On his first flight from Hong Kong to California, Tommy Lei saw Los Angeles’ scattered buildings and thought he was entering a village. “I remember peeping through the window, telling my mom, 'Why are we moving backwards?'” the artist and lifestyle creator recalls. “It was weird!”
Immigrating from the skyscraper-laden region of Kowloon, Hong Kong — once considered the most densely populated place on earth — it makes sense that, in comparison, L.A. seemed quaint to then seven-year-old Lei. They eventually became accustomed to the wide sidewalks and spaced-out buildings over the years. But, Lei’s love for Hong Kong’s frenetic buzz never wavered. “I'm so an urbanite at heart,” they admit.
Eventually, Lei got to fulfill his urbanite dreams further and explore various cities — as his fashion career took him from Helsinki to Mexico City to Milan. Each global destination inspired his refined, cosmopolitan style. And it translates into his interiors, too.
Lei’s 1,200 square-foot Los Angeles bungalow, which he shares with partner Braden and beloved cat Chloe, is a prime example. Each room a unique portal into his life story. A tea room pays homage to his childhood; his own photography adorns the walls; and travel-inspired furnishings add charm. Eager to dive into the details, I met up with Lei over Zoom to learn more about their home and journey.
What are some of your memories growing up in Hong Kong and of your childhood home?
So, we lived in this tiny urban loft in the residential areas of Kowloon. And by residential, I mean everything's still very compact. I remember being inspired by small spaces, because we had to make use of everything. A lot of my memories are centered on family gatherings and going to open-air markets with my mom, too. And, a lot of Hong Kong cafe diners. I grew up frequenting those so much because milk tea is amazing. That's my elixir. I still drink it to this day.
Plus, the different, vibrant design culture. A lot of people might not know that some of the best architects and interior designers hail from Hong Kong, and they're so used to designing for small spaces, as well.
Do you have any design inspirations, either people or places, from there?
Yeah, I grew up with a seamstress mother and my dad's a tailor. Early on, I always saw them as being very creative in the type of solutions that they came up with to meet deadlines, create patterns, and make fabric choices — especially when my dad was doing custom suits for his clients. It was always a joy to watch how different textiles work together and why certain materials are used, like silk over twill. Those early childhood years, I saw how much of a role design would play in our everyday life — not just as something we wear, but also as something we can apply to our spaces and our lifestyles.
I know you’re big on fashion, too. How do your interior design style and fashion style relate?
I got my start in fashion about a decade ago now. But, I would say that the love for interiors has always been there because I got to travel so much. For Fashion Weeks, I would choose hotels based on the interior aesthetic — a lot of times to correspond to my outfits. Like, 'What is the backdrop I can use to make my outfits really shine?' So, my love for both fashion and interiors are very much synonymous.
A great example of this is when I recently traveled to Mexico City and went to the Casa Gilardi [built by designer Luis Barragan]. I tuned my outfit to make sure it reflected Luis Barragan's signature colors in his architecture and interior design. So, it's making the most of those opportunities and really making it fun.
What part of your home is most inspired by your upbringing?
The tea room is definitely the epitome of my upbringing. I grew up drinking so much tea every morning with my dad — whether it was milk tea, oolong, jasmine, chrysanthemum, or osmanthus. And, my dad's not very talkative. I think that's characteristic of many Asian dads. So, our conversations were literally just eating breakfast and sipping tea very quietly at the table, as he read his paper or watched the news on television. I grew very attached to those particular memories because it's something that we still did when we came here to the States — it was very permanent in our lives. The tea room was my way of modernizing that daily ritual, and making an older tradition that I grew up with my own.
It's also just a healthy reminder for us to take a break. During the pandemic, time seemed to pass by — there was no end or beginning almost. Being in the present moment with a cup of tea and some tea snacks, in a way, was super emotionally rejuvenating.
It's really important to design spaces that you want to inhabit and not feel like you have to escape from.
It seems like wellness is a big part of your life. Is that something you consider when designing?
Yeah, those aspects are definitely on the forefront of how I begin the design process. I studied psychology in college. I didn't go on to become a psychologist or anything, but I still learned a lot about mental health and wellness from those courses. So, I think that never left me.
I believe if you’re intentional about design, you actually get the results that you need from those particular spaces. So, when things are not harmonizing together, you feel that the moment you step into the room. Sometimes, it's as easy as rearranging your furniture placements. Don't be afraid to take something from one room and put it in another room. It's really important to design spaces that you want to inhabit and not feel like you have to escape from.
Do you have any favorite travel destinations for design inspiration?
Almost too many. Well, number one is Mexico City. I love the vibe there — I think it's a great blend of tradition and modernity. My second choice would be anywhere in Scandinavia. They utilize nature so well, and what's local to them. They never source materials that are toxic for the environment or humans inhabiting the space. And I love how, even though a lot of their designs are minimalist, it still has lots of warmth — there's a lot of coziness attached to it. My third choice would have to be Hong Kong. Even though I may be living in a bungalow home, I still incorporate a lot of urban loft elements.
And do you have a favorite piece of furniture in your home?
It's this vintage Chinese screen divider that I got from my mom. It was the first piece of furniture she purchased when we got to Chinatown and it's been with the family ever since. The second one is my Mario Bellini sofa — I feel like that's a no brainer. It's just incredibly comfortable and it is an investment I plan on keeping for the rest of my life.
I also love this Viccarbe dining room table that I have. I first spotted it when I was at a museum in Helsinki and I was blown away. I liked the fact that it can be both indoors and outdoors — so, in the future, if I ever wanted to put this outside, I can still use it.
Finally, what are some of your favorite places to shop or find decor?
This might surprise people: I am an avid shopper of Facebook Marketplace. I was able to recently find a set of Herman Miller lounge chairs by Don Chadwick there. It's incredible, and from one of his early collections. Another piece I found is this little midcentury modern whale container. It's really cool. It's made out of teak and there's a little compartment in it where you can put stuff.
I've actually sold a lot of my furniture [on Facebook Marketplace], too. It’s a great way to sell and then reinvest into the community, so to speak. I'm kind of obsessed with it. I don't look at it every day, but the algorithm is strangely amazing there. It just knows. And sometimes you score really good deals, because you can always negotiate with the person who's selling them.