Designer and ‘DesignTO Talks: Dematerialized’ speaker Alex Yueyan Li shares the evolution of his work, his fascination with the physicality of objects, and more.
How would you describe your profession and your practice?
I’m a Chinese designer and co-principal of 11×17, a design practice based in Toronto and Boston. I also teach architecture as well as lead research investigating architecture’s relationship to existing materials and their extended lives.
Has your work changed over the course of your career?
Absolutely. Our practice is all about exploring innate predilections instigating an architectural response toward environmental thinking. But I have to admit that this wasn’t always the case when I first started out about a decade ago. The shift in my approach is partly influenced by social discourse and partly motivated by my desire to participate as a designer which, of course, took a lot of unlearning and rethinking. While I see the value of defining the designer’s role as a generalist in these uncertain times, I am increasingly interested in articulating a new kind of design agency toward material thinking.
What was your “eureka!” moment that made you realize that design was the route you wanted to take?
I didn’t grow up in a family of artists or architects, but I’ve always been fascinated by the physicality of things. As a child, I remember participating in model boat competitions and spending hours assembling pieces. There was something incredibly fulfilling about creating something out of nothing, and that’s what ultimately drove me to pursue a career in architecture.
Is your work inspired by anything in particular? What turns you on creatively?
As someone who’s always been curious about how things work, my work is an extension of seeking to understand. I find inspiration in working with diverse collaborators, including builders, contractors, fabricators, and clients. To me, listening and understanding is a form of creativity in itself.
Which designers or artists inspire you and why?
Our practice at 11×17 is inspired by a set of evolving conversations we have been having with friends and colleagues, including Sean Canty, Mark Lee, Hans Tursack, Lexi Tsien, John May, Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, Zeina Koreitem, Naho Kubota, and many others. We also admire the work of practices like Assemble, Flores Prats, and Formafantasma, among others.
What is the name of your 2024 DesignTO Festival event and what can attendees expect to experience?
I’m giving a talk as part of the ‘Dematerialization’ symposium, called “On Rehearsing.” I’m presenting a series of experimental projects from our practice to articulate a relationship between architecture and material reuse. There will also be a joint discussion with presenters from different disciplines, which I’m looking forward to.
How long have you been involved with DesignTO? Why is DesignTO important to the creative community, here and abroad?
This is my first time being involved with DesignTO, and I’m excited to be part of it. As someone who has lived in the GTA for years, I’ve heard a lot about the fantastic work the organization has been doing. We, as a young practice, also feel a particular affinity for DesignTO’s mission to promote emerging voices within our communities.
Lastly, what random fact about yourself would you like to share with the DesignTO community?
I recently had a dream where I designed a house, for which I produced a drawing set. It felt surreal yet exciting!
DesignTO’s ninth annual symposium ‘DesignTO Talks: Dematerialized’ brings together eight multidisciplinary experts to explore the complexities of dematerialization in an increasingly digital world.
Speakers include Lynne Heller, Austin Houldsworth, Alex Yueyan Li, Neo-Futuristic Walks, Joel Ong, Justin Kyung In Park, Skawennati, and Ruby Thelot