fundamental to the health and future of my practice,” she says.
What’s next? “To keep doing work that fulfils me, exceeds expectations, and surprises my clients and collaborators.”