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Singaporean designer Olivia Lee: “I grew up in an environment where I was never told not to try or explore something.”

The 33-year-old dreamer champions whimsical designs as portals to discovery and exploration.

She is the Singaporean designer who gained international attention during Milan Design Week 2017, with a 10-piece furniture and home accessories collection designed to show how technology has changed everyday life. Think a pink vanity table with integrated lighting designed for flattering selfies, or a pastel rug to serve as an arena for virtual reality.

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But you don’t have to be a design buff to have seen her works. You might have walked past them on Orchard Road. Commissioned by Hermes to design its window displays in 2017, she transformed them into a gallery of absurdist scenes: of a contraption fleecing cyan sheep–and transforming the yarn into a handsome wool coat; of a “night harvester” that morphs the inky darkness of the sky into jet- black boots and satchels; or a loom that weaves intricately patterned silk scarves out of larger-than-life blooms.

Lee, 33, stresses that all her collaborations – and she has worked with myriad partners from local craft book binders Bynd Artisan to heritage whisky brand The Balvenie – are milestones in their own right. Yet the Hermes project is significant to Lee for it reaffirmed the way she has been approaching design. “(It proved that) there is a space – and an appetite – for design that wants to go beyond problem solving,” says Lee. “(We can) inject poetry, fantasy, narrative – adjectives not normally used in a vocation or task, but has always been desired by human beings since the beginning of time.” The bigger vision is to create “pocket universes for people to discover and explore”.

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While she tries to pack as much whimsy as she can into her projects today, Lee wasn’t always so sure of herself. “For the longest time, I wondered why I was not like other ‘traditional’ designers. Eventually, I realised that it is what sets me apart and it is something that I do not need to justify.”

Olivia Lee

Lee’s childhood ambitions encompass both art and science disciplines.

The product design graduate who topped her class at Central Saint Martins in London sees design as both an art and a science. As a child whose ambitions swung among astronaut, architect, poet, philosopher and researcher, she has always been just as enthusiastic about her water colour classes, as collecting her Young Scientist Badges. “I grew up in an environment where I was never told not to try or explore something,” says Lee. “At about nine years of age, I had a plastic suitcase labelled ‘inventor’s suitcase’ with springs and cork and dismantled dolls and one-dollar motors. I would also create little marble runs with stuff from my dad’s tool box. There were always little piles of mess in the house – and a lot of patience and latitude from my parents, who shaped me into who I am simply by letting me do my thing.”


And the “doing” aspect is perhaps what distinguishes her from just being another dreamer. Launching the studio in 2013, when she was in her late 20s, made her realise two things: One needs a larger boat to catch bigger fish; and that action equals reality. “I wrote that down to remind myself that I can sit here and dream all day, but unless I do something about it, it is not going to turn to reality. I might be powered by dreams and imagination, but I also believe in actualising one’s flights of fancy.”

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