Designing CD covers – that was what Chris Lee aspired to do as a student at Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Design.
Twenty years on, Mr Lee has only designed one CD cover but has become the go-to designer for niche projects, including the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai, the Hublot pop up store at Paragon and more recently, The Warehouse Hotel in Singapore.
The award winning designer who headed the design division at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) Asia Pacific, and Ogilvy & Mather before starting Asylum, describes his career as a series of projects.
”Every new project that I do lasts from three months to a year. The last 20 years has been a series of so many projects that I’ve lost track of time,” he says.
He struck out on his own because being in a large advertising firm didn’t give him the opportunity to do more interesting projects. ”I wanted to do work that would make a difference to the community,” says Mr Lee, 49.
His former boss at BBH was extremely supportive. ”He gave me all the design projects for Levi’s, CNBC and Singtel. From Day One, it was about handling client briefs rather than finding clients,” he recalls.
Asylum started with graphic design but shifted direction 15 years ago. ”Branding is about experience. Graphic design can only do so much,” says Mr Lee. ”I felt that we should venture into spatial design for the holistic brand experience.”
Their big break came when Asylum did the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai in 2011. where he turned a three-storey house in into an interactive space highlighting the brand story. ”That gave us the legitimacy to design like an interior design firm,” he says.
While Asylum’s forte is spatial design and branding, Mr Lee says that the direction for the next decade lies in hospitality design.
The Warehouse Hotel won top awards and brought Asylum much international acclaim. It was the firm’s first hotel project, and opened a new world for them. Asylum is now designing six more hotels worldwide. ”Suddenly, 20 years later, we feel like the new kid on the block,” says Mr Lee.
Of clients who wonder how their lack of hospitality design experience could create The Warehouse Hotel, he explains it’s precisely because of that. ”We are travellers first, and designers second. Certain comforts and complaints are addressed in our design, which sets us apart,” says Mr Lee, whose pet peeve is a lack of sufficient luggage space in hotel rooms.
Great design should be ”simple, emotional, and original.” That in itself is scary, because ”when design is simple, it is hard to be original. It could already have been done elsewhere, so it is important to know what’s happening in the world, so your design doesn’t come across as plagiarism.”
For that reason, Mr Lee is on the move a lot, as even the most random things that become an idea one day. ”You certainly don’t get ideas from sitting down in the office and trying to brainstorm.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.