I found Kahi Lee
as I was flipping through 944 magazine - her style struck me as fresh and bright, a la Kelly Wearstler
but with a California flair. We emailed back and forth and she accepted my invitation to meet.
She's an up-and-coming designer who, at thirty, is a veteran on the television circuit. She hosts a show on HGTV called 'Design on a Dime' where she's given $1,000 to recreate a room. She's smart and she's sassy, she's open and she's appreciative.
The following is, in her words, Kahi Lee's story.
I am an interior designer and currently I am hosting a show on HGTV
called Design on a Dime
, which is basically a budget decorating show – we have a $1,000 so we make a lot of things ourselves. I also run a design firm so it’s like having two full time jobs at the same time. This is my sixth design show. I’ve been doing this show for two years. And then I also have my design clients at the same time so it’s been seven day work weeks.
But you know I kind of take things like..you know…next year I might not have anything
– no clients and no show - so I have to take things as they come so I have a problem saying no to things because I’m my own boss, I don’t have any kind of job security, so it’s kinda like if someone comes to me, I’m going to take the job.
I try to balance a lot of things.
My clients are more higher end, clearly they want to spend more than $1,000 on their entire room design. It’s fun having the budget version, where I have to make things with my own two hands, and then having the design clients which are larger in scale.
My mom has been an interior designer for 30 years.
She works a lot in Korea and in the summers I would help her so I’ve always been around interior design and my mom has always encouraged our creative side. My sister is an event designer/planner she lives in NYC, she does weddings and events. She’s worked at the Tribeca film festival. She’s three years younger than me and one day we’d love to collaborate.
I feel like my whole life has been interior design training
because I worked for my mom all those years growing up. A friend of mine was a production designer on television commercials and hired me to be a set decorator. I thought that was it – I was going to be in set design. I told my friends, if you see listings for a set decorator please forward them to me. A friend of mine sent me something for a set designer but it happened to be for on-camera.
Sometimes your path is just laid out for you
there wasn’t very much planning I didn’t even finish design school. My plan was to be in set dress and set decorating and production, that’s where I thought I was going to be but it took me in a different direction. You just have to follow what happens. You have to take some risks.
You don’t get anywhere without taking any chances.
My first job out of college was working for Christie’s auction house, I studied Art History at UCLA because I wanted to work in the arts and I didn’t know exactly how. It wasn’t for me because it was more of a sales position. You got to look at these amazing pieces of art on a daily basis but it wasn’t a creative outlet.
I did advertising for a year, it was too corporate for me.
I worked on the account side at Rubin Postaer for Honda. I just didn’t want to be at a desk all day long so I went back to school to study interior design. I couldn’t do full-time, I did about a year and a half and then I just got a show.
Being on TV has helped me with my design skills
because you have to learn how to convey your design thoughts and your ideas in layman's terms and make it entertaining and somewhat interesting. If I were to give advice to any up and coming designers it’s that communication, presentation or the way you speak is so important because you can have the best ideas in the world and be the best designer, but the person who gets chosen is the one who makes it clear to the client what they want to do. I’ve met designers that are amazing but that tend to be more shy or subdued and don’t stand up for their own idea. Your job as a designer is yes, you have to listen to what the client wants, but remember that they hired you for your design sense.
Communication skills are so important.
You have to take in everything they want but then interpret it for them in a style that works.
You have to make it fun.
I feel like it’s my job to make it fun, to be an entertainer to make the process as much fun as possible.
I love Kelly Wearstler, Jonathan Adler, and Dorothy Draper.
I have lots of inspiration; they all tend to be more dramatic designers. I don’t do subtle design well, I shouldn’t say very well…I don’t find it much fun, I like dramatic spaces for sure.
The homes of my clients vary wildly
and then every room on the show has to be different. So we go from a Spanish style to a super modern so on TV it’s been all over the map. In terms of my personal design aesthetic it’s a mix of things that have influenced me over the course of my life so I love mixing everything – I don’t believe in doing one style – I love Palm Spring modern, mid-century that whole '50s, '60s glamorous look but growing up in Los Angeles I love the Spanish aesthetic. Also, being Asian, I am drawn to a lot of Asian pieces like bamboo…but I also love color and drama.
Having wanted to go into set design and work on films I love dramatic spaces.
I think the worst offense you can do is to design a room that’s forgettable. I’d rather design a room that’s loud and obnoxious, that’s memorable and makes an impact than one that people walk into and out of and think “what was in that room?” I think that’s the worst thing – to have people not remember what was in there.
If I were to describe my style it would be very L.A.
because I’m influenced by California mid-century Spanish and Asian culture. Hollywood is here, the drama of that…so I’m a very L.A. designer – I think L.A. gets a bad rap in terms of fashion, design and arts but I really appreciate all that I’ve grown up around.
I love so much
that it's hard to commit to one direction or one look – so what I liked two years ago is so different than what I like now. Sometimes you have to step outside of yourself because you can’t be objective when it’s yourself.
What makes me different
is that I’m an Asian American woman in the design market. I think it’s helped in my case but I’ve always seen it as something that makes me interesting and different.
You find yourself working all night long
…that’s part of the concept of being your own business person, I think you’re the master of your own destiny but you have..well, I don’t really have that off switch. I force myself to go to dinners with friends two to three times a week or I’ll be parked in front of my computer working on clients all day long. I definitely have to work on that.
I complain but I love it the entire time.
I think that’s what start-ups go through – the complete love and joy and then those moments when you are in the fetal position asking yourself why you are doing this to yourself.
You can only get to a certain point by doing it yourself.
So I have grown and learned to let go, to trust other people so that I can do other things. I have changed in that business aspect.
For the past two years I can’t honestly say that I’ve been able to unplug.
I used to do yoga three times a week, honestly I haven’t even done it for six months. Even when I went on vacation, I went to Europe for ten days I was making calls, checking emails…If you interview other people and they tell you how you do it…let me know. Other than forcing myself to do more social things (and I really have to force myself) to have a dinner or a drink with a friend.
Some people in business put up a front where you think they are confident and that they always know what they are doing and that they don’t second guess themselves but as any person who’s running their own business or is their own boss will tell you…everybody has self-doubt.
Everybody thinks “Is this good enough?” Doubting myself, being nervous, scared is normal and I think a lot of people who start out on their own feel like this. It doesn’t mean that they can’t do it. Because even the most successful people have those doubts. It’s just normal. You have to work through it. Keep going. You have to embrace it.
Some of Kahi's work:
And to see one of her great tips, watch her in this video from CBS' The Early Show:
Thank you, Kahi, for being so open with all of us and telling us about your personal story. I'm glad that you could join us here at theMET!
For more on Kahi, check out her blog