Liam Lee’s designs often look like something that could come from the concept drawing for a futuristic sci-fi film. He sculpts furniture and dimensional textiles from brightly colored wool he hand dyes and hand-felts, riffing on forms he’s seen under a microscope and in the natural world: a coral-hued stool that looks like a tangle of intestines, a bumpy chartreuse chair that’s looks like some sort of metastatic growth, a sculptural textile with a snaking pattern that looks like bacteria under a microscope. Lee is excited by what viewers associate with his work, even if they’re a little repulsed by it. “I like that some people might be disgusted because you’re in this weird space where an object is either considered really beautiful or just this gross, unapproachable thing,” he says. “I want the viewer to approach it without any preconceived notions of what it is supposed to be.”
While studying how modernist writers used domestic spaces to build their characters, like James Joyce did in Dubliners, Lee became interested in how interior design reflects what’s happening in our minds. During the pandemic, Lee became more obsessed with this idea. “When we were all sort of trapped in lockdown, I was thinking about how the domestic interior can become this space of safety and anxiety, where you’re worried about pathogens or people coming in, and you’re just trying to seal everything,” he says. His furniture is about that porousness between the outside world and our interiors — embracing it through design that references microbes, seed pods, fungi, and natural forms.
Lee picked up fiber art as a hobby just a few years ago. He wanted a creative outlet outside of the work he was doing for the set designer Mary Howard, and felting was a craft he could do without making much of a mess in his apartment. Since then, he’s experienced a quick ascent. He sold his first piece, a hand-felted textile panel, in 2019 at Café Forgot and soon after had his work picked up by the Noguchi Museum Store and Heath Ceramics. This summer, Pink Essay included one of Lee’s textile panels in its “Home Around You” group show. Next week, Lee’s exhibiting his first furniture collection of six pieces with the career-making design dealer Patrick Parrish at Salon Art & Design and will show more of his textile panels at the FOG Design+Art fair in San Francisco early next year.
“I hand-dye my wool. The color of this textile panel is inspired by moss and the forest floor. I visited a Zen garden at a Japanese temple, and I was really interested in how this rectangle of moss there was treated. It was a continuous green surface, but you could see the forms it covered, and you could almost imagine what was underneath it. The forms are loosely abstracted notions of bacteria, yeast, and seed pods. I took microbiology in high school and really enjoyed looking at gross things under the microscope.”
“I do needle felting in my work and was starting to build up the surfaces in my textiles — the early ones were fairly flat — and I wanted to push this material and see how sculptural it could become, so I started designing furniture. I initially made these furniture pieces without the intention of showing them. I was just focused on seeing what I could do with the material. I was looking at enoki mushrooms when I made these.”
“I was looking at a cockscomb flower when I made this chair. I love them since they’re so weird looking. All of my pieces are untitled, and I like leaving them untitled because someone could say, ‘Oh, this is a flower. This is a brain.’ The gradient in this chair was made by just seeing what colors worked together. It happened during the process of making it. I just hold scraps and bits of wool next to each other and see if I like the combination.”
“I try to push the wool into the form of a chair that also resembles something that’s completely foreign or that we don’t necessarily think of as belonging inside a home. Particularly during quarantine, when you’re unable to go outside, there’s this desire for nature, this desire for the outside world. At the beginning of the pandemic, I didn’t leave my home for three weeks except for getting groceries. By having domestic objects mimic or resemble something else from nature, you can then transform your home into a weird little dream space or universe where you don’t have to leave your home because you have this whole world contained within it.”