Her World Young Woman Achiever of the Year 2018 recipient Olivia Lee was always encouraged to think about industrial design as a career.
Both of her parents came from art backgrounds and, as a little girl, Olivia “loved a diverse set of things. I wanted to be an engineer, an inventor, a scientist, an architect. They all have a common trait of inventing and coming up with new things.”
When the time came for her to pick her university course, her father showed her a pamphlet for a new course that was introduced in the National University Singapore (NUS), Industrial Design.
For Olivia, the course checked all the boxes for her, it married her love for engineering with her passion for art and design. The course also had a business and marketing element to it, something that she was interested in.
In her second year of her industrial design course, she was awarded a scholarship by the Design Singapore Council to study product design at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College in London, where she graduated with first-class honours. She also landed a stint with the award-winning British industrial designer Sebastian Bergne who has worked with clients including Muji, Epson, Lenon and Swarovski and has been honoured with international design awards like Red Dot, Design Plus and iF Product Design Award.
In 2013, Olivia took a leap of faith, left her cushy job at the Economic Development Board and rented a small desk space at local design and crafts store Supermama on Seah Street.
Within two weeks, Japanese entrepreneur Yoichi Nakamuta of Singapore design production company Industry+ commissioned Olivia – as part of a Singapore collective of eight prominent designers – to produce high-quality, contemporary-design, made-in-Asia products.
Her star has been rising ever since and she has a growing media profile, working for international clients like Samsung and French fashion house Hermes.
It’s a (wo)man’s world
She is, however, working in a male dominated environment. According to a The Statistics Singapore Newsletter (March 2016), there were only 19 females per 100 males in the architecture and building course at university level for their higher degree. The world of industrial design and architecture still remains dominated by men – although, she insists, in terms of gender balance and demography, things are improving slowly.
When asked about her position as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry at the Her World Woman of the Year press conference held on the 24 August, Olivia who was awarded with the Young Woman Achiever award for her capability, demonstrated by her strong reputation overseas, coolly brushed off gender differences in the workplace and said: “Like many renowned and respected women in design (past and present), we want our work to speak for itself and we do not want it to be defined by our gender. But, at the same time we are women. And, that is something special we should never deny.”
That said, Olivia acknowledged that even though her experiences with gender bias was “once in a blue moon and I wouldn’t characterise it as a frequent experience of mine, I think it’s important to bring this up because we might not be talking about this enough and I’m sure other women who do business may face similar situations like this.”
Citing an incident where she was referred to as her client’s secretary during a factory visit and another where a prospective employer wanted to hire her because the former thought “female designers were better because they are more obedient. They respond better to authority,” Olivia explained that she makes it a point not to “let the occasional negative experiences or surprising experiences get in the way.”
She added: “When the occasion sees fit, I will delicately correct it or try to challenge the assumption but in the most elegant way possible. You don’t want to come across as overly defensive.”
“Sometimes the best way is to do such an excellent job that you silence your critics. You change people’s perceptions by doing rather than talking a lot. The proof is in the pudding. You will win people over on your awesomeness. If they don’t see it, it’s their loss.”
It was this mindset and desire to dismantle social barriers that sparked her decision to name the studio after herself, “Not out of ego. So, that there was no mistaking who the boss was and who the work should be accredited to.”
Olivia, who, spends a lot of time nurturing young artists as a part-time lecturer at NUS, Singapore Polytechnic, and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts wants to encourage aspiring female industrial designers to break gender norms and stereotype by “speaking a little louder to make sure you are heard and you can’t be unapologetic or too considerate to the point that you get sidelined.”
“To make your message heard, you have to carry yourself and deliver truth in a graceful way. How you conduct yourself sets the tone for how people treated you.”