In Conversation with Lauren Li - On Design In 2024

Designer Lauren Li is a multi-hyphenate. Donning the hats of Designer, Entrepreneur, Published Writer and Mother, she has forged a tidy niche for herself in the global design landscape through an unfolding and inquisitive approach to life. Tiffany Jade chatted with Lauren about her design studio, Sisällä, the thriving community she has established, The Design Society and her recent plunge into the literary world where she has produced two ‘style guides’.

Open Journal (OJ): I’d love to hear about how your design career has evolved over the years. I understand you stepped away from studio-based work in 2012 but so much has happened personally and professionally in the intervening years. From Sisällä to The Design Society, your Chapel Street space, WFH arrangements and recently a couple of books published through Thames & Hudson! Tell us about that journey.

Lauren Li (LL): Yeah. I worked at Metier 3 back in 2005/06 and then went over to London in 2008. When I came back, I’d acquired all these new skills and was so keen to use them but unfortunately, no one cared in the wake of the global financial crises when so many in the industry were looking for work. So I did a stint in showrooms where I learnt a lot. I met so many designers and got to see what they were really like. Then, after working for a couple of commercial practices I slowly started to take on side projects under my own name that soon came to form the backbone of Sisällä. While I was on maternity leave with our first baby I quickly realised that there wasn’t a spot for me back where I had been working. Technically there was but I couldn’t see how my lifestyle now fit within that 9-6.30/7 pm work culture. I take my hat off to women who work in those practices with children. It was something I didn’t see modelled at all and I think (hopefully) things have changed a lot with that conversation. The funny thing about working in those bigger practices is that you could be a great designer, and then you become a senior interior designer, then an associate and then you stop designing. And suddenly you’re supposed to be doing management and marketing. I think it's funny that you’re promoted away from the thing you were good at. That type of hierarchy just wasn’t for me.

The Gallery House by Sisällä, photography by Timothy Kaye.

OJ: So was that when you started focusing on your residential interiors? And how did The Design Society manifest?

LL: It’s weird because back then I was also teaching a workshop at CAE that I really enjoyed. I’d never really thought of teaching before that and could never have imagined that I would be talking in front of a bunch of people. I started with a handful of someone else’s notes that I decided to entirely rewrite. From there, I started adding other elements to the program like walking tours down Church Street and I just loved it. I still sometimes have people come up to me who I used to teach and who have since gone on to study and practice interior design.

The Gallery House by Sisällä, photography by Timothy Kaye.

OJ: What do you think was the value of those tours and the real immersion into Melbourne’s design scene?

LL: I think a lot of other designers work by themselves and some are second-career designers. They don’t have that network. I think in our 20s you have the time to form a really nice network working in architecture firms and, while some of the women in The Design Society are highly qualified, they’ve found that there is a gap in that community. A lack of endorsement, validation, peer learning etc. The gaps are extra evident in the business side of things.

The Gallery House by Sisällä, photography by Timothy Kaye.

OJ: Yes, there is no connection between ‘design’ courses and ‘business’ courses when you’re studying for a degree or diploma. Is that one of the reasons for The Design Society? Was that business acumen something you had to find your way with too?

LL: It was the combination of several things. One was that I found, when I started on my own, I was constantly calling friends in offices to ask where to get this from and where to get that from. I’d come from a commercial background so didn’t know simple residential things like how to find a sheer fabric! So collating that information resource was invaluable.

We started doing workshops in our studio in Chapel Street. People wanted to catch up all the time. To ask questions about the industry, about the software I was using etc. Because I had that background in teaching, it just made sense to formalise that both in person and online.

Every week we’d catch up on Zoom and I noticed that these beautiful conversations were starting to happen outside of the session topic but still very much focused on interior design.The same questions kept popping up and the same requests for information. And that’s where The Design Society started.

OJ: So how has it evolved since then? What is the current structure of it?

LL: We have three courses that we run. One is about the design process, one is about marketing and one is about starting your business. We have different experts come and talk on each topic. But, when you’ve finished those, if you still want to be part of the community, there is another offering. Every month we have a topic and a related book and every week we come together to discuss those with an expert.

What’s really nice is that we have structure but also the agility to go on little tangents to get people’s questions answered and problems solved. People all around Australia and New Zealand get involved.

OJ: Since you’ve started down your current pathway, how have things changed in the design landscape?

LL: The internet! Clients can now buy anything they want from anywhere so interior designers can’t make a living on markups anymore. So, if you’re an old-school designer, used to working off the model, you’ve had to adapt. We used to be the gatekeepers of all the good things and now anybody can dig deep and find it. So now there’s much more emphasis on design and the curation of all the elements.

Social media is also an obvious one. Also, people are after a much more polished look. So characterful marbles, warmer wood grains and concrete have taken over from raw materials, plywood and a more industrial aesthetic.

OJ: It makes it that much more important to keep the spirit of difference alive, doesn’t it? To really engage with the client and discover the singular attributes that drive their project into a beautiful, authentic singularity.

LL: That’s definitely what we aim to do at Sisällä. I just sent a proposal to a client and had to disclaimer it with the advice that the palette, materials and programming I was presenting would look very different in the context of her space. At this early stage, the client receives a mood board and words which are important to understanding how the project will be executed. People visualise in different ways, so words and images need to do different things. Which brings me to another thing that has dramatically changed the design landscape - visualisation.

OJ: Do you think renders create constraints too? They are so beneficial and their value so well considered but I wonder if the need to deliver a space that is exacting in its outcome takes away the element of discovery that cultivates creativity.

LL: Yes. They are so helpful with getting clients over the line but there is a little magic lost. When you complete a project you feel like you’ve already been there.

OJ: Like watching a movie when you already know the ending?

LL: Exactly!

Beachside Modern by Lauren Li.

OJ: So from Sisällä to The Design Society to published writer! Tell me about your books.

LL: Well, I’d never before thought about writing a book. But then, I was writing columns for The Design Files and enjoyed thinking about my perception on things and what I wanted to say. Then a couple of years ago, one of the editors from Thames & Hudson reached out asking if I’d like to work on the books. They had the idea of a Style Series which has so far produced The New French Look and Beachside Modern. All going well, there may be more in the future.

The New French Look was based on an article of the same name I’d written for The Design Files and Beachside Modern is so close to Australian culture.

OJ: Am I allowed to ask what the other style suggestions were?

LL: Well, while nothing is confirmed, I’ve written an article about Scandinavian style, Japanese, Country, Tropical…there are a few on the drawing board.

Lauren signing copies of her book The New French Look.

OJ: One final question to finish. As the wearer of so many design hats, I wonder what your thoughts are on how design can foster better living habits. How it can nurture better and more environmental lifestyle choices?

LL: Interiors can shape an environment that is closer to how you want to be living. Our homes are where we spend most of our lives. So if you’re surrounded by a specific aesthetic and pieces that have been purchased for certain reasons it helps to create a mind shift. The books have a bit of a how-to element to them to help guide this. I want people to be able to pick up the book and think - you know what, I’m going to do that project. I’m just going to start in one little corner and make this area the best it can be. I want to feel good here every day.

OJ: I agree. I worry sometimes that social media makes the idea of home design feel excessive, luxurious and insurmountable. That maybe we’ve lost sight of the power of small things. The little touches. The importance of just creating a small haven. Creating a little pocket in this big world that makes you feel calm, centred, more yourself and that should never be seen as a luxury, as superficial. None of those connotations should go anywhere near it.

LL: I love that! I feel privileged that I get to play a part in creating that for people whether that’s through Sisällä, The Design Society or my books.

Special thanks to Lauren Li. Find out more on Lauren's website or Instagram. Interview by Tiffany Jade. Feature photography by