Design Director Angie Lee on Complexity, Honesty, and Grit

Angie Lee, Partner and Design Director of Interiors at architecture firm New York
Angie Lee. Photo courtesy of Angie Lee / Madame Architect.

For 25 years, Angie Lee has taken a unique multifaceted approach that integrates emotional design, technical precision, and artistic intuition in her work. As Partner and Design Director of Interiors at FXCollaborative, she leads the award-winning interiors practice, providing strategic vision and oversight for interior environments across a wide range of scales and project types.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee grew up in the Midwest, studied at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Ecoles d’Art Americaines in Paris, and was raised by parents who promoted science and music; a melding of art and technology that influenced her own foray into architecture and interior design. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, founder of Madame Architect, Lee talks about finding her way to interior architecture and sharing her most personal stories, advising young architects to rely on their grit and their love for the profession.

Madame Architect: What was the first seed of your interest in architecture?

I had considered a few things before arriving at architecture—my father was a physician and my mother a musician, and they tried to push me toward those routes. Being a surgeon was unfathomable for me because in no way do I have the constitution for blood and guts. I was an above average musician though, competing and performing in a steady stream of local and statewide events for piano and violin. When I accessed a national platform however, competing against musicians with stellar talents fueled by more drive and compassion than I held, I just knew music wasn’t in the cards.

In high school, I took a mechanical drawing class to kind of hide from the usual courses I was supposed to take. I was surprisingly good at it, but more importantly, with some tests, my teachers discovered that I had an unusual capacity for spatial manipulation and visualization. They asked, “Have you ever thought of being an architect?” I hadn’t. I had never even met an architect but thought that it looked pretty cool and somewhat glamorous. I thought I would make a lot of money [laughs], but mostly I was just relieved that I could forge my own path and be creative along the way.

 
Good criticism is essential to good design, but then it’s often entwined with your likability quotient, and not in a way that favors women.
 

What did you learn in architecture school?

I’ve always had a healthy amount of skepticism about most things, so right off the bat, I started questioning the dogma that was taught. I had zero exposure to architectural history or technical systems going in, but what I was hearing about critical thinking and values didn’t always jive with what I knew instinctively to be true or valid.

My reluctance to buy into the Bauhaus and modern doctrine was largely validated when I went to study in France for the summer. I finally experienced the power of design first-hand, wandering around ancient cities like Paris and Barcelona. Everywhere I walked, I saw how the narrative of sculpture, art, and form-making wove the urban fabric into the building facade, through the front door, and engulfed the interiors. Being immersed in cities rich with beautifully emotional, experiential design moments created a contrasting framework to what I was being taught in school. I used both curriculums to build a more fluid design language that I could utilize from a personally authentic perspective.

Tell me about your path. How did you transition into focusing on interiors and interior architecture?

I was always sort of on track—my parents were very strict and made sure I was checking all the boxes when they were supposed to be checked. I got summer internships, a job right out of school, and my license three years into my professional life. I was a very good girl.

The ah-ha moment of my early career happened when I was at Perkins Eastman in Pittsburgh. I was designing the façade and public space for a clinical educational facility in Little Rock, Arkansas, but then someone else selected the carpet and furniture—an interior designer. The story of the inside suddenly had nothing to do with the overarching story—all because of a few elements. I was impressed by the power of these design elements that previously hadn’t made it onto my radar. As I had witnessed in European cities, I realized that the whole environment needs to be considered together like an ecosystem that connects urban and building design to the interiors. I was increasingly obsessed with the design of interiors after that revelation and came to love the speed of interior projects, and the necessity to master the emotional and sometimes messy side of design.

1 Willoughby Square rendering Angie Lee
The lobby of the upcoming 1 Willoughby Square. Rendering by DBOX. Photo courtesy of FXCollaborative.
Workplace, Angie Lee, FXCollaborative
Confidential workplace. Photo courtesy of FXCollaborative.

How did you get to FXCollaborative?

My design epiphany was tested in various offices from Perkins Eastman in Pittsburgh to Gensler in New York. I landed back at Perkins Eastman New York because of the last downturn, long story, and then head hunters delivered me to SOM [Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP] and finally, to FXCollaborative.

Sprinkled here and there were a couple of very small firms, and I learned how firm structure, size, and culture can amplify or extinguish the individual’s creative voice. At FXC, a broad range of provocative conversation happens daily if not hourly. I’m incredibly lucky to find myself here.

What are those provocative conversations?

We are having a lot of conversations about diversity and inclusion, yet it’s another thing entirely to design for it. Classic architectural diagrams and spatial adjacencies aren’t created by stories about new moms who are muddling through their postpartum stages, pumping milk, and trying to fit into their civilian gear again with zero sleep, for example, or by cis gay men who experience the world differently from someone identifying as trans or queer.

So far, there are only a handful of anecdotes that barely cover the spectrum of what it means to be someone outside the norm in the private and public sphere. I’m very happy to be having these uncomfortable conversations; most firms don’t seem to be doing that.

 
I feel like I’m just beginning. I’m turning 50 later this year and am more comfortable in my own skin than ever before.
 

Your career has focused on design, rather than project management, and you are a partner, two categories in which there are so few women. What has it taken to get there?

It’s taken a kind of a toll. I’ve experienced both gentle rebukes for being strong-willed or assertive, and sometimes buzz-saws that I did not see coming. In a design role, it’s hard to be good at it and stay neutral. Good criticism is essential to good design, but then it’s often entwined with your likability quotient, and not in a way that favors women.

I’ve definitely had to grow a thick skin and cultivate a design personality that operates almost outside of myself. You have to develop a healthy sense of detachment from criticism. Perhaps though, at the end of the day, I’ve given a little bit too much to my professional persona.

What makes you say that?

