Industrial Designer Olivia Lee Is Living Her Childhood Dream Of Becoming An Inventor

By Cheryl Lai-Lim

The Singapore-based designer describes designing the boutique of Singapore’s first luxury vulva and intimate care brand, and her most memorable career moment

Tatler Asia
Industrial designer Olivia Lee in the Two Lips boutique she helped design. (Photo: Khoo Guo Jie)
Cover  Industrial designer Olivia Lee in the Two Lips boutique she helped design. (Photo: Khoo Guo Jie)

For local industrial designer Olivia Lee, the word “inventor” was part of her vocabulary even from a young age. “My mum had bought me an inventor’s handbook for children; as an inventor, I learnt that I was supposed to look for problems and build solutions. Looking back, I see how the essence of that exists in the practice of industrial design. In many ways, I am living out my childhood dream of becoming an inventor.”

Whether it’s designing products or crafting experiences within spaces, inventing is clearly something Lee excels in. Having launched her eponymous practice in 2013, the designer’s career highlights span from showcasing her work at the Triennale di Milano during Milan Design Week to designing the Singapore pop-up store for Hermès Petit H. 

Distinctive and multilayered, each evocative design is marked with a soulful character. “I think my design style is less about an aesthetic sensibility and more about an approach driven by concepts and stories,” explains Lee. “Having said that, I love creating beautiful things. I just also love hiding layers of meaning, cleverness and symbolism beneath the surface for people to discover.” 

Lee is also the creative force behind the design of Singapore’s first luxury vulva and intimate care brand Two Lips’ physical store debut. “As a studio, we were intent on creating a welcoming, intriguing and intimate experience,” she explains. “In wanting to create an atmosphere of warmth and refuge, we took our material and colour palette from shades of earth and clay.” 

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In wanting to “evoke a sense of the elemental” during a customer’s multi-sensorial journey, the 500 sq ft store features curvaceous walls made from an antique-pitted mineral clay finish in a terracotta hue. Large rust-coloured glazed porcelain tiles from Italy line the floor, while the custom-cast terrazzo sink top and tap imbue a sense of luxury with their brass and copper accents. 
“[When I was a child], I enjoyed creating new things; it did not bother me that there was no precedence or points of reference. Looking back, I see how the essence of that exists in the practice of industrial design. In many ways, I am living out that childhood dream of being an inventor,” says Lee, with pride.

Here, the designer tells us more about her creative process and recent design favourites that have caught her eye.

Tell us about the inspiration behind the design of the Two Lips store.  
We proposed the concept of a modern-day curiosity shop, where rare curios, objets d’art and antiquities from around the world are collected, displayed and sold, as a framing device for mingling aspects of discovery, education and retail. It was also a play on being curious about your body.  
We reimagined this idea for the Two Lips flagship and its contemporary customer; showcasing products alongside a selection of thematic and thought-provoking art projects specially commissioned by Two Lips to create open and honest conversations around vulva care.  
My favourite thing about the store is the bold decision to obscure key retail displays behind peepholes and hidden within bespoke ceramic cloches. In a noisy retail landscape, this sets the store apart as an oasis of calm and consensual storytelling. And, inspired by rare shows of the past, these peephole elements play on the tension of privacy and voyeurism, curiosity and intrigue.

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What makes up the narrative of a project for you?  
As a designer, I just cannot help considering everything that adds up to the sum of a project. If I am designing an interior, I am thinking about the service protocol, the emotional touch points and the semantics of colour.

If I am designing a piece of furniture, I am thinking about its story and anticipating the kinds of spaces it might end up inhabiting. Instinctively, this has led me to the nature of my practice today. 

Where do you seek design inspiration from?
Some people think of inspiration as a destination, a divine source from which creators retrieve their best and newest ideas. For me, I see inspiration as a process of coalescence that leads to revelation. For me, it comes with feeding my mind and my eyes with beautiful, provocative and unexpected things.  
When you are paying attention and experiencing the world vividly, the ordinary turns into poetry—the condensation on a glass of water, laundry drying in the evening sun or the fleeting iridescence found on wet asphalt. An inspired life is one led with curiosity, openness and wonder.

