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The Cloth of Culture with Grace Lee-Lim

Like much in life, a beautiful home comes down to balance. Luckily, the California-based interior designer Grace Lee-Lim has a knack for achieving harmony. Gently influenced by her Korean heritage, the spaces she imagines are serene and sentimental, lovingly layered but with room to breathe. Below, she reminisces about her career path and walks us through her latest project, a joyful family home in the Bay Area.

Photography by Molly Haas

Tell us about your career arc and the people who have mentored you along the way.

I studied fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is a very conceptual fine art school. I learned how fashion could be interpreted in a deeply meaningful, avant-garde way and fell in love with the process of conceptualizing ideas without the pressure of needing to commercialize a product. One of my professors, Andrea Reynders, was influential during my time as a student and became my mentor; we remain really close today. 

After graduating, I lived in NY for several years and worked in the fashion industry for incredible, influential designers. I ended up moving back to Chicago and joined the Chicago Fashion Incubator, which was a two-year program that Andrea introduced me to. I started my own bridal line in that incubator program and had my first opportunity to be an entrepreneur at the ripe age of 25! It was an amazing experience designing my own collections and creating custom gowns for brides, but after several years the manufacturing part of the business was becoming too challenging and required me to travel to the coasts constantly for production.

I decided to pivot careers and turned to interior design as I felt there were many parallel lines, and I had always had great spatial awareness and understood scale in a way that I thought would be beneficial. I cold called several boutique firms throughout the city and ended up getting an internship with a firm who did lovely, unique work that I admired. Something instantly clicked when I started learning the actual processes of designing interiors, and I was quickly hired on full-time. I spent a few years working for them as well as another high-end residential firm in Chicago, and then my family and I moved out to Napa, CA when my daughter was two months old. I paused my career for two years to raise her, and then made the decision to launch my own studio in 2020.

"Home is the place we can truly be ourselves. Creating a place of joy, respite, comfort, and serenity is taken with a lot of responsibility"

How has your experience in fashion influenced your eye as an interior designer?

Whether it’s a collection or a space, I always start with a concept or story that I build a world around and dive deeply into, searching for connection points that enrich the overall vision. My first love in fashion was menswear design, and I had the wonderful opportunity to intern for the menswear designer Robert Geller, who had an entirely different lens on what it meant to create a space to enhance the experience of a fashion show. The runway sets he built, music selections, scents, lighting etc. was just as important as the collection because it defined the tone of the story he created, and it was incredible to feel like you were entering into his world. He mastered the art of quiet luxury before it was a trend, and it was really impactful to watch firsthand. Fashion was also my foundation for understanding colors, textures, and layering, which I definitely utilize in my work currently.

What personal values guide your practice?

Integrity is something I really respect and adhere to in my work, be it from the design perspective to the transparency of the process to managing the clients. I enter into design from the side of creativity far more than that of a businessperson or marketer, and though it’s not always possible to create everything custom, I always set out to create environments that feel completely unique to the characteristics of the clients. Getting to deeply know and love the clients and vendors I work with is also really important to me. I need to understand how the clients operate when the layers are peeled back, especially since home is the place we can truly be ourselves. Creating a place of joy, respite, comfort and serenity is taken with a lot of responsibility because it's a very intimate exchange of trust that is handed over.

We love how your work marries your Korean heritage with contemporary American design. Are there any particular colors, textures and patterns that tie those influences together?

I love incorporating my Korean heritage into my work as it’s about bridging the past with the present into the future in a very intentional way. The Korean culture is very in tune with nature, especially in theoretical use of the five traditional colors (also called Obangsaek). The five elements of life are wood (blue), fire (red), earth (yellow), metal (white) and water (black), which were considered the necessities for a healthy and prosperous life. Combining some of those colors creates vibrant greens, pinks, peachy nudes and magentas that are also part of the Korean color palette that’s prevalent in the art, clothing, architecture, and especially cuisine. It’s something so embedded into the cloth of our culture that it naturally comes out in my work as well. A very strong characteristic of the Korean ethos (as well as many other Asian cultures) is the balance of two opposing ends, and I feel that’s what I like to capture by combining Korean and American design.

Give us a little insight into your process for your latest project. How did you balance your vision with the client’s personal taste?

This project was exceptional in that it was a perfect synergy of my personal taste aligning with the client’s aesthetic as well. They’re a second-generation Korean American family and they relate to a lot of the sentiments I have about continuing the legacy of our culture in a modern way. There were times where I would need to coax them a little more to go for an idea that I was envisioning, such as agreeing to the very large, bold artwork in the dining room, but it felt like every part of the project was really easy as they were open to all of the ideas we shared.

As a family with young children, did you have conversations about their lifestyle needs, and balancing form and function?

Most definitely! We wanted to make sure we designed a space that could look fantastic while also withstanding the wear of boys ages 3-5. I’m a very pragmatic designer in the sense that I won’t make any design decisions just for the sake of something looking nice – there has to be practical usage and I personally feel discomfort if I know that something I bring into a client’s home just won’t function over time. I also happen to be very lucky where a lot of my clients welcome patina and life into their homes and their pieces can age gracefully over time even with stains and water rings on their furnishings. It’s all part of what makes life realistic and beautiful.

We’re honored that you chose our Winnow rug for the living room. What considerations were front of mind when specifying a rug for the space?

The Winnow rug couldn’t have been more perfect for this home. We love the chunky weave that feels so cozy, and the texture adds such a beautiful layer of dimension to the space. We also heavily considered how the rug we selected for this room would have to withstand normal life with two young boys, and the mixture of the natural fibers, heathered coloring and basketweave makes it very forgiving.

We strongly believe in buying fewer but better things. Why is it important to you to invest in quality, timeless pieces?

Committing to the pieces we invest in is so incredibly important and really not emphasized enough. It’s often so much easier to buy cheaper, replace items frequently and always have something “new” but it’s devastating to the environment and cultural mindset. I think that buying less, investing in quality, and committing to what you invest in is so important to sustain a happier life for the longer term. So many new clients I meet fret over “What if I sell my house? I have to make sure there’s an ROI for the construction I do and we have to purchase everything all over again!” before they’ve even started the design process, and I think it’s doing such a disservice to how we should live our lives. Committing to a home, the furnishings and objects we love is a necessary step for us to put down roots and build something really beautiful. I encourage my clients to pause on the emphasis of resale value and instead really commit to loving the space they live in with quality items that can withstand many, many years of use so they can build emotional equity into their homes and lives.

Finally, interiors or otherwise, what has been inspiring you lately?

I’ve been so inspired by meeting local LA artisans who are creating quality pieces that are so unique and lovely. I meet many Asian-American artists and designers at markets and events in the city all the time, and I have the great honor of putting their pieces into my projects and bringing life to the work that they so thoughtfully create. Be it with woven rope art by Cindy Hsu (pictured on the adjacent wall in the dining room) to custom incense foraged from organic materials by Hyungi Park, or beautiful furniture crafted from aluminum by Toh Studio, there’s something so special about bridging all the different backgrounds, cultures, and history together that brings me so much joy.