Dunn-Edwards Portraits: A Home-TV Designer Shares It’s Important to Always Trust Your Instincts
12/12/2022 | dunnedwards |
Jason Lai remembers watching HGTV as a kid and noticing a lack of people like him. As a result, the Asian-American interior designer admits that when it came time to sort out his professional path going into college, he didn’t even really know what an interior designer was, let alone see himself in that role. In fact, the outspoken now-38-year-old designer doesn’t shy away from discussing the lack of diversity experienced in the design world. “How many gay, Asian, loud interior designers do you know?” he quips. “I think people want to see that.” In fact, it’s a void that’s always stuck with him since he tried his hand at breaking into unscripted television after college, trying out for shows like The Amazing Race, Queer Eye and others.
Without ever really seeing that example on-screen, Lai wrestled early on with the confidence to pursue a path in interior design. Had he followed a more traditional path that, as the West Covina, CA native explains, would have been accepted by his traditional parents. He initially attended California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) for Business and Communications. He struggled with school, however, describing himself as a bad student and completely disinterested in his studies. It was Lai’s friends who eventually recognized his struggle and suggested looking into an alternative path.
“I decided to go to Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. Sac) to figure out what I wanted to do,” says Lai. “I took a class in interior design and it was the easiest thing I had ever done; I didn’t even buy the textbook.” It was during those design classes that, for the first time, he watched others struggle with the school curriculum while he blazed ahead. Lai completed his interior design certification at Mt. Sac while at the same time continuing his studies at CSUF so as not to tip off his parents. “My parents didn’t know. I was still getting my BA because I knew if I completely dropped out, they would disown me,” he jokes.
As a way to grow his confidence in this new-to-him industry, after finishing school, Lai jumped right into the Los Angeles design world, spending a lot of that time in design sales. First, he worked as a design assistant at Asian American Trade Group, selling Asian goods to design firms. He also worked in sales roles at Z Gallerie and Design Within Reach. These roles helped him realize his strengths: interior design and working with people. “If you know what you’re good at, stay in your own lane—and for me, I stay in my own lane. I know I can talk to clients,” the designer says about helping people reach their design goals.
Later, Lai worked for a bedding design company doing color theory and designing their trade show experiences before eventually ending up at boutique design-build firm Saxony Design Build. It is in all that real-world experience where Lai’s advice to current design students emanates. “My suggestion is to go out there. Get a job right away as an intern or an assistant designer. Just go behind the scenes with a professional interior designer to shadow them and learn everything that school doesn’t teach you,” says Lai, the now-owner of JL Interiors, who recently judged Dunn-Edwards student design competition. Lai encourages emerging designers to apply their learning to design competitions, like the one Dunn-Edwards hosts, and receive as much experience and feedback as possible ahead of their career.
It’s his own real-world experience that Lai credits for, and what he refers to as, his ‘designer superpower’—his ability to adapt. Working with clients of different tastes and understanding their desires, and then adding his own clean, contemporary signature element, has been the key to his success. “As a designer, just because your own taste is one thing, that doesn’t mean you should be stuck in that bubble,” says Lai, an avid fan of Dunn-Edwards paints and a Pasadena Showcase House design alum. “If you show me an aesthetic, I can do it, and then there’s obviously a mix of what I bring to the table in it.”
Not only does Lai use Dunn-Edwards paints for his clients’ projects, but it’s the paint he uses in his own home as well. His favorite Dunn-Edwards color, Spice of Life (DET439), is peppered throughout his own Santa Monica home. “It’s a cozy, cozy color; I feel like I’m being hugged,” Lai shares.
With real-world designing experience up his sleeve, Lai continued to trust his career instincts and auditioned for TV shows with a design focus. Despite a few casting heartbreaks, he persisted and eventually broke through unscripted television in residential design. He appeared in Bravo’s Best Room Wins (he was the show’s winning designer) and Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles.
As much as Lai embraces sharing his experience with today’s design students, he also delights in seeing what today’s newest designers are coming up with on their own. In fact, while serving as a judge in the Dunn-Edwards competition, Lai said what he looked forward to the most was getting surprised by the creativity and detail of submissions. “Every generation has its own thing,” he says. ”I love it when I get surprised.” Dunn-Edwards Emerging Professionals Design Competition allows currently enrolled design students, nationwide, to submit designs addressing a specific need for a hypothetical client, all while making Dunn-Edwards Color of the Year the centerpiece of their design.
As a former design student, Lai is able to judge participants’ submissions for the competition from a unique lens. Ultimately, for Lai, the secret to a great design resides in its nuances. “The devil is in the details,” he shares. Whether it’s the fonts used for a design submission, he explains, the color palette, or the precise and realistic furniture placement, it’s attention to those details that enables a new designer with truly innate instincts to emerge from the crowd. In fact, it’s that same attention to detail and nuanced creativity that Lai himself is known for among his clients, as well as his professional colleagues. “Jason’s creative mind and use of color in his clients’ spaces is always swoon-worthy,” notes Skye Luna, Lai’s Dunn-Edwards Representative.
Further, when it comes to paint for the design projects Lai’s working on, there’s no question for him about relying on his instincts, and that means trusting Dunn-Edwards paints every time, even when his clients sometimes ask for other brands. “If you use the paint correctly, Dunn-Edwards is one of the best quality paints,” explains Lai. “I love it because Dunn-Edwards is always elevating themselves. They always know what the [color and] design trends are … what’s coming up. And they educate people.”
As Lai embarked further on his professional journey, he learned the importance of trusting his instincts. “I knew I had the personality to go out and get clients,” he explains. But it was the lack of confidence when it came to his ability with drawings and renderings, along with the financial responsibilities of running a business, that had him questioning entrepreneurship. Lai explains, “All of my family has Chinese restaurants, so I grew up knowing what an entrepreneur should do, what it means, what lies on you if you have employees.” Lai was convinced, initially at least, that he needed a partner in order to launch his own business; one that would complement the skills that he felt he lacked.
In 2010, Lai launched his first entrepreneurial venture, a design firm, with his then-business partner. He explains it as an experience chock-full of learning opportunities; it’s never easy starting a business since you often don’t know what you don’t know. “We definitely made our mistakes [...] there were a lot of times where we didn’t make any money—at all—because we were trying to fix mistakes” he shares candidly. However, it’s those mistakes that have made him a better entrepreneur, a better boss and a better designer. “Because once a mistake happens, I’m never going let it happen again,” he says.
As Lai looks back on all the challenges he’s encountered on his entrepreneurial journey that have led him to where he is today, the biggest learning opportunity of all was ending his business partnership. “It literally felt like a divorce. It was not a fun process,” he shares. But it opened up space for the next chapter of his professional journey, and overcoming the challenge significantly boosted his self-confidence. His business divorce gave way to a host of opportunities, such as working with celebrity clients; a new wallpaper line with Thomas Lavin from Area Environments, which takes inspiration from Lai’s line drawings and Chinese culture; a new tub line for Hydro Systems, and so much work that Lai’s firm now has a waiting list.
As Lai’s design brand expands, he’ll continue to rely on his instincts to pave the way for that expansion. With no shortage of interest from television producers, Lai is determined to fill the void in the design world that he noticed all those years ago while watching design shows as a kid. By showing the new generation an example of someone who looks like, speaks like, and has a similar personality as themselves, Lai is poised to inspire a crop of up-and-coming designers to trust their own instincts. Lai’s successful efforts as a designer are what made him an ideal judge in the Dunn-Edwards competition, as the company strives to inspire emerging professionals who are paving their own career paths.
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Photography featuring Spice of Life (DET439) by Bethany Nauert Photography
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