NOW PEOPLE – LEONARD LEE
INDUSTRIAL DESIGNER AND FOUNDER OF WONDER FACILITY
Hospitality and residential designer and architect.
In a time when all it takes to be considered a smart product is an app or Wi-Fi compatibility, a smart home collection that stays loyal to its analogue roots will naturally raise eyebrows.
The design world fell in love with Olivia Lee’s The Athena Collection when it was showcased at the prestigious Salone del Mobile furniture fair in April. The 10-piece furniture and decor collection presents itself as solutions to technology-related habits – the Altar vanity is to be used with accessories like smartphone holders (as you diligently follow that Youtube makeup tutorial), while the Arena rug has tactile details that help virtualreality gaming enthusiasts sense their way through virtual and physical spaces.
But The Athena Collection is not Olivia’s first feat. The 32-year-old Central Saint Martins graduate runs an eponymous interdisciplinary studio and also founded Wonder Facility (pictured, opposite), a communal space for creatives to collaborate as well as have the privacy to work on their prototypes.
The 1,000sqf facility in Ubi is a bright and airy space, fitted with utilitarian storage systems and designed to accommodate workshops and collaborative projects.
We chat with its introspective founder to find out more about her.
The Olivia Lee studio prides itself on its research-informed designs. Which behavioural trends informed The Athena Collection?
Technology is now intimately integrated into our lives, but the changes were so small and passive that we don’t realise how our behaviours have changed, be it in the ways we entertain ourselves to the ritual of taking photos of food. I wanted to include these observations without forcing furniture to become an electronic product, because as technology progresses fast, a physical product that cannot keep up will become obsolete.
Why do you think the collection was so well received?
I suppose it hit a nerve. It’s like holding a mirror up to ourselves and realising that things have changed. I was Facetiming a friend (which, 10 years ago, would have seemed so sci-fi), and after an hour, my hand started cramping up from being in an awkward position! (laughs) The Altar, for instance, presents a solution to this that you didn’t even know you needed. Athena triggered a lot of discussion about the dynamics of technology and furniture; they are separate industries, yet are amalgamated in the context of a home.
Why did you create Wonder Facility?
When I started my own studio, I realised it could get very isolating and that there was a real need for a sense of community. But there’s a conundrum; you need solitude to do work, but not be alone at the same time. Wonder Facility is an experiment on that, where a small group of people can share the space and learn from one another. For this cultural fit to happen, we choose creatives with the same wavelengths and complementary practices.
What accidental benefits have you noticed about the Wonder Facility?
The 6m-high ceiling. It’s a luxury in Singapore to have such high ceilings and a mezzanine space. This has a great psychological effect on creativity, because the sense of liberation helps create a conducive space to work. Some clients who come for meetings even want to stay and do their work here!
What kind of films or books are you into?
I’m big on dystopian and speculative fiction. They take a certain observation of society to the most extreme conclusion. This intrigues me because it shows us how life can very quickly become weird and strange without us realising. I love the film Her, the Ghost in the Shell anime, and the Black Mirror TV series, as well as authors like Margaret Atwood, William Gibson and George Orwell. Their works are a good form of reflection.
What do you envision your future home to look like?
It will be cool to have a pared-down and minimal space. I’d like a sanctuary away from sensory overload and overstimulation. A place where my eyes and mind can rest so I can look inward and not be distracted.
How do young designers keep their work relevant without falling into the trap of trends?
The best thing you can do is to innoculate yourself from trends and cultivate your own voice, studio, design philosophy and ethos. That is the surest way to know you’re not a follower, but a producer of what is truthful to yourself and your practice. Push out non-client work and develop projects just for the point of having fun, pushing yourself and experimenting with different ideas.
The collection features feminine as well as rich colours. “I wanted to show that being strong does not mean you have to shy away from femininity, or be masculine,” says Olivia.