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Olivia Lee is a ris­ing star in in­dus­trial de­sign who is known here and abroad for her po­etic style in com­bin­ing form and func­tion.

O n 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 knowhow, but also be warm, tac­tile, rich and beau­ti­ful,” ex­plains Her World ’s Young Woman Achiever 2018.

The Athena Col­lec­tion pro­pelled Olivia from an up-and­com­ing 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.


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’.”


Her afore­men­tioned fi­ance, Hunn, 38, the de­signer be­hind mul­ti­award-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.”


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.


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.”

“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 canbe pushed through.”

Olivia runs her stu­dio in a per­sonal and in­ti­mate way, es­chew­ing the style of typ­i­cal cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ments.

1. Into de­sign and build­ing blocks at an early age.2. Her dad helped her dis­cover in­dus­trial de­sign.3. Into but­ter­flies be­fore Starck.

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