Katie Lee: Changing the World Four Legs at a Time

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Katie Lee is focused. Today, she works on a computer attempting to perfect what could be a groundbreaking product. The product takes the idea of a pepper mill that grinds eggshells rather than peppercorns. Eggshells are a great source of calcium and her idea could help people from around the world who are undernourished. She is bookended by fellow group members examining the product in the same fashion: inspect, rotate, tweak, repeat.

Lee, a senior product design major from Portland, has many creative ideas including a chair design that took first place in a national contest. The judges awarded her the winner because she used the material, a laminate, in a way they had never seen before they said.

Creativity has always been one of Lee’s strengths, she says. Before college she “…was super into art and doing a bunch of craft stuff.” She entered the University of Oregon with an interest in art and would later apply and be accepted to the art major. It took several classes in different areas of art for Lee to find and fall in love with product design. But once she found it, she knew that it was what she wanted to do. She was skilled and interested in the topic.

Her love for well-designed products has always been existent. Product design was not something new to Lee; it was something that has always been a part of her life although she may not have fully realized it until college.

“They make you take business classes, design classes, and they even made me take an anthropology class… [product design] integrates all three of those.” She adds, “It is a more practical and lucrative major than just straight art.”

This year, Lee took her creative freedom to a place that nobody before her had in the Wilsonart Chair Competition. All of the entrants were required to use a specific type of laminate in their design. Lee used it in a unique way that the judges had never seen before, and they rewarded her creativity by awarding her first place. Lee will visit New York in May to exhibit her work at the ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) in front of 26,000 attendees from 34 different countries.

Until then, photos of the chair are not allowed to appear anywhere online. But having seen a photo of the chair from Lee’s phone, it is apparent why she won; the chair is aesthetically beautiful but perhaps more importantly, it is also practical.

Lee’s design features triangle tiles of laminate that are pasted onto a piece of fabric which is upholstered to foam and acts as the back of the chair. The tiles go around the outer part of the chair and circumvent around the lower back. The tiles are black, gray, and white, and resemble small plates of armor.

While many of the entrants used the laminate in the structure of the chair, Lee used it as a sort of decoration.

Lee says that another participant in the competition, a former philosophy major, made a chair that questioned ‘What is a chair?’ and designed a chair that could not be sat in before one of the judges told the participant that he must choose a different approach.

“I was exploring geometric shapes and patterns, I cut out some laminate and glued it onto a piece of fabric and said ‘This is really cool,’” says Lee. The judges agreed, and now her chair will be showcased at ICFF and the Neocon exhibition, two of the biggest design shows in the country.

There is uncertainty with Lee’s future. She is set to graduate this year but has no official plans after that. She is considering pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree next year in Portland, an option that all product design majors at the University of Oregon are given.

She does not know exactly what the future holds, but seems fine with that. She entered college without knowing exactly what she wanted to do, and she may leave college the same way.

Lee has not applied for jobs or internships for after college because she has been busy enough trying to complete her degree. She says that she would love to start her own business designing and selling furniture marketed for young adults. With her creative talents and having now found something she loves, making this dream a reality should be easy.

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