Hard at Work With Gary Lee

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

By Lesley Stanley
Portrait by Lisa Predko

Gary Lee is insane. This he will tell you himself. In the past 20 years, the Chicago-based designer has successfully steered his design firm, Gary Lee Partners, into prosperity with its acclaimed hospitality and residential projects, while also creating Chai Ming Studios, a custom design furniture line. This year, with the opening of Atelier Gary Lee, a curated collection of furnishings, artwork, and accessories at Chicago's Merchandise Mart, Lee is letting the design world know business is still as usual—growing. The entrepreneur talks about his inspiration, drive, and those industry standards he'd like to change.

DB: What inspires you? Have you found it's changed over the course of your career?
Gary Lee: As a designer, I’ve always been attracted to things that are beautiful and that portray a certain feeling. For me, that is architecture, art, photography, fashion, food—anything creative. My taste has evolved over the many years I’ve been doing this, and has been affected by the culture we live in; what we like, what we don’t, technology, and I think it’s also based on the resources we have available. In the old days, we couldn’t make the things that we can make now, which has created a richer pool of creative resources to pull from.

DB: Do you think there is a difference between inspiration and having a drive for your work?
GL: They’re one in the same vehicle, but there’s definitely a difference. Inspiration is what all artistic people respond to and comes from training your artistic eye and opening yourself to the various stimuli in our world. My drive is a little different in that I’ve always wanted my practice to be the best it can be. I take my design team very seriously. I have a very strong responsibility to take care of and protect them, and keep them happy and challenged so we can make good, collaborative work. I love it, and that keeps me going.

DB: How did you get involved in three different design businesses?
GL: The evolution of each has turned them into what they are today. My design business is something I will always have, and our custom product line, which has evolved into Chai Ming Studios, is not a collection, but a catalog of timeless and beautiful designs we hope other designers can use. The showroom brings me tremendous joy, because I care very much about the collaboration involved. The philosophy behind it is for it to be a design resource for the community. It’s new for me, but I’m always going to be working because I love this stuff. I’m insane, but I’m a happy person.

DB: What have you learned about yourself over the course of your career?
GL: I’ve learned that I can be extremely resourceful when I’m challenged. As a business owner of three companies, I’ve gained a problem solving aspect, and not just for the design and creative problems. We have to remember we are not only designers, but consultants. It requires a lot of client management, being truthful and diligent, and being able to support clients by either finding answers for them or telling them why there’s a better idea.

DB: What about the design industry doesn't sit well with you? How would you change it?
GL: We as a professional community need to embrace and respect what each one of us does, and figure out when to collaborate with each other. I still see lines being a little too hard-edged. Also, I see a lot of projects that aren’t inspired by original passion—it’s become very market driven and it waters down what everyone creates, making it hard to find the original source and best version. There’s enough ingenuity in this country to make a design your own; put your foot down, and do what you want to do. I’m just getting into my own version, and I’m going to bring what I think is the best and hope people respond to that.

DB: What are your hopes for your career in the years to come?
GL: I hope I will always be able to do this. I don’t think I have an orthodox career so that when I turn 60 next year I’m going to retire. I hope that I created three very strong companies, and that they all achieve independent success, but help each other out in making my design studio a very creative, successful business that continues for many years. We have to keep up with technology, resources, and maintain and attract the best designers in the world. It keeps me on my toes.

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