Domestic Unfamiliarity: An Interview with Liam Lee

Text by Ysabelle Cheung

All images courtesy of the artist

While recently indulging in a nightly ritual of doomscrolling, I hovered over a tiny square on Instagram, my finger lulled to a stop. On the screen was a textured detail image of a blanket: a fuzzed surface humming with lines of acid-green and burnt gold. Immediately there was a sense of connection and intimacy embedded in the image, a rejection of the year’s climate of isolation and loss of touch.

Liam Lee’s textile works possess a special tactile quality. Even when viewed through the sleek, cold surface of my phone, the fabrics evoke the warmth and character of living organisms. (Each might have their own interpretation, but the boggy, peaty textures especially reminded me of the English moors where I studied for three rainy years.)

On a formal level, these textiles work both as hanging sculptures, the woolly beaded clusters popping out from the wall, or as a functional blanket—a sort of transportable moss carpet lifted from the forests of Narnia or an alien planet. Each one of these works, which he describes as “a large format, slow-moving, and highly tactile drawing,” takes up to 40 hours to complete. The lambswool-mohair cloth is woven at a small Irish mill before Lee hand-dyes and hand-felts the designs in his New York studio: a laborious process, especially since Lee also works full-time as a set designer. I recently chatted with Lee over email about his practice and the relationship between design and literature.

How does each piece begin? With an image in your mind, or through engagement with the material? 

I’d say it’s a combination of the two. For my textiles, I tend to have a clearer idea of the color scheme when I start and work out the composition as I go. As each piece is entirely unique, I’m able to allow them to emerge organically, much like a large format, slow-moving and highly tactile drawing.

When designing for more intimate, private environments—such as your throws or stamen stools for the home—what criteria guides the creation of these objects?  

My work is very much guided by instinct and by a desire to create something that doesn’t already exist in the world. Functionality is of course important, but I also hope to create pieces that can be appreciated on a purely aesthetic basis. With my textiles, I try to produce work that can just as easily be hung on a wall as used as a blanket. If I can create something that makes someone stop and pause for a moment to consider the object’s fabrication or materiality, if it can cause someone to want to touch it, I think that’s what makes a piece successful.

“Memory is not a fixed or static image, but is instead a continuous project of re-collection and remembering of those fragmentary bodies, objects, and spaces.”

I saw that you studied English Literature at the University of Chicago. I’m curious to hear about how literature, or the written word as a medium, influences your sculptural forms and the ways in which you address nonverbal design.

One of my primary interests in literature while in school lay in the relationship between the built environment and the novel, and in the ways in which architectural spaces in literary texts and the objects that populate them inform modes of sociality, narrative structure, and interiority in early 20th century literature. We can learn a lot from the everyday domestic objects that surround us beyond simple functionality, from the origin and age of an object to even perhaps its emotional significance—the memories a given object carries.

In my final year at UChicago, I wrote a collection of poetry that treated memory as something that is constituted through the juxtaposition of objects—through the resurfacing and selection of eidetic fragments, which through their relation to one another begin to form a web or constellation. Memory is not a fixed or static image, but is instead a continuous project of re-collection and remembering of those fragmentary bodies, objects, and spaces.

I approach object design as a similar process of accumulation and juxtaposition that attempts to engage with the user’s more primal instincts and plays with presuppositions towards beauty and ugliness, the familiar and the unknown. Through my work, I hope to find a sort of balance between functionality and aesthetic uncertainty—a strange sense of displaced familiarity that arises from looking at my work, whether it evokes a mossy forest floor, an aquatic creature, a seed pod, or a microscopic organism.

I read in a previous interview that you draw on the traditions of ukiyo-e prints in your throws. I was wondering how your work relates to the history and aesthetics of this genre, and if you had connected its history of globalization to how you create your works today. 

My attraction to ukiyo-e prints is primarily an aesthetic one. There is a lot to learn from masters like Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, Hokusai, etc. in terms of color, composition, form. But it’s certainly important to consider the impact of our production processes when we live in a world in which there is no lack of stuff, and to consider accessibility of design. Ukiyo-e prints were certainly accessible, mass-produced commodities that were made to be widely disseminated. Due to the labor intensive nature of my work, I unfortunately can’t have the same reach.

Another influence is nature itself, and the forms that are found in plants and the patterns of the world’s life cycles. Why do you think you were drawn to these shapes? 

Having grown up in New York, the natural world has always felt very remote and special. Through communicating my observations of organic forms through domestic objects, I’ve tried to bring that sense of tranquility and wonder I have when encountering a particularly beautiful natural environment into the domestic interior.

Liam Lee’s works can be viewed via his Instagram or his website. His textiles are currently available at the Noguchi Museum store and at Beirut Re-Store, a charitable initiative raising funds to aid those affected by the Beirut explosion of 2020.