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Chris Lee

Become – High Profiles
April 13, 2017

Chris Lee is an oenophile, a melophile and also—an otaku. And while he readily admits to the love of wine and music, I’m met with a swift, almost instinctive, “No, lah.” from him, when I cheekily suggest that the popular Japanese term for nerd, might apply too.

It is a perfunctory protest, however, by the bespectacled 46-year-old. He acknowledges that having an “obsessive nature” (a distinguishing prerequisite for being a true otaku) has helped him and his design agency, Asylum, make a name for themselves both locally and internationally as go-to experts for branding. He says, “I need to find out and dig deep into a subject in order to appreciate it. Wine and music have allowed me to do that, and in a way, my work as well. The otaku in me really helps because I delve into the subject at hand.”

Any further association with the typical otaku ends here. Instead of grave social ineptitude and fantasy-fuelled geekism, Chris is someone who’s clearly got his finger on the pulse for what’s hip, trendy and "in the now". Much of Asylum’s latest work is focused on creating inimitable experiential spaces for contemporary, image-centric brands such as Hublot, Johnny Walker, Aesop and the recently opened, ultra-chic Warehouse Hotel.

I learn that Chris isn’t so much interested in what is transient and stylish. A champion for local design for nearly two decades, he derives motivation and purpose in creating layered narratives with depth.

“My [work] is essentially about storytelling; it’s idea-based, and not just about style... if you do dig deeper and become educated on the meaningful details, the experience only gets better and more engaging.”

As a nod to his love of music, which was what first led him into the field of design, I ask Chris to come up with a list of songs that make up the “soundtrack” to his life.

He returns, weeks later, with a collection of 12 songs (listed below). To my surprise, they are introspective, sometimes experimental, gentle rock-pop tunes. The lyrics (if any) seem almost an afterthought, though when one pays attention to them, you discover a trove of emotion and expression. Deep currents of disillusionment, love, loss and heartbreak eddy beneath the calm, beguiling refrains—reflective of the layers of meaning and thought behind the surface beauty of Chris’ design work.

Conversations with Chris Lee

Founder & Creative Director, Asylum
Text by Teo Ren Feng
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

TEO REN FENG: You have clear and long-running passions in music, wine and design. What is it about these subjects that hold your self-confessed short attention span?

CHRIS LEE: They keep me constantly refreshed with new things to learn. I’ve been passionate about wine for 20 years now, and each time, just when I think I know it well, a whole new world opens up and I tell myself: Shit… there’s still so much I don't know out there.

REN FENG: What sort of wines do you enjoy?

CHRIS: I’m only drinking Burgundy wines at the moment—and Burgundy is just one of a few wine-producing regions in France. I’ve read several books on it, but I still don’t know enough. It’s really for the otaku.

REN FENG: Do you consider yourself an otaku?

CHRIS: No lah. [laughs] Well… I do have an obsessive nature. I need to find out and dig deep into a subject in order to appreciate it. Wine and music have allowed me to do that. In a way, my work as well because there are always new clients, new projects and new problems offering me outlets that suit my personality.

REN FENG: You like to delve deep into a topic, but modern society is flooded with graphic and sensational information that don’t encourage thoughtful exploration and understanding.

CHRIS: Yeah, like Pinterest.

REN FENG: You don’t like Pinterest?

CHRIS: I think Pinterest really democratised design in a way that’s made everyone perceive things on a very surface, ‘two-second’ level. It has taken away a lot of the process of design, leaving just the visual. In the past, you’d look at the context and try to find things that are unique, or ask why this and not that—there is more thought behind it. Now we just flick and click through the process, “Oh, let’s have this lamp… let’s add this cupboard…” Is design simply putting elements together? That would be quite easy wouldn’t it? You start seeing a lot of similar work in Paris, in Tokyo, in Shanghai because everybody is coming off the same mood board.

ChrisLee_Art3

REN FENG: What is your design process like?

CHRIS: My background is in graphic design and advertising, which are essentially about storytelling; it’s idea-based, not just about style. We go into the archives and find out everything about a brand, and design its spaces from there. You can skim the experience and come away thinking, “Oh, that’s quite nice. It’s a nice space.” The first layer is fine. But if you do dig deeper and become educated on the meaningful details, the experience only gets better and more engaging.

REN FENG: Do you think the average man-on-the-street is ready for design-driven work?

CHRIS: Increasingly, I think so. Scarily, yes.

REN FENG: Scarily?

