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Asylum: Design with attitude

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 22, 2013

If there is one event that illustrates how award-winning designer Chris Lee thinks, it is from his early 20s.

A late-blooming desire to study design had taken a hold of him, but he had no art portfolio to prove to the sceptical course manager at Temasek Polytechnic that he, aged 22 and considerably older than most first-year students, had both desire and talent.

The electronics engineering course dropout had to think fast. He realised he did have a portfolio of sorts. It consisted of Valentine's Day cards with lettering cut from magazines and other such handcrafted gifts he had given his then girlfriend. It was not of the same depth and breadth as the work of a proper art student, but it would have to do.

She was in Canada then but as luck would have it, she had kept the items organised enough that her mother could find them and pass them to Lee.

Those handicrafts must have been good because the polytechnic - after a great deal of persuasion on his part - allowed him to enrol. Two decades later, seated at the conference room of his agency, Asylum, Lee tells that story, chuckling at his own cheek.

Call it daring, playfulness or, yes, cheekiness but it has taken him from engineering dropout to head of one of Singapore's most innovative and lauded design firms, one of the few that can handle anything inside a commercial space, from furnishings to lighting to logos, from name cards to uniforms to websites.

Chances are, you will have seen something touched by Asylum and, indirectly, by the 42-year-old's personality. Examples abound in the monograph published by Asylum, which, true to Lee's impish nature, contains accolades penned by him ("This is a great book, inspiring from the first page to the last"; "It's unbelievable how they can be so funny and emotional at the same time with their designs.")

The book, All You Wanted To Know About Asylum But Were Too Afraid To Ask, showcases one client, frozen yogurt chain Frolick, known for its desserts and its badges, adorned with double entendres such as "We Stay Hard Longer Than Ice Cream" and "Size Matters. Eat More" - and these are the ones printable in this newspaper.

There is a more serious side to Asylum - Lee did not win the President's Design Award in 2009 for bawdy quips - and it is a side seen in projects such as the Fusionopolis building (clear and memorable direction signs), the Loof rooftop bar (for which it did most of the graphic design, including menus that invite patrons to use them as umbrellas in case of a downpour) and the logo for the School Of The Arts Singapore.

Much of what Asylum does is labelled "branding", which in Lee's view, is to humanise a company. But it goes further. That humanisation means an infusion of personality - often, an outsized, theatrical one. That step sometimes means changing the intended course of a product.

Take the Frolick frozen yogurt chain, for example. "They told us that yogurt with fruit was about healthy living. But for their target customers - people aged 16 to 25 - health is a distant, distant concept. It's a snack, people want to enjoy the snack. It needs to have an attitude and we then gave it a fun personality. That is how we work with the client, talking about the objective before working on the solution."

The Asylum-designed slogan buttons were intended as a decor motif in the minimalist, brightly coloured outlets and on its website. The buttons became a hit with customers, who surreptitiously pocketed them, so the company began giving them away as souvenirs.

The buttons, which Lee calls "a little naughty, a little tongue-in-cheek", spring from Asylum's attitude. "We don't take ourselves seriously, we are irreverent. That's always been the Asylum mantra," he says.

However, he has proven to be anything but frivolous when it comes to preserving the design-first ethic that drives the agency.

To do that, Asylum has had to toss out the rulebook that guides most agencies.

First, he has dropped the idea that big is beautiful. He has resisted expanding Asylum past the boutique stage, he says, because he wants the luxury of being able to turn down jobs, selecting only clients that are willing to give it a chance at the steering wheel of a project, rather than be told where to go. There are now 11 designers in the company's shophouse office in Circular Road, which will soon be given up in favour of a shophouse in Geylang because of a rent hike.

Lee's office is more like a cubbyhole. Its shelves are packed with collectibles - toys in their original packaging, vintage Braun audio gear and bottles of sake.

His keep-it-small rule extends to overseas offices. "In the 1990s, it was trendy to have an office in London, Tokyo and so on. But I think that you can have just one main office, then do work all around the world because you can do that with technology today," he says. Having a single permanent office in Singapore has not stopped Asylum from completing projects in Shanghai and Jakarta, though it does mean frequent travel and the creation of temporary project offices, he says.

To simplify workflow and keep the focus on design, he has avoided the common practice of hourly billing, opting for lump-sum pricing.

While he is the head of the company, Lee says he is still "very hands-on" with design work. "I will meet a new client, I hear them out. It's important that I translate that conversation, so it can become a direction, a brief for the company. Then we bring that brief to the designers - the graphic, interior and digital designers. They take that brief, which is peppered with my direction, and they will add their creativity. Then they will come back in a week or so for a brainstorming session," he says.

"The best idea could come from anyone and the designer with the best idea becomes the frontrunner for that project. I am involved in all the brainstorming sessions but I don't sit down and do the design."

There have been a few hard lessons for the designer-turned-entrepreneur. In 2008, Amnesty, a sister company specialising in retail and food, set up Chocolate Research Facility, a chain of outlets that broke new ground in chocolate flavourings. It was Lee's brainchild and was launched with a hundred flavours, a palette which included kaya toast, bandung and fizzy grape soda, all part of a Singapore heritage series. A local chocolate supplier manufactured its products, while Lee's team helped it develop flavours and took care of retail and marketing.

