WHEN DID YOU FIRST REALIZE THAT DESIGN WAS YOUR CALLING? WERE YOU ONE OF THOSE KIDS WHO REARRANGE THEIR PARENTS’ LIVING ROOM? It was sophomore year at the University of Michigan when I told my dad that I would leave the premed track. I’m the oldest grandson in a very traditional Chinese family. Oldest grandsons were usually doctors.
HAVE YOUR CHINESE ROOTS INFLUENCED YOUR AESTHETIC? Yes. My sense of scale is very low, which I have to assume is genetic. And nothing is normal length. Most furniture companies make six- and seven-foot sofas; ours are eight, nine, and ten feet long. There’s glamour in the elongation of things. I’m Chinese, but there’s an Italian component in there somewhere.
HOW DOES CHAI MING, YOUR FOUR-YEAR-OLD PRIVATE-LABEL FURNITURE LINE, FIT INTO THE NEW ATELIER GARY LEE? The idea is to position it the way we design our projects. We don’t take one designer’s work and use all those pieces together. The atelier is a chance to feature Chai Ming among other manufacturers I love, such as Mark Albrecht, Trace, and Richard Wrightman.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR FASHION SENSE? Very much like my design sense, but a little goofed up. I like things that are tailored, but I’m not afraid to wear something a little strange, like white Birkenstocks or Florsheim by Duckie Brown brogues in nontraditional colors. I also love Etro’s blazers with the grosgrain trim.
WHAT ARE YOUR MOST TREASURED WORLDLY POSSESSIONS? There are four. A Cartier Tank Américaine watch that my parents gave me when I was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame 19 years ago. Two pieces by Parisian artisan Christian Astuguevieille—a tall hairy urn and a shaggy little doglike chair made out of the ends of ropes. And a painting by Spanish artist Prudencio Irazabal. He puts down layers and layers of resin paint, then wipes them, so what you end up with is a texture. I’ve sold many, but the one I won’t sell reminds me of infinity mirrors, in tones of violet. It’s amazing.
WE HEAR YOU LOVE TO COOKD AND EAT. WHAT'S YOUR SIGNATURE DISH? A rice vermicelli stir-fry called fun see that my mom always made around the holidays for good luck. I make it probably once a month because I need that much good luck. It takes about three minutes to make in this giant wok I have, but everything has to be ready. I love the process of prepping and lining up all the ingredients.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE RESTAURANTS IN TOWN? Sunda, Naha, Sepia [Lee designed the interior], and Mastro’s for steak. I also like diners, like Tempo at Chestnut and State Streets. There’s something innocent about it. It’s incognito. It’s not a production. I’ll go to any diner, famous or not.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE WORKS OF ARCHITECTURE IN CHICAGO? Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 333 Wacker Drive for its brilliant siting and exterior presence, Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue for its amazing intimacy, the interior at the Arts Club of Chicago because it’s just stunning, and all of Mies van der Rohe’s buildings.
BEST ADVICE YOU'VE GOTTEN? In eighth grade my art teacher, Mr. Thomas, told me I should always keep doing something until I was sick of it. I drew the same figure the whole year. His advice gave me the discipline to know when it’s done versus when you want it to be done.
Atelier Gary Lee, Merchandise Mart, Suite 1868, 312-644-4400, ateliergarylee.com
Portrait: Bob Coscarelli