What was your earliest memory of doing something creative?
My earliest memory of doing something creative was probably around the time my sister was born. I was 3½ years old and making drawings for my sister. I have a vague recollection of bringing my artwork for her at the hospital.
Your mother, Cathy, is an interior designer in the United States and Korea. Does she give you tips?
I really thank my mom for nurturing my creativity. She’s such a strong, assertive businesswoman, while being so loving to us. She’s been an influence on me as a person, but also in my career. I think a lot of women would say their mom is their role model, but not a lot follow the same career. So my mother really played a dual role as my inspiration in life and work.
If you could only use three words to describe your design style, what would they be?
To say just three words is almost impossible for me because I’m so wordy. I grew up in L.A., and my designs are a product of that. It’s influenced by some theatrical quality, which is why I first went into production design. It’s bold, it’s memorable and it’s fun. I don’t like quiet design. I want people to walk out of a space I designed, experience the room and remember it.
How did you get started in television?
After I graduated, I enrolled at UCLA Extension and studied interior design. I also worked part time for a friend who did production design on television commercials. I was doing set dressing and I loved it. Through that, I found a job posting for an interior designer for a television show, which turned out to be for an on-camera role. I thought, “Why not?” and miraculously I landed a spot on Lifetime Network’s Merge. I did two episodes of that before one of the producers left to do Renovate My Family on Fox and recommended me. Overnight, I went from being a UCLA Extension interior design student to prime-time TV personality.
You’ve said that hosting Renovate My Family was the roughest, yet most rewarding, experience you’ve ever faced. How so?
We were on the road for six months and traveled all over the country. I was never home, sometimes staying at bad hotels and sleeping in trailers, and really started to miss my family. It was a lot of hard work but also very rewarding because the crew was great and all the families we renovated for were very deserving. Plus, I had the opportunity to see parts of the country I normally wouldn’t have seen on my own.
“I’ll design anything — even the inside of your refrigerator if you let me. I just want to constantly design, whether it’s on- or off-camera.”
Kahi Lee ’99
You’re a high-end interior designer. Did hosting Design on a Dime change your perspective?
Absolutely! I am all about mixing high and low in my design. Plenty of times, you’ll find an inexpensive piece with a lot of character. You can have a high-end interior, but throw in a few quirky, vintage pieces and your space will start to tell a story. It’s about designing a space that has personality.
Did you know much about gaming when you signed on as co-host of The Ultimate Gamer on Spike TV?
No — I still don’t. (Laughs.) I didn’t know anything about games. My part on the show was to design game rooms, so I didn’t really have to play any games. One of my favorites was designing a room based on a Tony Hawk game.
Which do you like better: Working in front of the camera or designing for a client?
My heart is in designing. I love being on television, don’t get me wrong. I love the pace and the production aspect of it. It’s very exciting and a lot of fun, but if I were to be on TV and not designing, I probably wouldn’t do it. I’ll design anything — even the inside of your refrigerator if you let me. I just want to constantly design. Whether it’s on- or off-camera, it doesn’t really matter to me.
Tell us about projects you’re working on now.
I recently finished the W Hollywood Penthouse. The space is a marketing tool for the W, to draw in clientele. I’ve just finished the EVO Downtown model penthouse. I’m also working with individual clients and developing a new television show.
How did you end up designing for hotels?
I got involved with the W because I worked on The Solaire and The Century, both of which were luxury, high-rise complexes in Los Angeles. They referred me to the W Residences, where I designed a three-bedroom, fully furnished penthouse unit with amazing views.
Will we see a Kahi Lee Lifestyle line in stores soon?
I don’t have my own line of products, although I hope to someday. I have a factory in Gardena, Calif., where we manufacture custom-made bedding, drapery and small furniture pieces for clients. Nothing is mass-produced.
What’s the best-designed interior on the UCLA campus?
So much has changed since I’ve been there — actually, half the buildings were under construction. But I always loved the [Powell] Library.
What won’t students learn from studying interior design in a classroom?
You can ask this of anyone — whether it’s a designer or a doctor — and you’ll get a similar answer. There are so many things, so many anomalies that studying in a classroom can’t prepare you for. Every project is different. Every client is different. There is so much communication involved in the real world, so I teach my interns that it’s all about your ability to communicate your thoughts and ideas to your client. You can have the best design in the world in your head, but if you can’t convey that to your client, then there’s no use. Expressing your vision and your passion is not something you can teach; it’s something that is learned.