CHRIS: These days, many laymen do bother to read up and find out more. It’s the era of the geek. If you eat sushi, they’re the ones who will tell you, “This is not Ootoro, or Chutoro but Shimafuri… the cut found between the other two.” [laughs] It can get a bit too much at times…

REN FENG: Like smart alecks?

CHRIS: Yes, well, everything today is about being able to describe something better than everyone else. If you go to a restaurant, they can’t just give you your food—they have to give you a whole story about the ingredients and all. I think all this narrative is the trend and it will reach a point where people say, “Enough with this bullshit.” But as it is, people are learning about things, which is good.

I think our greatest gift is to have empathy.

REN FENG: How do you keep your finger on the pulse and remain relevant in a fast-moving age?

CHRIS: I think our greatest gift is to have empathy. I travel a lot, and the first thing that I do when I’m overseas is not to look at monuments, but head to where the people are: check out the street culture, restaurants and bars, because that’s the true heart of a city. Cliché as it is, travelling is the best form of education. You get to see trends—the good and bad—which allow you to stay ahead of the curve. After a while, you can sense what works and what doesn’t.

REN FENG: You’ve said that with original design, it is important to feel uncomfortable with it. Do you feel that good design is visceral in nature, something that you feel in your gut?

CHRIS: Good design is something some have naturally, but you can also train yourself to be competent. With exposure and acceptance, one can develop an understanding of it, just like any other skill. But it is important for me to remain uncomfortable. Some of the projects that I’m most proud of, are those which I was uncomfortable with. For instance, the lobby of the Warehouse Hotel, and the National Gallery logo everyone could not stop talking about—the two rectangles. [laughs] When we were having internal discussions for that logo, we started out with 200 designs, narrowed it down to 60, and finally, 6. Of those 6, most were designs which you wouldn’t flinch at, even if we used them as the logo.

REN FENG: Unquestioning acceptance.

CHRIS: Yeah, people would just accept it. A lot of logos don’t offend, but neither do you remember them. That one was uncomfortable.

ChrisLee_Art

I usually avoid classical museums because those don’t provoke me anymore.

REN FENG: Would you describe yourself as a Modernist or a Postmodernist?

CHRIS: Postmodernist. When I go to museums—and I love going to museums—I usually avoid classical museums because those don’t provoke me anymore. I like art that makes me ponder and question things in depth. Modern art examines and questions the traditional and conventional—and similarly, everything that we do at Asylum is about scrapping the past and rebuilding the wheel again.

REN FENG: As a designer, are there any tenets or principles that you live by?

CHRIS: When I was in Bartle Bogle Hegarty, there was a line we referred to: “Good is the enemy of great.” I still live by that, which is why we’re always pushing our limits. As human beings, there is a tendency to fall back into whatever is familiar and comfortable. When it comes to designing, it is the same. To achieve progress, we use the first 5 designs we can think of—that represent good design and taste—and aim to surpass those standards. We push our thoughts until we break away from convention, before reining them in. I really enjoy this process.

REN FENG: What motivated you to move into designing ‘experiences’ and spaces?

CHRIS: It was purely based on interest. We were doing branding and sensed that retail, restaurants and hospitality were the interesting, exciting domains. In these areas, the space is the brand. People ‘consume’ the environment and set up, not just by looking at a name card, so I thought to complete the whole design experience, beyond the logo and website.

REN FENG: Do you have a dream commission?

CHRIS: [sighs] I’ve very afraid of dream commissions. I mean… what do you do after them? [laughs] A nice project would be a small mid-size museum in Japan where we design the space, branding and programming—that would be awesome.

REN FENG: Why a mid-size museum?

CHRIS: You can be more intimate and a bit purer in what you want to do. Look at 21 Design Sight in Roppongi, Tokyo, started by Issey Miyake and Tadao Ando. It’s the kind of project where you focus on the programming and a particular audience. It’s small enough where you don’t have to bother about the views of the general public.

There is always a nagging feeling that we could have done better.

REN FENG: Which project are you most proud of?

CHRIS: It is always the last project that I’ve worked on. And with every project, there is always something that I am dissatisfied with. There is always a nagging feeling that we could have done better.

ChrisLee_Art4

REN FENG: What’s your hang-up with the Warehouse Hotel then?

CHRIS: Oh, don’t get me started on that.

REN FENG: Just one point, perhaps?

CHRIS: [long pause] Well, the lobby for one. I feel like it could have been much more exciting. We had quite a few concepts and designs, but we all have to make compromises at the end of the day.

We sold out from Day 1! It happened the moment we became graphic designers—the profession is by nature, commercial.

REN FENG: Is compromising on your vision or concept difficult?

