Her World Woman of the Year 2018 Olivia Lee

What’s it like to be a woman in industrial design and architecture? Olivia reveals that it is often male-dominated and there are few female heroes. 

But while she’s faced with the odds, that did not stop Olivia from starting her own business. 

Read more about Olivia’s story here in an excerpt of her speech she delivered at the Her World Woman of the Year gala night or watch her speech in full. 

“Good evening Mdm President (Mdm Halimah Yacob), honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Firstly, I would like to thank Her World team for this award, for their mission to uncover inspiring women in Singapore each year and to celebrate their diverse achievements. I believe this is an important message for little girls everywhere — that hopes and dreams come in different shapes and sizes, and that all of them are attainable. They are possible.

I would like to thank SPH, its key partners, and the nominating and judging panel for selecting me. When I learnt that I would be receiving the Her World Young Woman Achiever of the Year Award, I was humbled. I received the call from Her World on a cool sunny morning in Cinque Terra, Italy. I was taking a short break, having just completed another intense showcase at the SaloneSatellite in Milan. I stood there in the stunned.

Industrial designer Olivia Lee

For many months, I had to keep this a secret. This gave me time to reflect, a chance to take stock of my journey so far and recall the many people who have supported and enabled me in my life. It’s 33 years worth of people to thank and things to be grateful for, in 8 mins.

The world of industrial design and architecture is dominated by men. We have few female heroes.

Of the women designers who have made their mark in history, they have succeeded not only through their talents, but also through the fierce insistence of their work and their right to work. Like a daisy chain through history, each woman dismantles social barriers, sticking to their guns, one woman paving the way for the next. I stand on the shoulders of these women.

Charlotte Perriand and Eileen Gray are two women who have contributed greatly to the Modern Design Movement of the 1920s. The furniture they designed, remain classics today. Yet, they are not as well known, nearly forgotten.

To give you some sense, Charlotte’s stunning 522 Tokyo Chaise Longue, designed in 1940, is still in production today. If you like one, you can buy one from Cassina for $7000. It’s worth every penny. If you search for Eileen Gray’s E1027 table, you’ll find something exquisite and yet also technically refined. You’ll also recognize it immediately because it has been relentlessly copied over the years. I bet this is the first time you are hearing their names.

In 1927, when Charlotte Perriand approached Le Corbusier – The Father of Modern Architecture – for a job, he initially rejected her. He said, ”We do not embroider cushions here.” He could not fathom that she was there to apply as a designer.

The first year establishing my design studio in Singapore, was tough. I had left a very good job to chase after a dream and reality was starting to sink in. When will the next project come through? Do I have enough money for rent next month? Am I still going to be here in a year?

The struggles went deeper and ran subtler. I remember bringing a client along with me to a factory visit. The factory manager instinctively referred to me as my client’s secretary. Another time, someone tried to hire me and actually said this to my face, as part of the pitch, ”Female designers are better because they are more obedient. They respond better to authority.”

I had spent so long focused on my design aspirations that it had not occurred to me that I was also a woman, working in industrial design, in Asia. But now, running a business and having to fend for myself, I would be reminded from time to time. I resolved to turn the tables. So, I named the studio after myself. Not out of ego. So, that there was no mistaking who the boss was and who the work should be accredited to.

Her World Young Woman Achiever 2018 Olivia Lee and guests

Like many renown and respected women in design (past and present), we want our work to speak for itself and we 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.

There are many champions of women in this world, many men and women. In 2015, I met such a champion – a man who took my design ambitions seriously and dared me to dream bigger. Who loves that I am my own boss and a rebel at heart. His name is Hunn Wai, an industrial designer like me, with an accomplished international design practice between Singapore and Italy.

Hunn is someone I have so much respect for professionally, he is my closest ally and soon-to-be husband. Hunn, you empower me and I want to thank you for lending me your strength and spirit as we pursue our love for design together.

People often ask me, “Olivia how are you are so fearless? What gave you the courage to start?” I tell them it isn’t the absence of fear that drives me.

It’s simply that: the fear of not trying exceeds the fear of trying.

I can think of one key contributor to my “garang-ness”. As a child, I was wild with abandon. I think it’s because deep down I knew I was safe. I attribute this to having a very loving and supportive family, one prepared to catch me if I fell, tend to my wounds but also pat me on the back and send me back out again to play.

As long as I can remember, they were quick to encourage, but to never pander. They celebrated with me, but never let it get to my head. They would comfort me in my worst times, but never allow me to indulge in self-pity. They knew just when to leave me to my own devices, and to recognized when a mess was simply a “work-in-progress”, and – let me tell you — when I was a kid they put up with many “works-in-progress”. My sister bore the brunt of it.

Her World Young Woman Achiever 2018 Olivia Lee with family & friends

When I was in Primary 3, I ‘took’ from my sister’s potpourri collection, raided my mother’s embroidery box for scraps of cloth, made scented sachets and sold them to my classmates for 40cents each. I remember figuring out that if I priced them at 40cents each, but sold 3 for $1 – my classmates would be more inclined to buy 3. Needless to say, I got in trouble and my form teacher called up my mum to angrily to complain that I was profiting off my schoolmates.

My mum said thank you, put down the phone and laughed. My family has never hesitated to tell me when I was in the wrong, nor to spare from constructive criticism and tough love. But, my family also knew when to issue a stern warning with a twinkle in their eyes, when I was getting into the right kind of trouble.

This whole time, they have kept me real, grounded, but also hopeful and ambitious.

I know that this is blessing to grow up in a family full of artists who implicitly understand the nuanced struggles of a creative heart. My mother and father met in Baharuddin, Singapore’s very first school dedicated to the applied arts. I remember the distinct smell of Cow Gum, Ronsonol and Spray mount, and the scraps of Lettraset on the floor in my parent’s home studio. I watched my sister get accepted into the Art Elective Programme, and be in awe of the how she would paint into the early mornings, or stay late in school to finish her school projects. From them all, I acquired the blueprint for a solid work ethic and the real sense of the messy, time-consuming and unglamorous side of being a working creative.

Mum, you are the original rebel, my source of wisdom and courage. Germaine, you are the reason I have an edge over my peers. You are 8 years into the future, whispering the secrets of life back to me. You are both my women of the year. Dad, you brought me along to hardware stores, industrial estates, taught me to build things with my own tools, took me to Aikido class and bought me my first Playstation. You don’t realise it, but this taught me to be incredibly comfortable and to hold me own in traditionally male-dominated spaces.

To my family, I want to thank you for shaping the woman and designer I am today.

In the profession of industrial design, to be under-40 is to be considered a young designer. At 33, I am still in early stages of my career and a long way to go towards mastery. Tonight, I want to thank you for your recognition, validation and encouragement. I am inspired to keep going.”