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Class of 2020

Class of 2020: How Designers Caroline Lee and Anne Sage Are Pushing the Envelope—In the Most Fun Ways Possible

published Oct 28, 2019
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Who: Caroline Lee and Anne Sage, L.A.-based interior design collaborators and founders of Light Lab studio space
Who nominated them: Joy Cho, Founder + Creative Director of Oh Joy!
Where to follow: Instagram 

Apartment Therapy’s Class of 2020 Design Changemakers is a specially-selected group of the 20 people in the design world everyone should know about by next year. We asked experts (and you!) to tell us who they think should be included—see the rest of the nominees here.

Why Anne and Caroline are part of the Class of 2020: “Caroline and Anne are mega multi-taskers. Caroline’s a photographer, interior designer and life coach with an incredible eye and soul. Meanwhile, Anne is an interior designer, writer, editor, and mama-to-be. They each bring their unique eye to designing spaces together and have just the best touch of quirkiness to create stunning spaces. This creative team does things in ways that are surprising and unexpected. For example, they recently created a textured wall using PVC pipes that looks ultrachic and like you’d find it in a boutique hotel. They also installed custom wallpaper of figural drawings by Caroline’s husband. It’s unexpected and so creative. These ladies are multi-talented creative people who aren’t only just designing spaces but helping people design the life they want as well.” —Joy Cho, Founder + Creative Director of Oh Joy!

Caroline Lee and Anne Sage are basically the yin to the other’s yang—the former craves color (especially pink), the latter leans more into neutrals. But at the end of the day, the longstanding collaborators owe their stellar partnership to one major commonality (aside from their “nerdy” love of history)—an unshakable bite from the design bug. In fact, after teaming up in 2016 to establish their own shared studio setup, Light Lab, their creative cravings only intensified. And, once they tackled every square inch of their own homes together, Anne and Caroline eventually turned their prettifying prowess to nearby clientele. “We got a taste of it like, well, our whole house is decorated—now who else is gonna let us decorate their house?” laughs Anne, who admittedly hated her brief (read: eight week-long) stint in interior design school. “We get to do what we love and do it for other people. We always come at it from a richer emotional place—what’s the intention of this space? What’s the vision?”

As for their own vision, Caroline and Anne boast a self-described eclectic style, as well as an affinity for creating uniquely alluring juxtapositions. “What are the most unexpected colors and shapes that we could pair that will still feel really cohesive, but also stop people in their tracks?” Anne adds of their process. “Actually, one of the filters that we run things through is, if you have to stop and think about whether you love it or hate it, we’ve done our job right!”

Credit: Echo and Earl

But, don’t expect them to pigeonhole their portfolio into just one defining look. “If you put everything that we’ve done together all in the same space, it makes sense, but it’s not like we just hit refresh and do a rinse and repeat,” Caroline explains. “We really do take on every new project with fresh eyes. We like to keep ourselves from getting stagnant.” With interior design just one of their many hats (Caroline’s a photographer, Anne runs her own lifestyle blog), they also pride themselves in bringing their various pursuits into the playing field. We sat down with the creative-minded companions to discuss movie set inspo, upcoming adventures, and the ultimate dream gig: “We both want someone to say to us, ‘I bought a house to flip and I’ll be the money, you guys just do whatever the hell you want,’” says Anne. (Any takers?) 

AT: What do you remember as being design inspirations growing up? What is your inspiration now?

Caroline Lee: I loved movies as a kid that had just like really weird bedrooms. The first bedroom I lived in that my parents let me actually decorate was one that every wall was a different color of the rainbow. I had these shutter closet doors and every single panel was a different color of the rainbow and I was obsessed with it. Like even the ceiling was orange—it was disgusting. 

Anne Sage: Oh my God, I just threw up in my mouth. 

CL: But I was finding myself—I was expressing myself! I loved in movies how sets were unreasonable like they were just something outside of what you know. So, to watch a film and just see these otherworldly spaces that had so much intention in them was really wild to me. I loved things that were just out there. We both also love the whimsy of the past and another time. I think we reference a lot of history. We’re constantly looking at what they did in the ‘50s, the ‘80s. We’re always calling from old styles when we do design work together. 

Credit: Echo and Earl

AS: My grandparents owned a rug store and my grandmother did interior design on the side, so it’s just something I’ve always been around. My mom definitely was a huge impact on me and I have these really vivid memories of going to the Laura Ashley store with her. I got to pick out my ruffled pillow shams and my bedskirt, and together we wallpapered my bedroom. It was a bonding experience. Then, in terms of other influences, Martha Stewart Living was my bible without question. I remember I got my subscription and was planning these lavish dinner parties when I was 15. Then also movies, as well, like “Father of the Bride”. The house in that movie was the epitome of chic. We actually had a client very recently who asked us to design a nursery inspired by the one in “Father of the Bride Part II”. It was all of my dreams come true.

AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2019 so far? (and why?)

AS: Definitely the powder room that we did for our friend Christy for lots of reasons—one being it’s just incredibly cool. Christy, the client, was very open and really wanted to go bold, so she got what she wished for and we got to use some really beautiful materials and textures. I think that it makes a big statement without being crazy loud. It speaks volumes.

AT: Is there a specific piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?

AS: The studio we did out at Caroline’s Palm Springs A-frame is really the acme of what we’ve created together, Caroline wouldn’t you say?

CL: Yeah I agree. It’s my fave.  

AS: A lot of times, we can see in our heads what we want something to look like, but the materials or the pieces to create that look don’t exist on the market. So we kind of have to get real MacGyver and just do it ourselves. That was for sure the case here—we spent three months trying to figure out how to create a particular look on the walls. Eventually, what it meant was a truckload of PVC pipe that got painted this really soft kind of lavender color. And then we had a bench seat being custom-built by Caroline and her brother—because we’re always on a budget, too, of course. We used this really lovely pattern of tile and also mixed some different colored upholstery on the benches. It’s like all these weird pieces that we had this crazy idea where like, “What if we did this? Then, “Well, how the hell would we do this?” In the end, after much blood, sweat and, tears it came together. I think that space is really representative of us—for better or worse!

Credit: Echo and Earl

AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?

AS: Interruptive. I also like playful. Fun for us is a really huge thing. When we agreed to become business partners, that was one of the things that we said at the outset—that we were friends first and our relationship comes first. If we’re ever not having fun or if the relationship is ever at risk, then that’s something to look at. That translates into the work we create where there’s this foundation of our life values, and having fun is a really big part of it. I think that’s visually apparent in a lot of these spaces that we’ve done. They might not all be the same color palette or the same “style,” but there’s these larger, common emotional elements to them.

CL: I would also say honest. We like to work with whatever the space actually has, in terms of the bones. We’ll respect whatever’s there and work within the parameters. One of my very favorite spaces that we’ve done was my sister’s studio space, and the ceiling had all these stained panels that were just kind of disgusting. But we created a checkerboard ceiling with all different colors and painted them, and now it’s one of the coolest places that we’ve ever done together. I think that a lot of people would just chuck something over it to cover it up. We’re just trying to work with what’s there in a way that I would say is honest.

AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?

AS: It’s partly a design thing but, bigger than that, it’s…is it clean? Is everything where I want it to be? Is there, you know, Mozart playing in the background? Is there the smell of coffee coming from the kitchen? It’s like this total sensory contentment. My house, the palette is actually very quiet and it’s like this retreat from the world. So, serenity and peace is big for me. 

CS: You’re the opposite of me—I need weird and disruptive. My favorite thing with my own spaces that I live in is when someone walks in and is like, oh my gosh, if I was to imagine where you live, this would be it and this is like an extension of you. That makes me so happy when people walk in my home and are like this is you. I’m like yay, it is—I love that you see that!

AT: Any big plans for 2020 or beyond you can share with us?

CL: Anne has a child inside of her.

AS: I’m growing a human, so that’s definitely a big development. We dabbled in product in 2019 and I think we’re both on the same page that we would love to do more product in 2020. For us, the gateway to product, though, has always been is it a unique offering? We certainly never want to be a team that just does product for the sake of product. And then other projects, right now wrapping up a redesign of our studio space that we’re really excited about. We’re working on a bedroom redesign that’s gonna be pretty splashy and exciting. 

AT: What three words would you use to describe where you see the design world going in 2020?

CL: What comes up for me is just very textural. For a long time, it’s been all about the white walls with pops of color everywhere, and everything being sort of streamlined and clean in that sense. I think now it’s going very ‘80s—very squatty furniture and very textural. Lots of playing with smooth and hard and cold and soft and scratchy and velvety, all in the same space.

AS: I’m seeing a move towards just darker palettes in general. Like Caroline said, everything’s been so light and bright for so long, and there will always be a place for that. But even within a really light, bright space, I think I’m sensing a return to dark woods—dark cabinetry, for example. Lots of really beautiful dark kitchens happening right now.

AT: What legacy do you hope to leave?

AS: I love it when I hear from people that we inspired them to take a risk in their own space—or in their own life, for that matter. Obviously my ego loves it when people straight up copy a project. But even more, my soul loves it when I hear from someone, “There was this out-of-the-box idea I had and I didn’t know how to make it happen, but I saw how you stretched yourself and that inspired me to stretch myself.” 

CL: I would say they legacy that I hope to leave is permission—just giving people permission to express themselves. And to create a place that inspires them to be in and to live in to share community in. I think a lot of times, I wait for permission, when really I’m the only one that needs to give myself that permission. So, Anne and I both love when we’re really grounded in freedom and remembering that comes from ourselves first. So, showing others that same permission is available to them is what I would hope for.