Taekyeom Lee is a graphic designer with a fine artist’s sensibility. As a researcher, educator, and maker — born and raised in South Korea, now living and teaching in Madison, Wisconsin — he works in the space where tactility and technology meet, combining ancient materials and cutting-edge techniques with endless curiosity. Whether he’s 3D printing ceramics or learning to read braille, Lee is interested in communication beyond visuals, looking, so to speak, at what’s possible through the lenses of immigration, community, and accessibility.
What was it like to grow up in South Korea? How did your childhood influence your ideas about creativity?
My mother and father met in Jinju, which is a small town in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula. Both of my parents were boomers after the Korean War and didn’t finish college, but they helped me and my younger brother get an education—that’s some of their mindset. My father was a car mechanic. My mom ran the shop and did a bunch of different work. Both my grandfathers were Korean War veterans. I didn’t really come from a conventional, creative or academic family background. I was more like a little scientist—How does this work and why?
I remember one day a radio didn’t work and I was so curious. Oh, maybe I can fix it. I just opened it up and then put it back [together]. I just really liked to interact with the physicality and then how it works, curiosity-wise. My parents didn’t really encourage me, but thankfully they didn’t stop me. What really influenced me from my mom is that kind of mindset: “Okay, you can try it.” Being patient and trusting me. I really benefited from that kind of mindset.
My parents moved the whole family out of their hometown to open a new auto shop about three hours away. No one [we knew] was there. That influenced me too, going to a new city and exploring new things, starting a new business, a new adventure. I saw my parents working really hard, and I learned the importance of work ethic.
So how does a kid from Korea land in the Midwest?
During my senior year, I thought, I want to study abroad. I was still hungry for education and wanted to go to grad school and learn about top-notch design, cutting-edge technologies and aesthetics. My mom also highly encouraged me. She said, “Whatever you do, you will be a better person after the study abroad, even if you become a farmer with a design degree.” University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign gave me an admission and I was so happy. I was like, Finally, I made it! That’s how I went to study abroad in the Midwest.
And right now, I’m teaching at University of Wisconsin–Madison. I applied to this school [as a grad student]; I didn’t get an admission. I like to tell my students this story because, okay, I’m here, I’m teaching you right now, but it wasn’t just one shot from the beginning to the end. Life is not just full of success stories but many ups and downs. You have to deal with challenges, difficult situations, and learn how to navigate them.