The Fine Line Between Fine Art and Design: An Office Gallery Tour with Olivia Lee

The walls of our Dupont office currently boast some pretty fantastic American art, courtesy of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE). Today, we take a look at some of U.Group Art Director Olivia Lee’s favorite pieces. 

Composition III by Roy Lichtenstein

“So this is a great example of pop art. He’s questioning boundary. Does this belong in a comic book, or a museum? He’s a pioneer of asking this question.” 

Graphic designer Olivia Lee is referring to the American artist Roy Lichtenstein as we observe his Composition III, an official print of which currently hangs in the U.Group offices. It’s one of many pieces from FAPE’s collection that, thanks to a partnership with the organization, we are displaying in advance of their eventual placement in U.S. embassies worldwide. “It’s kind of like this question that I’m trying to answer all the time: what’s the difference between fine art and design?” Lee adds. 

An alumna of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Lee initially confronted the question as an undergraduate interested in both creative and business studies. A brand identity class she took as a second-year student gave her the chance to discover a happy medium between the two.  

“I was fascinated by the way branding connects business to the world, how visual elements—colors, typography, geometry—can translate language. That’s how I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer.” 

Leaves by Ellsworth Kelly

We continue walking and Lee identifies another new favorite: a lithograph called Leaves. “Do you know Ellsworth Kelly?” Lee asks. “He’s famous for color field paintings, so this really struck me. I love seeing sketch work from an artist like that.”  

I ask if Lee’s own work typically begins with sketches. “Well I guess I start with research,” she says. “I try to understand what the customer is trying to say. I think about the problem they want to solve. Once I have enough foundation to start, I explore. I try not to limit myself. It’s really playing—doing a lot of sketches, hand drawings. After that I’ll ask around for opinions from the team—designers and non-designers.”  

Indeed, she observes, therein lies one difference between graphic design and art: “If you’re creating fine art, you don’t need anyone else’s opinion.” But Lee says she values the different perspectives she gets when receiving feedback. 

Toss-Up by Joel Shapiro

Right beside Leaves hangs a screenprint called Toss-Up by an artist named Joel Shapiro“I’m not really familiar with this artist, but I love how sculptural this is. There’s a tension here that you’d think only sculpture could have—you feel like it’s falling. It’s balanced, but imbalanced. Very hard to do in 2D.” 

Lee is originally from Korea, but before RISD she attended high school in Minnesota. She also lived in New York after graduating from RISD  but before joining U.Group, she lived in New York. She confesses that she doesn’t consider any of those places to be “home,” but her passion for exploration makes each new place feel full of possibility. 

“Everywhere in the U.S. is so different. There are commonalities, but also big differences. I love getting to see different lifestyles.” 

The Symphony by Frank Stella

As we approach the next piece, Lee draws her breath deeply. “Frank Stella. This one was a big inspiration for me. He’s known for geometry; clean-looking work. I tried to recreate this in high school, but what’s funny is that I did it in collage. I thought that was the medium. But here you can see it’s just paint.” 

I wondered aloud: what would you call this style? “Frank Stella style,” she says, “that’s it. When you see it, you know it’s him.” 

And is there an Olivia Lee style? Lee laughs. “My audience gets to decide that.”  

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