I spend a lot of time bumping up my energy levels to talk with and present to different groups of clients, design teams, and various professional organizations, energy that I don’t always have. It seems simplistic but I’m not an extrovert, and I have been known to carry over to my kids the dregs of my attention. Thankfully, my ten and thirteen-year-olds are incredibly energizing when I see them. I do wish I was able to say that I’ve discovered the secret for the elusive work-life balance that we talk about so much.

Where do you feel like you are at in your career today?

I feel like I’m just beginning. I’m turning 50 later this year and am more comfortable in my own skin than ever before. I no longer feel automatically compelled to manage everyone’s comfort levels or to apologize for having a voice. Granted, I still need to read a room to gauge what the appetite for certain topics may be, but this platform now where I’m a partner affords additional opportunities to lend gravitas to important issues. It’s exciting.

Your speech when your new role as partner was announced really resonated with me. You said that your identity as a woman, as a minority, and as an immigrant, are seen as assets here as opposed to drawbacks and that you are at a firm that is celebrating those parts of your identity. Can you speak to that a little bit? What you said was incredibly powerful.

I only just recently started talking about all these aspects because the stories I usually heard from others were surprisingly consistent and safe. I subconsciously followed suit, but when I recently started talking to my partners about my more expansive and formative experiences, they surprised me by listening with incredible openness. It’s taken a while to get comfortable sharing the kinds of stories I have to offer about being an Asian-American woman of color, a mom, and an immigrant, because I thought it would affect my ability to be relatable to most of my audiences, and possibly detract from the credibility of any success I had achieved.

What kind of stories have you shared?

For example, as mothers, we are expected to parent as if we don’t have to work, and as professionals, we are expected to work as if we don’t have to parent. There can be a bit of judgment that follows you out the door if you have to go home early for childcare, and the same amount of side eye if you make it to school pickup only a few times a semester.

As an immigrant, well, I just never talked about that. My parents made sure I didn’t have an accent, and by the way, you don’t have an accent either, Julia, so we benefit from not being labeled instantly as immigrants. There is a funny grey world that we exist in because of that. To bridge all these identities requires more mental gymnastics and cultural awareness than many people realize.

It’s such a relief to hear someone else say that.

I also believe, at last, that owning multiple identities is an asset. Having the chance to celebrate that kind of complexity on a larger platform influenced my decision to become a partner. It took a good bit of pondering, but ultimately is why I felt this is something I am ready for.

How did you know a partnership was something you were ready for? I often hear the opposite advice, to do things even if you aren’t ready because you’re never ready.

Normally, when I make a decision, I stop listening to my head and test my gut, but I couldn’t get out of my head with this one. Becoming a partner involved financial responsibilities that did not appeal to my inherent strengths or talents. I looked a little too hard at all the alternatives, and I even asked for an extension.

Then, one day, my daughter looked at me and said, “Of course you’re doing this, right?” I hadn’t realized until then that I was holding on to old beliefs that threw my cultural conflicts into the negative column. Through her eyes, I saw a way to win this internal battle. All I had to do was become a partner and start telling new stories. This was my gut check, finally. She made me discover that I was ready.

Speaking of your daughter, I want to come back to being expected to work like you don’t have to parent, and parent like you don’t have to work. How did you manage the downsides of the perception of childcare?

Not very gracefully. When it was happening, there was a lot of guilt on my part that prevented me from asking for the help I needed both at work and at home. I taught myself, far later than I would have liked, to stop apologizing for what I wasn’t doing well and to take ownership of what I was. I know now that no one really has it figured out, and if I had heard more imperfect stories like mine when I was going through it, I would have probably fared better.

With that in mind, what would you say has been your general approach to your career?

I’ve always believed in the power of good design. The exercise of reinventing or transforming somebody’s experience for the better is addictive.

Lately, I have been trying to hone my approach more diligently, so instead of just diving right into any creative opportunity full steam, I have learned to be a little more analytical about strategic decisions and prioritizing effort. At the same time, I have learned how to trust and use my intuition tactically. It has been forged by mistakes and successes in the past, and generally discounted too often because it was ‘just a feeling.’

Angie Lee and colleagues
Angie Lee, Partner and Design Director of Interiors, with her colleagues.

What have been your biggest challenges?

Figuring out how to be relatable for many different audiences. Being the ‘other’—a woman, a minority woman—has made it necessary for me to become skilled at translating and morphing into a lot of different narratives that people understand and are willing to accept.

It’s taken a long time, but I now view my position on the edges as something that enhances my approach to design problems. If you look at the world from a place of eccentricity and consider the benefits of a subversive platform, you can uncover a really innovative outcome. It’s gratifying to report that more viewpoints from the margins are being centered in the research and analysis that I participate in.

What have been some of your biggest highlights?

When I renovated the New York Stock Exchange open outcry trading floor, after brokers there lived in decades and decades of really old brown millwork that squeezed them 18 inches apart in a standing room only environment, I got to reimagine a historic, iconic institution. I was invited to ring the closing bell in celebration of that project’s completion, and that was incredible. There are many other highlights with incredible projects and clients, but that one sticks out in my mind.

Finally, what advice do you have for those who are just starting their careers in the field?

You know, after being in the field for 25 plus years, I don’t love giving advice. I’ve been on both ends of many suggestions given and taken, and I’ve found very little that universally works for everyone. One thing I’ll give is that if you can say, with candid honesty, that you love being a designer, an architect or so on, then that truth should sustain you and protect you from a lot of ups and downs. It is one of the most critical boxes to check off.

A final useful goal that newcomers can keep in mind is cultivating your resilience and willingness to persevere—I would tell anyone to read a book called “Grit” by Angela Lee Duckworth. I found her message to be really powerful, and I attribute my own personal and professional successes to my grit more so than any talent I may have.