Tuesday Mar 28

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Chris Lee, Design Director - ASYLUM

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Issue #02 - Interviews

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chris AsylumChris is the founder and creative director of Asylum, a highly regarded creative company that comprises of a design studio, a retail store, a workshop and a record label.

sylum is defined as an ideas company. Since its inception in 1999, they have worked on cross-disciplinary projects that include interactive design, product development, environmental & interior design, packaging, apparel design, branding, and graphic design.

His work in the creative industry is recognized with more than 60 international awards including The One Show and D&AD. Asylum has also been featured in more than 30 international magazines from around the world. ICON magazine recently wrote Asylum to be "probably the best design agency in Singapore today.”...

Agency.Asia: What are you working on right now?

Chris Lee: We are working on the interior of a boutique hotel, a Tiger Translate café, a new campaign for Levis Signature, a mixed development in KL, a new album for Asylum sounds. Also a new book call Moonlighting, retail concept and consulting for a shopping mall, branding a new fashion label, branding 2 residential projects, interior for Yellowbox sound studio and most important of all, our monograph for our 10th Anniversary this year!

Agency.Asia: Is this why you called your agency, Asylum? Are you indeed a little bit cuckoo? Describe your company culture!

Chris Lee: I like the thin line that separates between geniuses and madness. I’m sure we’re more of the latter. Having a name like Asylum also helps to attract clients that are more open minded so it sieves out the conservative ones.

Agency.Asia: Interactive design guru, Sean Lam, singled you out as the person that we must talk to.  Coming from one of the best creatives in the world, that is a pretty respectable endorsement. To your mind, what is the secret behind your success? Are awards your benchmark, or is achievement altogether more ethereal?

Chris Lee: I think our reluctance to be pigeon-holed in our work appeals to many creatives. We could be curating an exhibition, organizing a concert, designing the interior of a bar or working on a campaign for a fashion label all at the same time. Awards are certainly a benchmark within a given field but I think our fun comes from the freedom to do what we enjoy naturally.

Agency.Asia: You’ve just come back from London, judging the D&AD. You’ve won at those awards in the past. The majority of global award shows are advertising centric, whereas the balance seems rather better there.  From an awards perspective, is it the Holy Grail?

Chris Lee: For sure D&AD is one of the most respectable design awards internationally, most advertising awards have design as an after thought whereas D&AD has the best judges hence a higher standard of entries. The judging process itself was a lot more tedious and merticulous.

1chris dad
1chris dad

Agency.Asia: What does a celebrated designer make of the scam debate that perennially plagues the advertising industry?

Chris Lee: It is definitely a huge puzzle that the scam debate is even a debate! How can a big MNC agency that bills in the tens of millions with huge international clients celebrate in winning ads for some mom n' pop magazine store?

I can understand if you’re a student and you need to have a few pieces to show off your potential but for companies to do that it’s really sad. The worst part about it is that everyone pretends that it’s ok and still pat each other on the back!

Agency.Asia: We’re sure a lot of designers would love to take a look inside your home. Is it chock-full of amazing gadgets, objet d’art and old Matchbox cars?  Apart from Nescafe for those late nights spent doodling, what brand/s is more in evidence than any other?

Chris Lee: My place is really simple and minimal; it’s facing a nice big tree so I have huge windows to frame it. I like to come home after a long day’s work to just detox my mind and listen to some good music. I am also a wine collector and it’s a lot more effective than Nescafe when u need ideas. All my toys are in the office and it’s messy.


Agency.Asia: Which Asian country do you feel is consistently the beacon in the field of design? Can you put your finger on why that is?

Chris Lee: Japan definitely. Tokyo is my constant source of inspiration and I’ve been there for more than 30 times now! I think it’s the culture that celebrates tradition, creativity and generally mastery of any discipline. Where else in the world can you find photos of farmers on packets of strawberries? You can be a celebrity if you’re good in anything you do.

Agency.Asia: Does great creative work sell itself? And does great creative work sell itself in Singapore?

Chris Lee: Not really, sometimes you have to twist the arm of your clients a little to convince them that it’s worth the risk. Great work is always a risk because it’s different or untested but the results can be groundbreaking too. Generally ‘No’, especially big corporations where managers are more concerned about keeping their jobs than selling untested work to their bosses. We do see an increase in clients coming to us because they want great work and are more demanding in that sense.

Agency.Asia: Replying to a question about the nationality of typography on Asylum’s blog you said, “If there is a typeface I would give to Singapore it would be Gill Sans. Efficient, modern, safe, gets the job done, timeless, inoffensive, bland, and uninteresting.

Chris Lee: haaaaa

Agency.Asia: If you were to describe yourself as a font? As it was Sean Lamb that roped you into this interview, typecast him as a typeface!

Chris Lee: Ha…I guess it’s got to be dingbat, full of rubbish but it is fun. Sean’s got to be two typefaces: one that is the rock star image (Black Letter bold) and the other a really shy, sweet kind of font (Mrs Eaves).

Agency.Asia: Asylum successfully combines many different design streams – but the music label seems completely incongruous.

Chris Lee: I’ve always wanted to design CD covers and being in Singapore there’s just no music industry so we create one ourselves. Ha… I really wanted to promote experimental music so that younger musicians can come forward with their creations and not be afraid to show them.

asylum sounds
asylum sounds
sewn cds

Agency.Asia: Tell us about your A&R work. Do you get out there among the live scene and discover talent, or are you swamped with demos that you have piled high on your desk?

Chris Lee: A bit of both. I try to attend as many gigs as I can and being involved in the music scene here we do get demos from time to time. What’s important is that the music’s got to fit into our philosophy; we do get a lot of conventional pop music which is great but just not the genre that we promote. There are enough mainstream companies already so we can afford to be a little more experimental.

Agency.Asia: Speaking of discovering talent, you generously offered to be a scout on DesignWeek.Asia - after we managed to hunt you down and interrupt your holidaying in Stockholm. Apart from our asking you politely, why did you decide to get involved?

Chris Lee: I’m constantly looking for new talents to emerge in our very small industry so that we can join forces and do collective good for the industry. A group of us from different design companies have just started 'The Design Society' and we’re about to start recruiting members so you can say we’re passionate about meeting and encouraging the next generation of creatives to step up.

Agency.Asia: What are the magazines or books on design that you read religiously – and were there any particularly good ‘how-to’ books that you would recommend young designers must read?

Chris Lee: I would actually encourage reading non-design magazines cause they expand our view so much more. If it’s a design related then I’ll say:

1. Frame
2. Icon (UK)
3. Damn
4. +81
5. Grafik
6. Monocle

Agency.Asia: We’re going to end with a couple of riddles. Take a stab at the answer! What is the difference between an art director and a graphic designer? And what is the difference between a branding agency and a design agency?

Chris Lee: An art director is an overpaid designer hence a smarter one. A branding agency is a design agency that realizes that they are not very good at creativity so they have to write a lot of justification to make insecure clients feel that their money’s well spent.

Agency.Asia: Who inspires you, a person that you feel our readers would most like to hear from next? Chris, thanks for your insights.

Chris Lee: How about John Clang the photographer? Singaporean based in NY.

4asylum notebooks2low

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