#TrueCalling: Olivia Lee

IN COLLABORATION WITH HUAWEI,
featuring photos shot/edited on the new Huawei P10, co-engineered with Leica.

Why do we do what we do? What drives us, day after day, to pour our time, effort, and our heart and soul into the art, the beauty, the solutions and magic that we create?

We pursue our dreams and chase them into our reality not because it is the most natural thing to do, or the easier way to live. Quite the contrary. It is hard work, dedication (sometimes to the point of obsession — do we see a few nods?), and many have described it to be a lonely journey. So why do we do what we do? Because, quite simply, when all is said and done, it gives us joy and feeds our life’s purpose. And hopefully, by doing what we do, we’d be spreading a little of that joy, and a little light to the people around us and, who knows, the rest of the world.

In a new seven-part series entitled #TrueCalling, we’ve partnered up with Huawei to bring you the stories of seven women — creators, doers and, yes, dreamers — to find out what makes them tick. How has whipping up a new recipe, designing clothes, or capturing moments from around the world, for example, brought them happiness? What interesting lessons, people and ideas have they encountered along the way? We’re going to give you a glimpse into their worlds through our lens.

For this week’s story, we journeyed east to meet Olivia Lee, industrial designer and founder of Wonder Facility. Inside her 1,000-square-feet loft studio/co-working facility on a Wednesday morning, the 32-year-old Central Saint Martins alumnus demonstrates a unique elegance of thought — with eloquence to match — as she traces her love of creating all the way back to her four-year-old self, speaks definitively of her brand of art as well as her approach (“It’s incredibly important that any project that leaves my studio is imbued with meaning and a certain level of rigour in thought.”), contemplates what it means to create a safe and comfortable space for fellow artists and designers, and inspires us to be women of action (“Action equals reality” is my studio mantra. It’s a phrase I came up with to remind myself that if I really want things to happen, I need to take action.)

Having a vision or a dream is really important. But, not meeting that aspiration with courage and hard work means we are simply indulging in fantasies.

Hi Olivia, can you give us a quick introduction to what your work entails?
Olivia Lee: I lead a multi-disciplinary studio founded on principles of industrial design. While training in Central Saint Martins, I saw that industrial design was really a research-based approach to disruptive thinking. In that sense, the outcomes and applications are near limitless. My studio, OLIVIA LEE, pivots from product to spatial design, research insight work to projects that are purely conceptual. I work with clients and collaborators across many industries, from luxury to technology. At the heart of it, my project commissioners recognise that my work revolves around new ways of telling stories and intelligent design.

Right now, my studio’s key areas of interest are uncovering new rituals and behaviours,

navigating the tension between tradition and the future, and bringing brands into unexplored territories through design and narrative.

Have you always had an artistic streak in you? Do you recall the first instant when you discovered your love of art and your gift of creating?
OL: I think anyone who has watched me grow up can attest to my love for making and creating from a young age. I attribute this to having a very encouraging and patient family who were willing to put up with the “unfinished projects” I left scattered around the house from the age of four. I did not just love to draw or paint, I loved to tinker. I would collect scraps, raid my father’s tool cupboard, rummage through my mother’s sewing box, help myself to my sister’s art supplies and disappear into my room for hours hacking things together with my Lego set. I think I simply get to continue doing today what I loved to do as a child.

What, in your opinion, is art? We spoke about the importance of turning inwards, understanding the self, the world, and of the power of observation… Can you tell me how these factors have influenced your art, or how they translate into your work?
OL: For me, every project has a different starting point. I’m not one to fixate on style or formula. It really depends on my objective or the nature of the commission/collaboration. However, it is important to me that there is an underlying depth to everything I do — no matter how simple it appears on the surface. In fact, it’s really satisfying when I can make a complex subject simple to understand or take a simple topic and uncover its depths. It’s incredibly important that any project that leaves my studio is imbued with meaning and a certain level of rigour in thought.

I realise over the years that the best ideas happen when you are having fun.

What do you hope to achieve whenever you embark on a new piece of work? What do you think is the purpose of your art?
OL: Truth, meaning and beauty.

Let’s talk about the Wonder Facility. What inspired you to set up this co-working space for fellow artists and creatives?
OL: Wonder Facility started from two observations that stem from my own experiences. I noticed there were many independent studios like mine composed of teams of only one or two people who dealt with an unspoken sense of isolation and loneliness. Yet, I also saw that many creative practitioners were inherently introverted and, in truth, needed both quiet and solitude for their work. How do you reconcile the two?

I set up a space where artists and designers could work in relative solitude while still having the opportunity to learn from the expertise and ideas of others in a small community. It’s not the typical co-working space because we are extremely sensitive to shifts in the environment, so we are very mindful about personality and cultural fit among studios. Attempting to curate the mix of occupants definitely adds a layer of

complexity. However, if what we aim to offer is a sanctuary of sorts, we have a responsibility to safeguard this intangible quality. What does it mean to feel creatively safe and comfortable in a space? Is that scalable? I see Wonder Facility as an on-going experiment on the nature and future of work.

When was the last time you were moved?
OL: I was watching La La Land with my best friend (a literary artist), and was really moved by the film’s articulation of the struggles and tradeoffs artists have to make. Without spoiling the film, the themes of “what ifs” and compromises, and “delusion versus dreams” were strongly felt. The most emotional moments of the film for me was watching the characters grapple with the painful truths of the decisions they had to make because they devoted their life to their craft.

When uninspired, who — or what — do you turn to?
OL: When uninspired, I turn away from the canvas completely. This means I stop trying too hard or applying too much pressure on myself. I turn outwards and step outside (literally and metaphorically). I realise

I noticed there were many independent studios like mine composed of teams of only one or two people who dealt with an unspoken sense of isolation and loneliness.

over the years that the best ideas happen when you are having fun, when you are relaxed and not thinking too much. So, I turn to my loved ones and just indulge in spending time with them. My favourite thing to do right now is play with my nephew and niece who are six and four. I love watching the world through their eyes — so full of wonder and innocence.

What is your mantra or favourite quote?
OL: “Action equals reality” is my studio mantra. It’s a phrase I came up with to remind myself that if I really want things to happen, I need to take action – otherwise it simply remains an idea. Having a vision or a dream is really important. But, not meeting that aspiration with courage and hard work means we are simply indulging in fantasies.

You do your best work when…
OL: I’m having fun!

You’re also a lecturer. What is the best lesson you’ve ever learned, and the best advice you could give a student?
OL: The best way to learn is to teach others.

PHOTOGRAPHY & ART DIRECTION  //  Karman Tse
Featuring images shot/edited on the  Huawei P10, co-engineered with Leica

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