Olivia Lee straddles the worlds of art, design and experiences. Trained as an industrial designer but established as an installation artist, illustrator and designer in the international scene, she has carved her own path as a leading light of Singapore’s new creatives. She speaks to us from Milan, where she is showcasing her latest work at La Triennale di Milano.
You recently embarked on an Open Brief Year. Tell us about that journey and what you’ve discovered along the way.
Open Brief Year is a device that I invented for myself when I made the leap of quitting a stable and highly respected job to pursue my dreams. It was a way of helping me feel structured on what was in reality a daunting exploration of the self, how I wanted to work and what that work would be.
I think we can some times get caught up with the need to define our careers and purpose, subsequently muddling that with our self-concept and identity. Today, it feels as if there is an incredible pressure to fold passion and work together and to see this as the answer to life. I think this can be both misleading and potentially damaging to our views of happiness. Following your dreams is no walk in the park. I had mentally prepared for professional uncertainty, financial insecurity and social pressures, but I had not considered the deeper and more fundamental challenges that arose.
When you are no longer part of an organization, are without plans or a semblance of a formal set-up (like I was at the time) – you really only have yourself to carry you forward. You feel vulnerable. The simplest task of introducing yourself suddenly becomes a miniature existential crisis. This made me wonder who I was irrespective of anything.
It made me reflect on the kind of person I was and the kind of person I wanted to be. Am I grateful? Am I a good person? Do I have a positive effect on people? Can optimism be trained like a muscle? What does it mean to be agile? Can resilience be developed? In moments of doubt and with no ‘work’ to distract me, I was forced to deal with these questions head-on and to get reacquainted with the most basic version of myself. This all sounds very narcissistic so do bear with me as I get to the point.
I realized that if I ever wanted to build something meaningful one day, I needed to start at the very foundation. I needed to make sure I knew enough about myself to develop a source of inner strength independent of external factors. I needed to be a person of integrity and a force of optimism. I needed a balanced and holistic philosophy for life.
When I look at business-owners, I am always fascinated by how the values of a leader become the values of the business and the personality of the leader transcends into the culture of an organization. If I ever hope to compel people to help me on my journey, I must accept and embrace that the flipside of rallying people is the responsibility you then have towards them.
It is a precious thing when people are prepared to follow you on your cause because it means they have faith in you and believe in what you do. The most effective way of never squandering that gift is by being the best person you can be, be strong so you can be strong for those who depend on you and live out each day continuing to earn that goodwill. This is a philosophy that applies in relationships, in artistic endeavors and in business.
When I embarked on Open Brief Year, I thought I was redesigning my career. I realized that I was actually redesigning my life.
Your work is as diverse as your imagination. Project titles range from ‘Stream of Light’, to ‘Struck’, ‘Revere’, ‘The Golden Rules’, ‘Filial Piety’, and ‘The Marvellous Marble Factory’. How do you make your decisions about what work to take on and what projects to embark on next?
In the spirit of Open Brief Year, I have spent the last two years working on the basis of being guided solely by intuition. If it feels right and I am excited about it, I do it. I was curious to explore an emotion-based versus logic-based decision-making process. I wondered if by following my gut, I could get similar results without the futile and energy-consuming exercise of over-thinking things.
Share a little about the current work you are showing in Milan, ‘Instruments of Beauty’. Is there a message or story you want to put out there with this?
Instruments of Beauty: Divine Tools is a collection of exquisite drawing tools personifying mankind’s yearning for beauty and the patterns of meaning in the world. Just as the Alchemists sought after enlightenment through the pursuit of immortality, the Ancient Greeks found divinity in the correlation between mathematics, the sciences and the arts. They found divinity in the golden ratio (φ), a geometric relationship as old as the spine of the nautilus shell and propagated (immaculately or not) in iconic artifacts across history.
This set of tools represents the convergence of disciplines (math, engineering and art) and ideals (spirituality and technology) – and the tantalizing promise of eternity through everlasting and universal beauty. These tools invoke the mysterious force that encodes the Universe with our sense of beauty and the ideal.
To be part of the 15 designers selected to present work at La Triennale di Milano is truly a milestone in my career. I am really proud to unveil Instruments of Beauty to the design world.
There are many people out there who look up to the path you’ve taken and wonder how you’ve managed to get to where you are. Besides looking back to connect the dots, what key nuggets of wisdom would you give to them?
That is flattering to know! I think setting aside time to know yourself will give you the initial insights you need to get you started on the path. This sounds easy, but I think we can be deceptively good at telling ourselves we cannot afford that discussion. Next, daring to honor those impulses. I think we tend to stop ourselves short with ‘I can’t’, but why not treat it like a thought-experiment? For one day, just see what happens when you say ‘Yes’ and ‘I can’. The world is not going to collapse and you can always go back to the status quo, if it is not for you.
Singapore has talked a lot about investing more into our own brand of creativity. As a sort of poster child for the result the government wants to cultivate, what’s the one policy you think needs to change to achieve this?
Wow, I don’t know if I can be called a poster child! I cannot really think of a specific policy that I think needs changing. In an ideal scenario, I wish that administrators could be free from their KPI-driven approach to measuring success, as it would give them greater freedom to be bolder in decision-making and to more comfortable with the idea of things developing organically over a longer period of time.
The pressure to identify ‘sure-wins’ and to ‘show results’ however means that decisions are always going to be focused on what appears ‘sensibly geared for success’ on paper. This can limit the opportunities to truly break new ground with disruptive ideas that are incomparable to existing benchmarks.
I also want to add that I think that Singaporeans are very creative and innovative. I am tired of the lazy and outdated rhetoric perpetuating Singapore as dull and conservative. So, I think the question we should be asking is not ‘What do we need to do to be more creative?’ but rather ‘How do we start to recognize and own the creative power we already have? Then, how to we start to exert our creative soft power on the world?’
What is more important, consuming the story or the truth?
Good question. For me, I am drawn to authenticity and for better or worse I associate that with truthfulness. Some people would argue that truth is ultimately subjective and that our personal truths are simply the stories we tell ourselves and other people. Sometimes, the truth can be disguised through a story and sometimes stories can be used to obscure the truth. I think storytelling is ultimately a tool, which can be wielded for any kind of agenda – truthful, or not. I will always favor the truth.
Olivia Lee is part of ‘The Alchemists’ showcase which debuted at La Triennale di Milano during Milan Design Week 2015. ’The Alchemists’ project sees a new generation of Singaporean designers explore their roles as modern day alchemists - pushing the boundaries of design through the process of transmutation.
We are inspired by Olivia’s vision of beauty and inner integrity, and are proud to have her as Fieldtester, a group a group of inspiring friends that regularly test MATTER products in their workplace and travels to help us improve durability and design. Olivia wears The Sideswept Dhoti in Gradiente, Size 1.