Gary Lee: An Artistic Advisor

June 1, 2006

By Robert Nieminen • Cover and portrait photography by Richard Agudelo

With a distinguished career spanning more than 30 years and a successful practice bearing his name, Gary Lee is the quintessential designer who has seen the profession of interior design through its best and worst, and has artfully translated his clients’ business needs into beautiful, functional design solutions that earn impressive referrals for his Chicago-based firm.

Gary Lee isn't sure he would call his entry into the design profession "serendipitous," but it seems whenever he talks about the success he has enjoyed throughout his career, it is always preceded by a humble recognition that he's been "very lucky." For example, in August of 1993 when he took his father's advice and, at age 40, opened his own firm, he recalls of his bold move: "I was very, very fortunate—we were very fortunate. A lot of our clients were very loyal, and in terms of getting business, we were very lucky." However, when your firm's projects and staff have earned a long list of industry awards and, as a designer, you've been inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame, it's obvious that good fortune has to step aside and give a nod to talent, experience and a passion for good design.

Although interior design wasn't his first pick during his tenure at the University of Michigan, it eventually "won out," as Lee puts it, over graphic design and architecture, which he also studied before earning his degree in graphic design and interiors. A lot has changed since his early days of designing—a fact that he is quite happy about.

"I'm at that age where I did all the horrible panel systems that (were common) in the beginning when you were designing office landscapes," he admits. "I'm proud to be part of an industry now that has gotten very sophisticated and has broadened to the point where you talk about contract interiors and we have a number of specialties, which, when I was in school, it was all the same thing."

Fortunately, the design business has changed, and firms can now emphasize their core competencies and deliver more appropriate solutions to their clients. Lee recalls working in some larger firms (including ISD and Epstein Companies) 20 years ago when, in those days, designers had to wear many hats and be good at everything. In contrast, at Gary Lee Partners "we're good at a lot of things, and we say what we're good at," he explains. "But we also say what we're not good at. With 40 people, we're large enough to do almost any assignment, and we're small enough so that we can be what we are and not try to be a lot of other things and feel pressure to take on assignments that we're not best suited for or not aligned to do." Design, he adds, is a very individual thing to clients and you have to be really good and really honest about it.

While clients as a whole are more sophisticated than they were 10 or 15 years ago, Lee finds that a lot of times they still come to the table having misdiagnosed what the problem really is. He is careful to point out that he's not suggesting his clients are necessarily wrong—"I'm just saying they're not always right in their own assessment of what they need," he explains.

It is during the early programming phases of the design process that the role of interior designers seems to be changing most. While design solutions to projects are ultimately why a client hires an interior designer, it is clear that arriving at the best solution won't happen without a solid business relationship—a fact that many designers still fail to recognize.

"I think a lot of designers tend to look at clients as projects or transactions," Lee explains. "But what they really are is the result of a business relationship, a solid consultancy. I'm an advisor. I'm an interpreter. I'm not really just a designer," he adds.

For the designers and clients who understand this intimate relationship, there is a great deal of reciprocal trust that enables honest dialogue to take place that ultimately will help designers uncover what their clients' needs truly are and recommend a solution. As Lee notes, "clients tell me these stories because they want your opinion, not because they want you to say, 'You're absolutely right, you should do this.' They want you to help them figure it out." In a nutshell, he says good design should be considered a form of problem solving.

Doing What You Do Best
Historically, the sector that Gary Lee Partners serves most often in the corporate market is best categorized as the professional service firm— such as law firms, management consultant firms, venture capital companies and financial institutions. These clients, which Lee describes as the "upper echelon, high-image, competitive culture kind of companies," seem to have a symbiotic relationship with Gary Lee Partners. "They're all professional service firms," he explains, "which is interesting to me because we're a service firm working for other service firms."

Perhaps it is their shared sense of client service that enables Gary Lee Partners to generate 75 percent of its business from repeat or referred clients; or perhaps it's knowing what he and his clients do best that establishes a sense of trust that creates loyalty to the firm. Whatever it is, Lee doesn't even like to call it repeat business—"It's just business. It's never been a transaction to me; it's never been a project. It's always about the client," he says.

