April 30, 2020
The global health crisis of the coronavirus pandemic has overturned every moment and corner of our day-to-day lives. In this new micro-series, Shop Talk: Home Work, we turn to our network of friends, colleagues and collaborators for comfort and community, and discuss how they’re adapting to work and life in this unprecedented era of uncertainty.
This week, we catch up with our friend Kevin Lee Yi, an interior designer at Rockwell Group, about juggling various projects in different countries, time zones, and vendors around the world—and why it has been necessary to stay nimble and adaptable as the ongoing pandemic evolves, taking one day at a time from his apartment in Astoria, Queens.
Kevin Lee Yi is originally from California but has been living in NYC for ten years now. After getting his MFA from the New York School of Interior Design in 2015 he started working at Rockwell Group and hasn’t tired of eating, designing or designing for those who eat.
Can you tell us about your role, and how you’ve been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 closures?
I’m an interior designer at Rockwell Group, and currently working on three projects—the same three I was working on before all of this happened. All of my projects happen to be in the construction phase, so luckily for me, that means nothing has been put on pause because we’re already in the thick of things. But of course, having to now work remotely, there are a lot of challenges in coordinating with the whole team and all the trades, since closures have been phased differently for a lot of us. Every week on our coordination calls, we address the different delays and issues that have come up, or may come up, as things continue to evolve with the crisis.
What’s your current WFH setup, and how are you adapting your space to make it work in the day to day?
My home office was a work in progress for a while—I feel like I’ve finally figured out the working groove, but the immediate need was for new furniture. I needed more storage, because all the architectural materials just started piling up around me. At first, I was using a cardboard box as a filing cabinet. That worked for about a week, before it became quickly overwhelmed and inefficient, so I bought a big shelving unit to display all of the material samples, which helps me keep track of everything and stay organized.
Pictured: Kevin's makeshift material library and home office
Being in the thick of construction, and in multiple locations, how difficult has it been to work around the physical aspects of your job?
The nice thing about being an interior designer is that, while we do work digitally at our desks and on the computer, a big part of our job is tangible. We are interacting physically with a lot of finishes, construction materials, and everything in between. At Rockwell, we have a whole floor dedicated to a resource library for all of these materials, which I’d definitely taken for granted. A lot of vendors would come in to present, show new materials, and allow us to see, feel, and review those in person. I also go to showrooms and events, and I like being involved with the art and design community. I was planning to go to Salone a few weeks ago—that was postponed at first, then canceled. I also like to go to the art fairs here in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and those have all been canceled as well. For that reason, I do find myself online now a bit more, reading the daily design newsletters that come into my inbox. Whereas before, I might have just deleted them, now I actually take some time to sift through them.
The craziest thing is that in the past few months, as the virus has made its way around the world, we’ve had to shift and cycle through some of our vendors for various projects a few times, and account for delays—first from China, then over to Europe, then domestically to the U.S., before it started getting really bad here. Things were changing rapidly, just in the time that it took us to coordinate and switch to new vendors, and now some of our fabricators in China popped back up and have said they’re in a better place to resume production.
That’s a lot to keep tabs on—and it must be tough to be away from the studio’s materials library.
So many materials are still in the office, and I just wasn’t able to bring it all home. That’s been a big challenge. A lot of sourcing and decision making has been based on memory or photos, in terms of how materials and fabrics will work with each other, but the vendors have been very supportive as well, saying, “We’re still here for you, just let us know.” Everything is just taking a little bit longer. Vendors have been sending supplementary samples and range sets that we’d normally just have on hand in the office as a shared resource, but now, a lot of them are out of stock because I think there are a ton of designers out there requesting to have them at home as well. No one could have imagined it would become this difficult to get grout samples.
Have you been practicing any personal rituals to keep calm and focused, as you navigate this strange and uncertain landscape?
I might not be doing a very good job at that part. [Laughs] Honestly, I feel like time and space is just kind of a blur at the moment. I still look forward to Friday, but then, I end up working on the weekend because I’m still on three projects that are going, going, going, and I’m still working really long hours. I don’t have a commute anymore—other than, you know, the commute from my bed to my desk—which is nice, but I actually think I’m just working more now. I’ve been able to manage stress and relax in small ways through doing yoga, cooking, and being outdoors and gardening. I live in my own little apartment, and luckily have a private backyard area, so every time I need a little break, I’ll just step outside for some air.
What are you personally looking forward to most, in a post-pandemic future?
It’s been nice to have more time at home, but I also just miss other people. The other day, I was thinking about what I’d want to do once this is all through, and the first thing that came to mind was to have a party—and hug people.
Pictured: Kevin's garden ready for a post-quarantine party