Liam Lee’s flourishing practice melds the natural and the domestic

Working with colour-saturated felt, Liam Lee creates biophilic furniture in his Brooklyn studio. His work was recently shortlisted for the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize

Liam Lee portrait with examples of felted works
Left, Liam Lee in his Brooklyn studio with his Series 01, Item 76, draped over his shoulder. Right, Untitled 11 chair. Like most of Lee’s creations, it features a type of needled felt made up of 70 per cent mohair and 30 per cent wool
(Image credit: Hugo Yu)

There is a sublime, otherworldly quality to Liam Lee’s organic works. The Brooklyn-based artist has shot to fame with the biophilic yet functional forms that he sculpts out of colour-saturated felt. Only five years into his practice, and at just 29 years old, the former set design assistant demonstrates a clarity and individuality well beyond his years. It's a sentiment clearly shared by many – Lee is one of 30 finalists shortlisted for this year's Loewe Foundation Craft Prize; all the finalists' work will be presented as an exhibition in Isamu Noguchi's Studio at the Noguchi Museum in New York from 17 May to 18 June 2023.

Liam Lee: ‘I wanted to make the domestic interior more of a dream world’

Liam Lee felted design work

(Image credit: Hugo Yu)

Working with fibres fabricated by a small wool mill in Ireland, Lee uses an intensive needle-felting process to create a variety of textile-based works. Initially producing large-format fabric panels featuring abstractions of microscopic and topographic forms, Lee soon moved into designing furniture pieces with dramatic surfaces that nod to familiar, biological forms.

‘Although I really enjoyed working in set design, I didn’t have my own creative outlet, so I started making textile pieces,’ he recalls. He chose felt as a medium simply out of convenience: ‘It’s more easily contained, compared to clay or woodworking, so I just found my way to it. Shortly after making my first textile pieces, I started selling them to the Noguchi Museum shop.’

Veteran New York gallerist Patrick Parrish saw the pieces on the Noguchi Museum’s Instagram and promptly messaged Lee. ‘I was blown away,’ Parrish recalls. ‘When I reached out for a possible commission, Liam said he had been making furniture, and sent me some photos. One look and I was booking a studio visit, and on that visit I offered him two solo shows: one at Fog Design + Art in San Francisco, where SFMOMA bought a piece for its permanent collection, and one at my gallery. I’ve been doing this a long time, and a talent like Liam’s is something you only see a handful of times.’

Liam Lee felted design work

Untitled sculpture sits on top of Untitled 02 stool 

(Image credit: Hugo Yu)

Lee’s furniture designs nod to biological forms, but on a larger scale. At their core, these pieces are rooted in ‘the ways we related to domestic interiors during the pandemic; porous spaces we couldn’t seal off completely from the outside world,’ says the artist. ‘I wanted to play with that notion of porosity and make the domestic interior more of a dream world, where you could experience everything happening outside while we were all trapped inside.’

The most recent additions to this body of work continue Lee’s exploration of ‘the relationship between architecture and the human body’, a recurring theme that stems from his early interests in architectural theory while an English literature student at the University of Chicago. The sculptures incorporate motifs ranging from moss-covered stones, branches and seed pods to macroscopic landscapes and star charts.

Liam Lee felted design work

The felted pieces are created over functional chair frames made of poplar plywood 

(Image credit: Hugo Yu)

‘I think about collapsing scales,’ he elaborates. ‘I’ve also been trying to [evoke] the antiquated notion of spontaneous generation, where people didn’t know where things originated from. I aim to smooth out all the surfaces to a point where you can’t really tell how a piece was constructed. Even though the process is labour intensive, I want the pieces to feel like they’ve always existed or that they grew overnight.’

Colour plays a key role in bringing the pieces to life. Each colour combination is intuitively developed, with Lee mixing the shades and dip-dying the wool himself. The subtle colour gradients, which bestow the sculptures with a glowing, unreal quality, are created by applying separate layers of dyed wool. Majestic and slightly rough to the touch, Lee’s amalgams of colour, material and form engage the senses on a primal level.

‘Liam has always been intent on pushing himself to take craft into new territories,’ says Evan Scott, retail and merchandising manager of the Noguchi Museum. ‘The dyeing has become more complex, the forms bolder. He’s restless in testing how his vision can exist in more dimensions.’

Liam Lee work

Some of  Lee‘s hand-dyed creations, including the Untitled 14 and Untitled 12 chairs 

(Image credit: Hugo Yu)

In preparation for two upcoming solo shows, Lee is developing new work inspired by aquatic life. He is crocheting zinc-covered copper wire into mesh sculptures fitted over light fixtures and festooned with labradorite stones, garnets and pearls.

‘It’s a jumble of things, from coral and jellyfish to lampreys, an invasive species of fish in the Great Lakes. They are really creepy and look like the sandworms from Dune,’ Lee says. ‘For me, it’s all about creating a dream space and evoking some type of emotional response. I think if I had gone to an art school, I probably wouldn’t have gone in this direction or chosen to work with these materials in this way,’ he concludes. ‘But just throwing yourself into something is a good way to explore unusual ways of working.’ 

Lee’s solo shows run from 8 June–21 July 2023 at Patrick Parrish, New York,, and from 28 July–12 November at Ogunquit Museum of American Art, Maine,

A version of this article appears in the March 2023 issue of Wallpaper*, available in print from 9 February, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and to subscribers of Apple News +. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.

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