If anything, Lee considers his firm's success to be directly attributed to the trust his clients have in knowing that he understands their business well enough to get them where they need to go and knowing enough about what is unique to them. This is especially important in the market sector he serves, where each new venture capital company, for example, is a progression of the next one, and differentiation from the competition is critical.

Lee provides an anecdote to illustrate this point: having provided design services for some of the top five venture capital firms in Chicago, a potential new client asked him why they should hire Gary Lee Partners when it had worked with its competitors. Lee, communicating the value that his knowledge of their business would bring to the project, asked, "Why wouldn't you hire me if I worked for your competitor?"

The challenge for Gary Lee Partners—and indeed, for all design firms—Lee says, "is being as good as you can about what you do. That means staying up on your clients' profession and their industry. That's really important," he stresses. "We'll never really be business consultants, but we're close."

Keeping The Inspiration Going
While Lee is a self-described modernist, or "contemporary-minded," as he puts it, he also admits to being vulnerable to trends. "Every designer likes to think they create (trends) rather than follow them, but we're all cut from the same piece of fabric." And while some might think that design is an inspiration unto itself, it's more often the designers that have gone before who continue to inspire those who follow. That is certainly the case for Lee.

"My biggest mentor was a partner that I worked with very closely at ISD named Mel Hamilton, who was certainly inspirational, but also was an amazing designer in terms of what he saw." Although Hamilton has passed on, Lee gives him a lot of credit for influencing who and what he's become. "He took me under his wing," Lee fondly recalls. "I will always give him credit for that. He was a tremendous designer, and he was truly my mentor."

The idea of mentorship is something Lee believes is a cyclical process. Just as he had senior designers teach him valuable lessons, he believes that today's designers have a responsibility to the younger generation to teach them and make them part of the group. "I've had people that taught me, and now that I'm knee-deep in my practice, I view my firm as a vehicle for my star designers to develop," he says.

Lee reiterates that he was fortunate enough to have experiences that gave him confidence as a young designer—an issue that is critical to young professionals who are made to feel "notoriously insecure," Lee suggests. He explains that there is a tremendous amount of pressure for designers to pull off projects with endless details that need to be considered to make it all work. "It's much more complicated than architecture (pauses) so he says" (laughs).

One of the things that concerns Lee about mentoring young designers is what he perceives to be a gap within the industry of people in his age group. Many people, even within his own firm, in their mid-20s and mid-30s and early 40s have gone back to school, or stopped to have a family and are no longer visible within the industry. If indeed there will be a shortage of mentors in the future, "it's going to be more difficult for our younger people to move up to the next level."

Bringing it Back
While most people may view the "next level" as technology driving the future of design, Lee suggests that their challenge is quite the opposite: "Internally, it's important for us to manage technology so that it supports us, and that we're not being driven by it."

What surprises him is how much "designing" is done these days in such a short amount of time. Unlike the days where, at the point of conceptual design, 10 sketches showed 10 different variations of a concept. Now Lee says he gets 10 drawings out of a computer that look more like finished designs—and tend to get treated as such. He adds that the process of sketching versus drawing on a computer involves a very different way of thinking, and with young designers being so proficient on the computer coming out of school, it seems something is lost in translation.

"I think the part that has been a challenge for us has been (differentiating) how technology can speed us up and help us come up with better ideas, rather than just saying, 'The design is done, let's move into production,'" he explains.

It's not that Lee doesn't believe that the next generation of designers will be just as talented (if not more so) than the people who have preceded them. But in terms of their commitment to arriving at the best possible solution, "I don't know that their passion is really the same as it was for people in my generation, but I think that's going to be a soothsayer for the future."

Whatever the future holds, at the end of the day, Lee feels that design is about creating something people use every day; something that they need; something that they can see; and something that they can feel. "It's getting back to what any applied art is—it's taking something that you see is beautiful, and you apply it to an art or to a craft. That's what I enjoy about it."

  • Gary Lee Partners
    360 West Superior St. 417 Lafayette St., 5th Floor 210 Post St., 9th Floor Chicago, IL 60610 New York, NY 10003 San Francisco, CA 94109 (312) 640-8300 (212) 982-5417 (415) 374-8135


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