Liam Lee designs felt furniture that refers to nature

Liam Lee’s designs often look like something that might come out of the concept drawing for a futuristic science fiction movie. He sculpts furniture and dimensional textiles from brightly colored wool which he dyes and felt by hand, fraying on shapes he has seen under a microscope and in the natural world: a coral-colored stool that looks like a jumble of entrails, a bumpy chartreuse chair looks like some sort of metastatic growth, a sculptural textile with a twisting pattern that looks like bacteria under a microscope. Lee is excited about what viewers associate with his work, even if they have a bit of a distaste for it. “I like that some people are disgusted because you’re in this weird space where an object is considered really beautiful or just this gross, unapproachable thing,” he says. “I want the viewer to approach it without preconceptions about what it should be.”

Liam Lee sketches and paints abstract shapes that are loosely based on shapes he sees in nature. He then refers to these drawings and paintings in his felt textile panels and furniture.
Photo: Chris Mottalinic

While studying how modernist writers used domestic spaces to build their characters, as James Joyce did in Dubliners, Lee became interested in how interior design reflects what happens in our minds. During the pandemic, Lee became more obsessed with this idea. “When we were all kind of locked in, I thought about how the interior of a house can become this space of safety and fear, where you worry about pathogens or people coming in, and you just try to shut everything down, he says. His furnishings are about that porosity between the outside world and our interior – embracing it through a design that references microbes, seed pods, fungi and natural forms.

Lee took up fiber art as a hobby a few years ago. He wanted a creative outlet outside of the work he did for set designer Mary Howard, and felting was a craft he could do without making a mess in his apartment. Since then, he has experienced a rapid rise. He sold his first piece, a hand-felted textile panel, in 2019 at Café Forgot and shortly after, his work was picked up by the Noguchi Museum Store and Heath Ceramics. This summer, Pink Essay included one of Lee’s textile panels in the group show “Home Around You.” Next week, Lee will be exhibiting his first six-piece furniture collection with career-making design dealer Patrick Parrish at Salon Art & Design, and will be showing more of his textile panels at the FOG Design+Art trade show in San Francisco early next year.

Photo: Liam Lee

“I dye my wool by hand. The color of this textile panel is inspired by moss and the forest floor. I visited a Zen garden in a Japanese temple and I was very interested in how this rectangle of moss was treated there. It was a continuous green surface, but you could see the shapes it covered, and you could almost imagine what was underneath. The shapes are loosely abstracted notions of bacteria, yeasts and seed pods. I took microbiology in high school and really enjoyed looking at gross things under the microscope.”

Photo: Chris Mottalinic

“I do needle felt in my work and started building up the surfaces in my textiles – the early ones were pretty flat – and I wanted to push this material and see how sculptural it could get, so I started designing furniture. initially created with no intention of showing them, I was just focused to see what I could do with the material. I was looking at enoki mushrooms when I made these.”

Photo: Chris Mottalinic

“I was looking at a cockscomb flower when I made this chair. I love them because they look so weird. All my pieces are untitled and I like to leave them untitled because someone might say, ‘Oh, this is a flower. This is a brain.’ The gradient in this chair was created by just seeing which colors worked together. It happened while making it. I just keep scraps and pieces of wool next to each other and see if I like the combination.”

Photo: Chris Mottalinic

“I’m trying to push the wool into the shape of a chair that also looks like something totally foreign or that we don’t necessarily think belongs in a house. Especially during quarantine, when you can’t go outside, there’s that longing for nature, this longing for the outside world. At the start of the pandemic, I didn’t leave my house for three weeks, except to run errands. By having household objects imitate or resemble something else from nature, you can transform your home into a weird little dream space or universe where you don’t have to leave your house because you have this whole world inside you.”

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