High-End Furniture Designer Lex Lee Teaches Us About Living, Laughing, and Finding Inspiration
Lex Lee is a force to be reckoned with—unabashed, uninhibited, cheerful, and comical. Her designs seem to emerge from this dervish of creativity organically and as though they couldn’t possibly do so otherwise. All of her original home furnishings and accessory items are totally handmade, using age-old construction techniques and an artisan’s touch. And we at Design in Color love how Lee’s lively personality is evident in her simple yet adventurous pieces.
It’s obvious that Lee takes charge of each and every part of the design and construction process. Her finished products are perfect displays of her commitment and attention to the smallest detail, and are also very much a testament to her personal and professional upbringing in Los Angeles. She takes pride in doing her drawings by hand and working closely with her collaborators in each aspect of production—from woodworking to sewing. The care that is given to each of her designs shines through in their final forms and is rewarded by their reception, as evidenced at last summer’s Dwell on Design event.
Lee has been making progress toward her dream of starting not one, but two businesses: her thriving furniture-design business, Lex Lee Studio, and soon-to-come e-commerce site, Minimal Instinct. We were honored to spend some time in candid conversation with Lee, one of our country’s most electrifying young designers, and we got the chance to ask her how she got her start.
From Studying to Stunning
Lee’s laserlike focus has been a part of her story since she was an interior design student at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in Downtown L.A.
“With interior design, there are so many aspects that you need to have a familiarity with, and it becomes impossible to be an expert on everything,” she explained. Not one to be daunted, this 27-year-old creative said she “became fixated on becoming an expert. If I was going to be an expert, I needed to have a specialty. I gravitated toward furniture as that specialty.”
She got her first opportunity as a design student when Anthony Kafesjian, owner of Lloyd’s Custom Furniture and an integral part of the Southern California upholstery industry, saw potential in a few of her designs at a student Chairing Styles competition. After serving as an adviser for that event, Kafesjian quickly became Lee’s mentor and has been guiding her meteoric rise in the furniture-design industry ever since, contributing his Old World style and methods to her contemporary vision.
“My mentor, Anthony Kafesjian, is a hero of mine,” she said. “He found me at 24. I was a crazy art student with no direction, and he believed in me enough to produce my own line.” Because of Kafesjian’s long-standing reputation for making quality furniture, Lee said, “I don’t take his mentorship lightly.”
Just before her time at FIDM, Lee earned her undergraduate degree from UCLA, majoring in—of all things—economics. She continues to find the concepts fascinating, she said in an interview after being chosen as Frank 151’s Femme of the Month in August 2015, and it seems that this background has been the bedrock of her startup’s success. Lee believes that studying economics is less about the numbers and more about the human behavior that drives them, and this insight gave her an excellent basis for developing a business. In many ways, Lee’s dream job was one she was tailor-made to do, and all she needed was for the right opportunities to be presented to her.
Far from Ordinary
Lee admitted that her creative process is “messy and disorganized,” a characteristic she’s “not proud of.” But since her stunning designs consist of such clean lines and flawless fabrics, it’s clear she must be doing something right. And where do these gorgeous pieces come from? Lee said her designs come about “if I need a particular item for myself, if I saw something I didn’t like and wanted to make it better, or if something entirely unrelated just struck me and I wanted to make it into a chair.”
We asked Lee about a few fan favorites, and she gave us a taste of what her creative process looked like for both the iconic 34C Chair and her delightfully unusual Spike Pillow.
Her first offering was the modern and versatile 34C Chair—a stellar embodiment of the young designer’s budding skill—which set the stage for furniture lines to come. We already recognized how beautiful this chair is, but wanted to get the inside scoop from Lee on what went into its creation. “34C came out of my desire to make a cantilevered chair, like my idols from the 1920’s modern movement,” she said. “The only problem was that I don’t work in metal, so I couldn’t exactly make a true cantilevered chair. Instead, I created a frame from oak that was reminiscent of their lines, but had the necessary contact points with the floor.”
