Ji Lee is an artist, a graphic designer, an illustrator, a teacher, and a full-time creative director at Google’s advertising unit The Creative Lab, but he’s probably best known as “the guy with the bubbles.” In 2002, bored by an ad gig, the Korean-born, São Paulo–bred designer launched a public art intervention on the city of New York, slapping blank cartoon speech bubbles next to the actors and models in ads and movie posters around town and waiting for passersby to fill them in. Lee made the project open source, creating a downloadable bubble template, and it soon took on a life of its own, popping up everywhere from San Francisco to Lausanne, Switzerland.
Lee calls his portfolio website ‘Please Enjoy,’ and it is his professional motto; each new project is an open invitation to the public to come along and play. For a recent series, Lee placed replicas of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel at random intersections in New York, explaining: “In 1913, Marcel Duchamp took found objects from the streets and placed them in museums. 96 years later, if Duchamp were alive, he may want to do the very opposite.”
So how might a guy who’s a master at transforming public space decorate his own home? We decided to find out. For 10 years, Lee has lived in New York’s East Village with his wife, Clarina Bezzola, and their two cats Martin and Oskar in a sunny duplex apartment that formerly housed a crack addict. Lee explains: “The apartment had been owned by a junkie for more than 20 years when we first saw the place. Needles all over, mountains of cat shit on the corners, furniture everywhere, a nightmare. The smell was so intense we couldn’t stay there for more than a few minutes. I didn’t want to take it at first. But then when we started to look around other apartments for sale, we realize this place was a real bargain. So we decided to go ahead. We ripped the whole place out and built the whole thing up from scratch.”