It was all going well and by 2011 there were three outlets here and franchise inquiries from all over the world. But the manufacturer raised prices several times. It declined an Amnesty offer to become a partner. Finally, the Chocolate Research Facility business was shut down last year.

It was a painful step to take, says Lee.

"Sales were good. But they were our only supplier. We had a hundred flavours and it's not easy to get someone else to replicate that... We learnt that if you are held hostage, if you have no control over your product, you don't really have a business," he says.

Asylum, on the other hand, has had a smoother ride since he founded it in 1999 with friend and investor Jane Lim, co- owner of RJ Paper, which makes designer and recycled paper.

Lee is now the sole owner of Asylum. In 2002, he and Lim sold the business to an American agency, Fallon. He did it so that he could work closely with friends who had also joined the firm as creative directors, he says. But three years later, after Fallon decided to leave Asia, he alone bought Asylum back from them.

He co-founded Asylum after being head of design at two advertising giants - Ogilvy & Mather and Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH). There was little of the usual scramble for customers that new firms face as its first clients were referrals from BBH, which trusted his experience.

He felt the need to start his own agency because, after years spent working with well-established and conservative clients of large agencies, he saw that the only way to do ground-breaking work was to work with younger, hungrier, less risk-averse customers. To get them, he would have to be his own boss.

Mr Jason Tong, 35, has known Lee since the mid-1990s, when both were starting out in the design industry.

"In design, if you can't sell your ideas, half the battle is lost," says Mr Tong, who is creative director with strategic brand communications firm The Affiniti. Selling ideas is where Lee shines. His sense of curiosity and readiness to try the new is backed up by a talent in persuasion, adds Mr Tong. "He can talk to chief executives at a very professional level, then bring himself back down to a layman's level when he needs to."

Another friend and designer, Mr Larry Peh, 37, head of &Larry design agency, was an early employee of Asylum. The quality he noticed about Lee is his ability to embrace the unknown first, then learn about how to work with it later. "For instance, back then, we had to take on digital projects such as interactive DVD- ROMs. We didn't know anything about it. We came from print," says Mr Peh. But encouraged by Lee, he plunged into learning how to handle the software and do its art direction at the same time.

Lee grew up in Stirling Road in the Queenstown area, where his father ran a provision shop. The youngest of three children, he has a brother and a sister.

"I had a thing about stacking tins in the shop, I had to have all the labels facing the front. Maybe it's OCD," he says about his compulsion for things to look right, from an early age.

He studied at Alexandra Estate Primary School and Mei Chin Secondary School. Both schools are now defunct.

"I was a troop leader in Scouts and that was the only thing I was interested in," he says. His grades were good enough for him to get into Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where he took up electronic engineering "because my brother said, 'you're a guy, you should be an engineer, it's a good career'".

He says he hated every class except English and was "quite miserable". He struggled for two years, then quit with the support of his parents. His sister was studying design at the then Baharuddin Vocational Institute (it was absorbed into Temasek Polytechnic in 1990 to become part of its School Of Design).

The teenage Lee was crazy about music, especially rock and pop from the seminal British indie label 4AD behind bands such as the Cocteau Twins and The Pixies. It was famed almost as much for the art on its album covers as for its music. Its designs transfixed Lee, who was amazed that people could make a living creating album art.

He did his national service after dropping out of Ngee Ann, where despite not having a diploma or A levels, he was selected for Officer Cadet School on the basis of winning the Best Recruit award during basic training. He graduated with the Sword Of Honour in hand.

When his time in the army was nearly over, he toyed with ideas ranging from becoming a marine biologist to hotel management and, finally, a career in design. He still had a love for 4AD's provocative album covers, especially those of celebrated British designer Vaughan Oliver.

The obstacle to his entering design school was that what little art-based academic qualifications he had were abysmal. He scored a C5 in art for his O levels. That was because of the dull, rote way the subject was taught, he says.

"In my day, art meant a teacher putting a banana in front of the class and you had to paint it in two hours," he says.

That was when he decided to go to Temasek Polytechnic's School Of Design, which caused him to make that call to his then girlfriend.

He gained more training interning in a company run by his uncle, Mr Sim Kok Huoy, who was then a former creative director at Mccann-Erickson advertising agency. Mr Sim, now a principal teaching fellow with the Department of Design and Media at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, was a great mentor, says Lee.

He lives with his Shanghai-born wife Annie Li, 35, in a terrace house in the Balestier Road area. They met in Shanghai through friends. She was an advertising account executive and now, a new mother. August, a boy and the couple's first child, was born earlier this month.

He has a rare heart condition and had to be operated on soon after birth.

"Thank God the doctors and nurses at Mount Elizabeth and later Gleneagles are really fantastic and he's now recovering fine. We can't thank them enough for giving life to August," says Lee.

These days, a fair amount of his spare time is spent on his wine hobby. The oenophile is known to have a large collection and meets friends regularly for tastings. He will say, however, that his fondness for music is unabated and his CD collection stands at more than 4,000 and growing.

The last word in this interview should be left to Chris Lee, and who better to ask the final question than the man himself?

"Being quite the free spirit, is working in Singapore a plus or a minus?" he asks himself. His reply, in short, is that Singapore's strong economy lets designers find work without too much trouble. But by the same token, the easy climate also breeds blandness and complacency.

His final retort: "We end up being fat and lazy instead of being fat and smart."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 22, 2013

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