The Spike Pillow is certainly eye-catching and funky. We’re impressed by its subtle warning message and silent comment on often-overplayed throw-pillow applications. Lee created the threatening-looking pillow to defy the expectation that pillows are merely stylish embellishments, best if used in groups of a dozen or more. The Spike looks a bit like a medieval mace, but is literally as soft as a cloud and lovingly hand-stitched for total comfort with a fun punch of visual interest. This squishable work of art is available in a multitude of colors and sizes, so it’s not hard to find the right look for your space. And with the Spike, you’ll need only one or two to make a statement, in contrast to the veritable heap necessary for more mundane designs.
“People really like [the Spike Pillow], but then they see his price tag and shake their heads in disbelief. He’s very labor-intensive and he’s made in Los Angeles. Need I say more?” She is exploring solutions for improving production so that more people will have access to her remarkable designs, but growing this kind of business is no small feat, regardless of the ever-increasing demand for her designs.
As much as we are fans of her finished pieces, our ardor is no match for the excitement Lee said she feels at each individual step in the creative process. She loves the materials—how they mutate and take new shapes—the tactile experience of working with the different woods and fabrics, of joining it all together into something at once practical and beautiful and original.
Sharing the Joy
There is one basic aspect of Lee’s philosophy about the design profession that distinguishes her in a big way: She values the power of making and maintaining personal connections. Whether you’re climbing a corporate ladder, starting your own business, or just interested in delving into a new discipline or trying out a new trade, Lee offered advice to young professionals on her blog: She believes the ideal way to establish these connections is by being true to yourself, sticking with what makes you tick, and being gracious and diplomatic when interacting with others.
Lee’s fearless congeniality extends to four-legged individuals as well. Her in-progress line, fur/niture, seeks to fill a void in the furniture-design world that currently puts a premium on striking seating and lounges for only the bipedal. A dog owner and lover of furry friends of all sizes, Lee has begun sketching out a line of gorgeous furnishings for the nonhuman members of our households, and the drawings alone leave us eager to see these designs come to fruition.
Lee has a reputation for forthrightness and honesty in her social media presence and has always looked upon every one of her followers as the best of friends, so we had to ask, What is something that would astound longtime fans of hers, or those hearing about her work for the first time? The answer was, of course, quintessentially Lex Lee: “I did not make my own couch. I bought it. I’m sorry.”
Beyond the Brand
One of the many benefits of being a young entrepreneur in a dynamic industry is how open consumers can be to new waves of inspiration. Your personal preferences don’t have to restrict your style, and creative growth is encouraged. Lee found that to be true of her relationship with throw pillows, and she’s also changed her perspective on color.
“In design school, I hated all color,” Lee admitted. “I only designed in black and white so that I could focus on form. But now, I love jewel tones and neutrals. I still don’t really embrace red, orange, or yellow, but I’ve made huge progress since my school days. My current favorites are sage, teal, and forest green.”
We recreated the colors Lex Lee is loving right now with this mini-palette of Pratt & Lambert hues.
Lee’s true colors reveal her to be an authentic Angeleno, and her entire creative career has been spent capturing that California essence in her designs: modern, casual, and fresh. We think she’s succeeded handily, but can’t help but acknowledge how universal her style is. We asked her about what she thinks captivates people all over the country (and all over the world) about the aesthetic she has advanced.
“I think I reach people because even though I am trying to be a brand, I am still an actual person,” she said. “I am not someone who says things like ‘Contact us today!’ or ‘We at Lex Lee Studio.’ There is no ‘us’ or ‘we’—it’s just little old me. Don’t get me wrong; I’d love an ‘us,’ but me isn’t ready for us yet.”
Whether or not her “me” becomes an “us” in the near future, Lee has no plans to slow down. “I have some new pieces that I am working on, and I have been visiting other manufacturers who do the things I cannot (metal and acrylic). I have written a ton of new content for my blog that incorporates resources for interior designers and any young entrepreneur who needs some guidance. Wish me luck on all the above!”
Good luck, Lex! And good luck, design world, in finding a more vibrant or authentic young furniture designer anywhere else.