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Leonard Lee: Innovating Like a Shark

Wilson Associates’ newly appointed Regional Managing Director and Regional Creative Officer for Asia Pacific talks about design culture and the firm’s direction.

Leonard Lee: Innovating Like a Shark

Leonard Lee, the newly appointed Regional Managing Director and Regional Creative Officer, Asia Pacific at Wilson Associates

Global interior firm Wilson Associates has appointed a new Regional Managing Director and Regional Creative Officer, Asia Pacific. Lee has been working for the company for over 17 years and has designed award-winning hospitality projects around the world for brands including Ritz Carlton, Conrad, Capella, JW Marriott and Starwood. In his new role, Lee will lead Wilson’s design culture across China and Asia Pacific. He will also support Blueplate, Wilson Associates’ F&B-focused arm.

Lee hopes to reinvigorate the culture of design in his office. “Design isn’t just for designers. Everyone in our organisation should feel empowered to participate in this process,” he says. “All decisions should be made intentionally because even the smallest details can add up to impact your overall message. A design-centric organisation will not leave anything to chance.”

It is also his mission to demonstrate how designers can ‘innovate like a shark’ – a term he borrowed from American author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek. The term was coined when Sinek talked about the early career of Steven Spielberg. In 1975 Spielberg set out to make a horror film with gory shark attacks using a dismal budget and a mechanical shark prop that rarely worked. But we all know he worked within these constraints to create Jaws – one of the most influential films in its genre.

“They left most of the violence to the audience’s imagination. Viewers could see a fin, then someone would disappear underwater, and then the water would turn red – the effect was so scary and powerful, it influenced our entire society,” tells Lee. Drawing a parallel in the design field, he says: “The brilliant way in which Spielberg told the story of Jaws did not happen in a brainstorming session, and it was certainly not planned. It was the solution he found when what he wanted wasn’t possible.”

“We have a false belief that innovation happens with lots of money and resources. In fact, the opposite is true. Innovation is not born from the dream; innovation is born from the struggle. And the best innovations, like just like the shark in Jaws, is often something we don’t even know is there.”

Lee sees constraints as a motivation and a chance for building soul in a project – something that he finds lacking in many properties in Asia. And what is his notion of soul in design? “It is an ambiance crafted by meticulously compared and orchestrated subtleties rather than an obvious approach,” he says.

Under Lee’s creative direction, architects and designers at Wilson Associates have recently expertly crafted the souls of Hilton Jinan South Hotel and Residences, Signiel Seoul, and Fairmont Quasar Istanbul. Several properties, including a Sofitel hotel in Tanjong Pagar and Marriott Hotel in Welligama, Sri Lanka, are slated for opening later this year.

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