At Home With
Ji Lee, Creative Director at Google’s Creative Lab

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.”

toys and monkey

“I like to collect objects and toys, although I’m not really a ‘collector.’ I don’t have a system or focus on specific genres, but when I see a beautiful thing I buy it. I buy lots of Japanese miniature toys and then I try to arrange them in a way that makes weird and funny narratives. Like the tank pointing towards the girl. You have a miniature girl in a provocative position and then there’s an even more tiny tank that is now attacking her ass and all of a sudden the girl is a giant."

living room 1

“The monkey in the bell jar belonged to my wife’s grandfather. You get interesting juxtapositions when you combine toys and objects from different eras. I used to have a lot more toys on the shelf but my wife wasn’t too happy about it so now we try to maintain a balance between toys and old objects.”

ceiling

“Ceilings are usually dead space. People don’t look at them. I find that interesting. They cover their floors and walls with furniture and pictures, so why not do the same with ceilings? I also liked the idea that somehow there's a parallel universe that coexists with ours. The room belongs to an imaginary East Village rock guitarist type.”

closeup_copy1

“The room started because I found this Jimi Hendrix doll at a toy store. It was him playing his guitar and it came with all kinds of detailed objects: mike, amp, pedals with wire and everything. So I bought it and threw Jimi out and started to build the room around those objects.”

laptop

“This is our dining table, but it’s also where I keep my laptop, so it’s the place where I spend the most time in my house. The bird candles are high-end Chinese replicas of a European ornament. My wife and I bought them six years ago in a store on Fifth Avenue. She called me at work one day and said, “You have to come because I found something really nice!” So I biked over to the store right away. The price wasn’t cheap — $600 — but we liked them very much so we bought them. Now the price has gone up and tremendously so it’s a nice little investment. I like that they are not identical, the birds have different positions and they have nice details like insects crawling over the fruit.”

bathroom

“I like to spend a lot of time in the bathroom because I love this wallpaper. We put it in because we were trying to emulate the banana leaf wallpaper in the restaurant Indochine. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Brazil that I have a strong connection to tropical things. It’s nice because you can sit on the toilet and have a view of the park next to our building. It’s a little world of its own.”

heads

“My wife bought these from the Canadian artist Richard Stipl, who makes anatomically correct self-portraits. The heads in the jar are all from an experiment he made exploring different expressions on his face, but he didn’t like it so he put them in a jar out of frustration."

wide heads

“Clarina went to see him for a studio visit and really liked the piece and ended up buying it for a discount price. It's creepy but the expressions are actually quite humorous.”

toys

“I used to have toys displayed all over my apartment. Then people started saying, “Oh, I didn’t know you had children” so I decided to store these toys in a corner by the stairwell. It’s like a little surprise. There are Japanese Gundam robots from the '80s and also other kinds of reference toys. The happy smiling characters in the front have a light sensor and when you turn on the light they start moving their heads. It’s really cute.”

russian

“This is a Russian cathedral made of children’s wooden blocks by Haba. I bought them at the Conran store in midtown. The way it’s displayed makes it seem like it’s separated by the glass. It’s like a little mind trick. I’m very interested in playing with scales and dimensions like that.”

living room

A view of the living room.