You work in so many fields—from interiors to product design and brand storytelling. What has the experience been like working in the different fields?
I have a very holistic and perhaps meta approach to design. For me, all these fields are just facets of design specialisation and so I do not really see myself as making big switches between fields at all. And historically, this is not a new concept.  
The term Gesamtkunstwerk means “total work of art” in German and describes a creative process that combines all manner of art forms into a unified cohesive whole. It dates to the era of art nouveau and Bauhaus [cultural movements that originated in the early 20th century]. For me, each project demands the design of an entire world with its own internal logic. It demands the utilisation and orchestrating of diverse fields. 
In hindsight, I think a key factor in winning the trust of my collaborators and design commissions has been the consistency of my design philosophy and approach to instilling wonder. It has woven a recognisable thread throughout my diverse body of work and opened the doors to many amazing projects.

See also: Award-Winning Taiwanese Designer Yen Po-Chun On Finding His Own Path And Seeing The Value Of Setbacks

Tatler Asia
Above  As part of a collaboration with Neolith and CDK Stone in Australia, Lee used a newly engineered Himalayan Crystal stone to design a miniature golf course (Image: Olivia Lee)
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Above  The Athena Collection by Lee explores materiality and textures when it comes to a smart furniture collection designed for women’s new digital habits (Image: Olivia Lee)

Pick one: bright colours or neutral hues?
Neutral hues all-day long. I find them calming and timeless. 
Complete the sentence: You’ll never see ____ in my home.
Kiwi fruits. I am allergic to them! 
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?  
The sense of agency and creative control over my own practice and lifestyle.

What has been the most memorable point in your career thus far?
There have been so many memorable moments in my career so far: from showcasing my work at the Triennale di Milano during Milan Design Week, designing the Singapore pop-up store for Hermès Petit h and meeting Hermès artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas in Paris, to staying next to Balvenie Castle in Dufftown when working on a design commission for whisky brand The Balvenie and being invited back as an alumnus by Central Saint Martins to speak to their design students. But, I am most excited for what has yet to come and there is still so much to be done.

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What are some designs that have served as a source of inspiration recently?  

  • NFT: Living Vase 01 by Lanzavecchia + Wai
    As tech companies race for virtual platform supremacy via competing metaverses and people grow accustomed to transacting in crypto-assets — a whole new economy of virtual products, furniture and architecture has emerged.

    The recent launch and successful sale of Lanzavecchia + Wai’s inaugural NFT “Living Vase 01” is exciting because I think it is emblematic of the shift in how industrial designers will shape material culture in the next decade. My studio has also been delving into the world of non-fungible tokens (“NFT”) and will be launching projects related to the metaverse in the coming year.

  • Furniture: Sarpaneva Cast Iron Casserole by Timo Sarpaneva
    I was first introduced to the Sarpaneva Casserole in design history class at school. I was immediately taken by its modest beauty and understated functionality. Its elegantly curved wooden handle doubles as a tool for lifting the pot’s lid. It somehow manages to feel ancient yet contemporary, a hallmark of great Scandinavian design. We finally have one for our home and we use it to cook everything, from beef bourguignon to chicken curry.
  • Furniture: Brick Screen by Eileen Gray
    Eileen Gray is one of the rare female architects-designers in history who found success throughout the Art Deco to Modernist era. Eileen Gray took great interest in the art of lacquering and trained under the renowned lacquer specialist, Seizo Sugawara.

    Brick Screen is a testament to Gray’s finesses with the craft and deep understanding of industrial design. The lacquered wood screen is movable, using repeating modular components that give it a timeless and dynamic quality. It is a design that is truly more than the sum of its parts. 

  • Art Piece: Rage Fluids by Hannah Perry
    I was fortunate enough to catch the last day of the Orchestral Manoeuvres: See Sound. Feel Sound. Be Sound. exhibition at the ArtScience Museum earlier this year. This particular installation by artist Hannah Perry is so essential and perfect in execution. It consists of a large suspended copper-toned vinyl foil in generous curves that vibrates to a sub-woofer speaker hidden behind. Sound achieves a magical physicality that is simply mesmerising.

  • Furniture: Parentesi by Achille Castiglioni and Pio Manzù
    Parentesi is a perfect union of engineering and poetry. I picked this design because I love how it ingeniously uses friction and tension to create an adjustable mechanism. The bent tube shaped like a parenthesis slides up and down a floor-to-ceiling steel cable, allowing you to adjust its height. It is a masterful use of materials and therefore on our list of design objects to collect for the home. 

See more honourees from the Architecture & Design category of the Gen.T List.

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