There’s No Muse Like Home

This article is part of our Design special section on how the recent push for diversity in design is changing the way the world looks.

People with a history of moving between worlds bring a unique perspective to designing for the home. Teresa Rivera, 30, grew up in New York’s Dominican diaspora but now lives in London. Jean Lee, 40, emigrated from Taiwan to Oregon as a child and today splits her practice between Brooklyn and Seattle.

Each designer’s experience recreating familiar elements in new contexts has influenced how she makes objects. For Ms. Rivera, who co-founded the studio Wilkinson & Rivera with her husband, Grant Wilkinson, in 2020, it has meant working together to reimagine traditional timber furniture, like a Windsor chair, with visually destabilizing squiggly lines.

For Ms. Lee, the founder, with Dylan Davis, of the 13-year-old design company Ladies & Gentlemen, a culturally complex upbringing has helped shape furniture, jewelry and light fixtures characterized by what the designers call “playful austerity.”

When Ms. Rivera was in New York for a visit in January, she joined Ms. Lee at Ladies & Gentlemen’s Red Hook work space to talk about how hybrid understandings of place have influenced their practices. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

You have these parallel stories. How did it happen for each of you, meeting your partners when you were studying and then later starting studios with them?

TERESA RIVERA: I’m from New York but I went to Tyler School of Art and Architecture in Philadelphia. Though their study abroad program is in Rome, I wanted to go to London — I literally couldn’t tell you why London. I forced myself into my own program at the University of the Arts London, and that’s where I met Grant. We married really young, and I like to say that we grew into adults together. I’m the one who inspired him to get into woodworking. It’s been a very interwoven journey.

JEAN LEE: That’s funny because Dylan and I did a study-abroad program together in Rome. One of the things that really inspired us was the culture of Italian artisans earning a living from selling what they made at local markets — it was so direct and pure. We’d been studying at the University of Washington in Seattle, where the trajectory for a lot of industrial design students was to work in tech designing cellphones and gadgets. I wasn’t too interested in that.

When we started Ladies & Gentlemen five years later, it was the middle of the recession. A lot of designers were out of work and starting their own practices. We were part of a new wave of independent designers. I learned that when things fall apart, it actually allows room for new growth to come.

It’s interesting what develops from a moment of crisis or disruption, whether it’s the recession or the pandemic when you started your studio, Teresa. Was it something you’d been wanting to do for a while?

RIVERA: We were always thinking one day we’ll do something together. But what happened was I fell pregnant. It was this massive change and we needed to restructure our lives. I was working as an interior designer for this small company, Fran Hickman Design & Interiors, and on a plane back to New York every other month for installs or a site visit. Not what you want to do with a baby. Grant had these three-hour commutes. It was ammunition enough to take the plunge.

One day Grant made this sketch, a very early rendition of our Windsor chair. It was like we were both having these existential crises, and then with this doodle, a light bulb went off. We got into a shared space, Blackhorse Workshop, and we built this chair with our baby strapped to my chest. I always call our son, Genie, our muse. When we launched the chair in March 2021, it was like we shot it out of a T-shirt gun.

It went viral, right?

RIVERA: It went viral on Twitter. It took on this Gen-Z narrative of anxiety and youthful angst.

LEE: Did you feel like that was accurate?

RIVERA: No, but we thought it was funny. We had the idea we were taking a very trad Windsor chair and almost passing it through a filter, like it was refracted in water.

What has moving to a new place changed most for you?

RIVERA: I think before I took for granted people’s understanding or interpretation of me. The Dominican diaspora is concentrated in North Jersey, Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. You can’t live in New York and not know what a Dominican person is. When I went to Philly, it was a shock, losing that immediate identification as a Dominican person.

Then moving to London, I became this embodiment of American-ness and often had to explain I was actually first-generation and didn’t grow up encountering certain quintessential American traditions. On the census in London, they don’t even have Latino as a category, but there are Latinos in London. When I was living in Seven Sisters, in North London, I found a Latino market, and it was the only place in London I’ve found the little empanada discs I need to make my pastelitos for the holidays.

LEE: There is nothing that can compare with the connection that food brings to people. I was born in Taiwan, but then we moved to the U.S. to this tiny little coastal Oregon town. I was the only Asian kid in my school and there were no Asian grocery stores in town. On the weekend we would drive two hours to Portland where there were bigger Vietnamese and Chinese communities. We’d eat as much as we could of dim sum dishes, and my aunts would stock up on Asian groceries. It was the best way for us to maintain our connection with our culture, and this idea seeps into how I work.

When you greet someone on the street in Taiwan, you say, “Hey, have you eaten yet?” instead of “How are you?” It’s a way of making sure someone’s taken care of, and that’s how I approach design. I want to create objects and experiences that make people feel taken care of.

How have these experiences of dislocation influenced your approach to design?

RIVERA: My fascination with tweaking tradition probably comes from seeing it through the lens of an outsider. Grant and I want to create today’s heirlooms. There was narrative and history around certain objects in my home. I grew up with this pilon — my mom still has it — a mortar and pestle, a free-standing one, maybe as tall as this table. It was my great-grandmother’s and it’s from the campo of the Dominican Republic. It traveled all this way and through these generations, a coveted piece of our family’s history embedded with years of garlic juice.

My mother also has this chest which was her grandfather’s. It’s funny that they’re both wooden objects. These are models for how we design. We want things to last.

Right, and not just end up like that pile of Ikea in the trash you see when someone’s moving.

LEE: I feel that it’s not so much about where you bought the object from, but more about having an awareness of valuing the object. In Taiwan, there’s a real understanding of resourcefulness. The island was occupied by so many countries and didn’t have its own identity until the ’80s or ’90s, so there’s this hodgepodge approach to making things that adapt and evolve.

It’s another thing that indirectly influences my approach. When we started our studio, we’d just go to the hardware store and find unassuming materials we could afford and play around with them. We love reimagining things most people overlook. Whether we’re exploring a place or a material, it’s the spirit, the intention to create a meaningful connection through design.

We’ve been in the industry for over 10 years now, and during the pandemic we had to reckon with ourselves and ask, what are we contributing? We realize that we can’t just be in a bubble making and selling things while ignoring the rest of what’s happening in the world. I don’t have the answers yet, but we’re still figuring out how design can be a platform for activism and community building. I can’t help but think about how my heritage can feed into this idea.

The industry has had its own moment of reckoning when it comes to social issues and representation. Has that changed how you feel you’re received?

RIVERA: The London design world is incredibly white. I had to learn how to exist being the only person of color in certain rooms. It’s gone from something that wasn’t addressed to, “Oh yeah, Teresa’s Black” — like people just remembered.

LEE: This growing awareness of racial diversity has empowered me to embrace my own heritage more, rather than feeling the need to dim my own light in order to assimilate.