For young Kate Lee, the design is in the details

By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

For Kate Kyung-ha Lee, an associate retail designer, design has long played a focal point in her life. Lee was recently named to retail magazine Visual Merchandising and Store Design’s Designer Dozen for 2014, an annual awards program which recognizes 12 up-and-coming designers nationwide under 35 for their creativity and contributions to the retail industry.

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Kate Lee is an award-winning designer at Callsion. (Photo courtesy of Callison )

Lee grew up in Seoul, South Korea, where the fast-paced, urban lifestyle would eventually influence her process and perspective on design. Lee’s father, a fine arts professor and famous cartoonist in South Korea, encouraged his daughter to explore the arts from a young age. Fine arts quickly became her trade, and her upbringing revolved around drawing, painting, and sculpture. Once she entered college, Lee decided to major in interior design.

In 1999, Lee studied abroad for a year at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman. She planned to take ESL classes for a year, but finished them quickly and spent the remainder of her time exploring interior design classes. It was the catalyst for her A.A. degree, and Lee extended her student visa to finish her studies and stay in the United States.

Interior design covers a range of industries, including retail, hospitality, corporate, and residential. Of these subcategories, Lee is most drawn to retail because she likes the freedom if offers. “There are fewer parameters when it comes to retail [design],” she said. “There are more options and freedom on perspective. Compared to office or residential design, retail presents more opportunities to express design language.”

Callison, a global architecture and design firm based in Seattle, hired Lee in 2007, soon after she graduated from WSU. She has primarily taken on high-end department store clients.

Inspiration comes to Lee through the places she visits, and often appears in the everyday things she sees. “Everything can be translated into design,” she said. “I try to seek it out everywhere, even if it’s something not related to design.”

Lee recalled a recent trip she took to New York City, where she stopped in a store named Anya Hindmarch, a customization boutique that personalizes its accessories for clients. Instead of focusing on the store’s layout or design, Lee turned her attention to the boutique’s face-to-face bespoke service, which allows designers to interface with customers directly about their personalization needs.

“With technology, people want easy access to stuff these days. And that’s why I was fascinated by Anya Hindmarch’s attention to detail and customer service — it’s very authentic, and always aims to please the customer in intimate ways.”

These are the little details that Lee notices and carries back to her work and client relationships. She may, for example, mention Anya Hindmarch’s intimate customer service to her clients as a way for them to benchmark their own services for possible future rebranding.

Lee’s biggest professional trial to date came from a project with the fragrance section for New Yaohan, a luxury department store in Macau, China. The project forced Lee and her team to deal with three unique challenges: working within the tall and narrow limitations of the space, figuring out how to showcase 20 different fragrances within these physical confines while also meeting each brand’s rules for displaying products, and accommodating the department store’s unified brand experience. On top of these challenges, Lee needs to keep in mind how to make all of this aesthetically attractive to the customer.

After extensive research, Lee and her team came up with the concept of using a beautiful gold mirror that highlights not just the space and fragrances, but also creates a unique experience of being inside a jewelry box upon entrance.

“It was challenging, but the result was cool,” said Lee of the project. “We managed to catch the customer’s eye with this space, while also making sure to celebrate each unique fragrance housed in this store.”

Lee hopes to follow in the footsteps of her mentor, Christian Jochman, who is a director and principal at Callison. Jochman is unique in that, as a director, he juggles the responsibilities of both a client-facing designer and project manager. Few principals handle both the creative and business sides of design.

“He is my idol,” said Lee of Jochman. “These days, I’ve been traveling a lot with principals and directors [from Callison] to not just present designs to clients, but to attend work sessions and meetings. I’m slowly learning the [business] process, and one day, I hope to take on more managerial responsibilities.” (end)

For more information, visit www.callison.com or www.vmsd.com.

Vivian Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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