CHRIS: If you want to be an artist, you should have become one. We sold out from Day 1! It happened the moment we became graphic designers—the profession is by nature, commercial. Because it’s hard to achieve a pure vision in what we do, we get art projects and side projects that allow us to create things that we are really happy with, that feed our souls instead of our stomachs. But incrementally, if we have the ability, we will try to move our commercial projects towards what interests us, rather than just for money.

REN FENG: Was working with the heritage space of Warehouse Hotel challenging?

CHRIS: The space was unlike anything that we had worked on before. The main challenge, especially at the beginning, was restoring the heritage building—just making sure things didn’t collapse and were structurally sound as we added more to it.

REN FENG: Did you have to add in floors?

CHRIS: No, the original building already had 2 floors. The building itself is quite amazing and unique. There aren’t many warehouses left with a pitched roof, which was why we chose to keep the word “warehouse” when we were deciding on the name. That said, the 3-pitch roof was challenging to design for—the rooms each came with their own set of unique issues, so 34 out of 37 rooms are all configured slightly differently and you’ll most likely get a different experience every time you stay at the hotel.

REN FENG: Do you feel an inherent ‘rootlessness’ in Singaporean culture hampers the authenticity and quality of local design work?

CHRIS: For the longest time, local designers have been debating whether there is a Singapore design language and culture. If you look back a few decades, you get that sort of kitschy kopitiam graphics and theme/concept. Is that really Singapore? No. The argument is that we were international before we became national. Our designers have been influenced by works in the UK, Japan and all over the world, so what we really are is a mishmash of culture. Resilience is our common ground. If we don’t have it, we create it. If you look at the local design scene, people create their own magazines, their own shops and whatever that isn’t there, we make it happen. So, rather than a design language, we have a Singaporean spirit.

REN FENG: So creative enterprise with an international language?

CHRIS: Yes, and today for example, the Japanese are fascinated with Singapore. I do talks with the design council there and they want to know how they can be just as international as us (with the work that we produce). A lot of Japanese are collaborating with Singapore designers because they think we are the gateway to the world or Asia, at least. This is interesting because we’ve kowtow-ed to the Japanese for ages in terms of design and culture.

If you believe that you’re only designing for the domestic market, that’s a myth. The world is so open today. The trouble is, designers get too carried away with their craft—they just want to focus on the minute details and ignore the rest.

REN FENG: Is the future of Singaporean design promising?

CHRIS: Yes, I do think so. The only thing is, Singaporean designers need to have a more global perspective. Many still feel that their market is here, but there are so many international companies coming to Singapore and they are taking all our projects. If you believe that you’re only designing for the domestic market, that’s a myth. The world is so open today. The trouble is, designers get too carried away with their craft—they just want to focus on the minute details and ignore the rest.

ChrisLee_Art2_Revised

REN FENG: Was monetary success a consideration when you started studying design?

CHRIS: You know that I started studying graphic design because I wanted to do album covers, right?

REN FENG: Yes. But did you ever think you might have made it big doing that?

CHRIS: Not really. Graphic Design is a very tough industry. Maybe 5% of people will do well financially, but most don’t. So obviously, when you become a graphic designer, you don’t think about financial success because if that’s your goal you might as well become a banker or lawyer. You just do it because you know that you are creative and passionate about the field.

REN FENG: You also run the distributorship for Fred Perry in South East Asia. How does that impact your design business?

CHRIS: That business was something that came about organically, but it has worked for us because we have been able to advise clients on various issues other than design. As a designer, clients tend to look at you as someone who simply creates a beautiful space, with no real understanding of their business and the challenges they face. Our background helps them look at us more like partners.

REN FENG: Finally, if you were a crayon, what colour would you be?

CHRIS: [pauses, then gestures to his all-black outfit]

REN FENG: Why black?

CHRIS: Black has the ability to conceal the rest of the colours. I remember when I was young, I used to colour a rainbow on a sheet of paper and cover it up with black crayon. You only see black at first, but if you bother to scratch the surface, the other colours will shine through.

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The Soundtrack of My Life

1. Plainsong – The Cure
2. Here’s Where The Story Ends – The Sundays
3. Monkey Goes to Heaven (Monkey Gone to Heaven) – The Pixies
4. Who Do You Love – Mojave 3
5. Over the Pond – The Album Leaf
6. In the Androgynous Dark – Brambles
7. Lion Face Boy – Seabear
8. Mute – Youth Lagoon
9. Space Song – Beach House 
10. Ontario Gothic – Foxes in Fiction
11. Norway – Piana

12. First Light – Harold Budd

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap