May 17, 2019

As a Forbes Asia 30 under 30 honouree in the category of the Arts, Clara Yee is a recognised multi-disciplinary designer and co-founder of in the wild—a creative studio based in Singapore. Donning the mantle of a nomadic creative, the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design graduate has created works for international brands such as Alexander McQueen and Warner Music, as well as participated in exhibitions in Mexico City, London, New York, Taiwan, Beijing and Singapore.

Clara’s foray into the world of design started early, illustrating for Johnson & Johnson while she was still a secondary school student. Her passion and intrigue for visual design led to her experimenting with different mediums, across multiple disciplines, often with an approach of presenting stories in a compelling manner. Never forgetting her notebook and pen wherever she goes, Clara shares with us her everyday essentials that help her ideate and create on the go.

Clara-Yee-EE-Art-1Image Credit: Jotham Photography

What are your top 5 everyday items that you can’t live without?

My phone: I can forget everything else but my phone is critical!

Peppermint oil: I might sound like a granny, but I love how versatile peppermint oil is. Sometimes I use it to soothe my headache or to calm myself down. It is also such a refreshing scent to use during long-haul flights.

My notebooks: a small one for tasks and a bigger one for drawing.

A pen: It’s very frustrating to be stuck without a pen when ideas come.

My keys and key charms: I move between places a lot and I need to have access to them.

Do these items reflect your personality too?

Yes! I am actually fine without my phone but my pen is my security blanket. I feel very insecure without my pen and notebooks because I am constantly thinking or talking about various projects and ideas over dinner, at an event or even when I am taking a walk. As a visual thinker, I like to draw during discussions, so I feel very crippled without any tool that can make a mark. Because of that, I grab any available pen before I leave my home and end up looking like a pen salesman whenever I open my bag.

Is there a story behind any of these items?

I’m typically very practical and logical on the surface, but my key charms reveal a sentimental side of me.

The omamori is from the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and at that point, I felt that my mind was very clouded and the charm came with a waka poem written by the Empress Shōken, which gently nudged me back to the present.

The whistle is part of the Girl Guides’ standard attire kit. I kept it since secondary school as a memory of the friendships made then, that I still hold very dear to me.

The felt lion was given by a Japanese collaborator I worked with on a project led by Supermama. It reminds me of the career support I’ve received and the people who’ve crossed paths with that believed in me. 

The wooden guy figurine is from my business partner Tan Jia Yee, who bought it on her trip to India. We are each other’s strongest back to lean on.

Do you get emotionally attached to objects or ideas?

I quite evidently do. I have a story about a fallen leaf that I keep, sandwiched in between my phone case. I was going through a difficult period and found myself sitting and hugging my knees in a park, trying to clear my thoughts. This sounds so silly, but I looked to the heavens and asked, “Why?” and a leaf fell on my knee. I stared very hard at it and tried to figure out what that meant, but since I was unable to, I kept it with me.

I am also quite emotionally attached to the wind, if that can even be a thing. That’s actually the reason why I wear multiple hoops on my right ear, ever since I accidentally discovered that I can hear the wind howl through the hoops when I cycle. The breeze teaches me a lot, and reminds me to stay present in the moment.


How do you define creativity?

The very definition of life is creativity! It’s a messy affair. We get too used to the idea of society being driven to progress that we forget it is never linear. You do not always go forward. Similarly, creativity is not a singular state you achieve or always get more of.

Do you identify yourself as more of an artist or a designer?

I spent the early years of my schooling days debating and reading about this. At that time it was also common for people to hyphenate both roles on their name cards. But now, I’m very comfortable saying that I’m a designer. The process of making art and design is very similar, even the output can look the same, but it is important to make the distinction between them, because the mechanics of the industry, method of production and the way it is consumed are actually still very different. Even though we are crossing disciplines and sectors in new ways which I find important and exciting, it is the deep understanding of this distinction that primes you to cross disciplines in meaningful and effective ways.

What is the most important lesson about being a creative/designer/artist that isn’t taught in school?

I struggle to pick which is most important, but if I have to settle for one, I would say basic life skills. Or you can call it adulting lessons. Too often I hear young graduates ask, “How does an artist make money?” or “How do I convince my parents to allow me to be an artist?” etc., and none of those questions are about art at all. And art will not answer them either. They are going about it the wrong way round—your permanent life lessons about personal finance, communication, conflict resolutions, etc. should not be defined by something temporal like your occupation and role.

What is one thing that creatives tend to overlook or take for granted?

Material physicality. This only applies to Singapore because of our environment is such that we are removed from the source of its produce. Although we have such freedom and access, we do not have the relationship and understanding of materials. If we don’t understand the origins of how anything is made, the consequence is a lack of respect and soulless disconnect.

Nothing is original anymore. Do you agree or disagree? And why?

I agree that nothing is original, however, I disagree with the word ‘anymore’, which implies that this is a recent phenomenon. Every creative act is derived from something that came before it, whether it is a material or an idea. Also, when people think about originality, there is an unnecessary fixation on being different and being the first.

To me, originality is to have the courage to mature and express a personal opinion and conviction in spite of market contradictions. And it is a thankless and difficult task to stay against the current long enough to actually have the time and energy to mature those creative expressions. It is like running a marathon on a slightly tangent path with no end in sight, and the crowd that cheers you on thins out the further you run.

Have you ever felt enlightened by an event in the past that has given you a new perspective on life?

For a period of time time, I rejected having emotional attachments because it felt like a sentimental burden, but during a conversation with a dear friend of mine in Bangkok, she got me thinking about how the freedom from attachments is through valuing them more, not less. I learnt a lot of lessons from Inazo Nitobe’s Way of the Samurai, which is about spiritually and philosophy. It really changed how I allowed myself to work and fail.

Do you critique your own work?

ALL THE TIME. I am my own worst and best critique. It comes from my love of analysing and when you get the front row seats to all the micro details of your own process, it gives a highly distorted set of data. The best advice I have gotten from a very precious mentor I had was to be tougher on others and more kind and gentle to myself.

How do you manage to stay both personal and original in your creative endeavours?

You have to be involved and genuinely interested in your work. The latter is easy because if you engage with me on any topic, I can still find some angle that makes me curious. The former is the difficult part because there’s only so much time and energy you have in a day, and you have to manage that as you take on more projects.

Has rejection ever affected your creative process? 

Definitely. Disappointment, rejection, and betrayal have influenced and shaped the person I am today. The challenge is to stay open, vulnerable, patient and optimistic through it all.

Do you pay attention to others’ reactions to your work? And does that affect what you create?

I do, especially if it is a project that implicates the user and is instrumental to consider the user in the design process. For projects that are less user-centric, I typically still have a message or observation I want to share through my work and if they are works that live in the public realm, I find it interesting and informative to see how others respond.

What do you hope to achieve with your studio, “in the wild”?

The short answer is to reach Nirvana.

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