Pippa Lee (Weston) moved to New York from Adelaide in 2011 looking to further her career in architecture and immediately fell in love with the city. We spoke to her about the process of moving, the convenience of the city, and what it’s like to work in New York’s design and architecture industry.
Tell us about why you moved to NYC?
I am originally from Adelaide, South Australia and have been here just shy of 6 years. The opportunity to move came when my boyfriend (now husband and also an Aussie) completed his Masters in Law (LLM) at Harvard University and landed a job in NYC. I moved to join him after his graduation and started looking for a job in architecture and immediately fell in love with this city (who doesn’t?)
Where do you live? Why did you choose that area?
We live in the Flatiron District right by the iconic Flatiron Building. We love this area for its conveniences like the subway, Madison Square Park and all the bars and restaurants. Plus we both also have a commute that is a 3 block walk to our respective offices so that is a real win for us. We looked around a few areas before deciding on our particular building purely for the modern amenities and location.
What do you like and dislike about living in NY?
I love the convenience of everything. You want wine delivered at 3am? No problem. You think of something cool and someone in this city has invented it and not only that, invented a way to get it to you quickly.
I love the subway and how it can get you pretty much anywhere you need to go.
I love the social aspect of everyone living so close to each other and the impromptu gatherings that result from high density living.
I love the pace and the movement and the energy and the inspiration.
I love the people watching.
I love that there is nature and beauty and hiking and beaches all within 1-2 hours from the city.
I love that people are here to make things happen and everyone dreams so big. It’s like a pulsating energy you can feel in the air.
I love that you may even catch a New Yorker smiling on that first warm day of spring.
What do I dislike? The smells, the craziness, the lines, the garbage, the consumerism, the ego’s and the general sense of entitlement that a lot of people seem to emanate here.
But that’s also the beauty of this crazy city. It’s all things at all times. It’s a drug and you keep coming back for more. Do you need time out? Absolutely. I think that’s critical to surviving here; stepping away to catch your breath, maybe get some clean oxygen into those lungs and some vitamin D onto the skin is the key.
What are your favorite spots to escape to when you need some time out?
I love the Catskills for a long weekend, or Bear Mountain for hiking, also Montauk or Shelter Island for the beach (although not often enough). I also like to get out on a bike when the weather is fine for a nice long ride in nature.
What’s your ‘only in New York’ moment/s?
The fact that we live in a city of 8 million people yet still run into people you know in the craziest of places. The way people wear and do whatever the hell they want and make no apologies for it. When you try to offer a loaf of bread to a homeless person and get told “sorry I’m gluten free”. People clapping during landing on airplanes (more an ‘only in the USA thing’).
Any advice for people moving to NY?
Be prepared to pay a ludicrous amount for rent unless you want to live in a tiny bedroom in a share house with a bathroom down the hallway. Be open minded, grow a thick skin quickly and learn to move fast. If you can keep your wits about you the first few months you will be ok, but be prepared to adapt.
Also, take a critical look at your CV (or resume). Make it stand out, and make it ‘American’. You are playing in their game now, so learn their rules. I work in a creative industry and the amount of plain old word document style resumes I see is kind of shocking. If you are looking to be hired as someone who has flair and individuality and who lives and breathes design, your resume needs to reflect that, I like the idea of creating an online presence and making it an extension of that.
Tell us about your career:
I am an Australian registered architect who specializes in high-end residential design. My focus for the last 12-18 months has been healthy home design, specifically ‘Wellness Architecture’. I noticed after moving here how much impact the indoor centric lifestyle was having on my health both mentally and physically and after researching the subject realised just how much our indoor environments impact our mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.
Recently, I became one of the first ever certified WELL AP architects, meaning I advise developers and private clients on how to design and build healthier buildings. As a background, WELL Building Standard is focused on the quality of the indoor environment (both in the workplace and at home) and its impact on human health.
I started my own firm Pip+Pencil in 2016 and in my free time (lol) I also freelance design with a great online company called Homepolish, which is an amazing platform that connects designers and clients for all types of interesting projects! My projects range from small scale interior design and styling all the way through to full-scale gut renovations.
I am also currently studying building biology meaning I will be able to physically test the performance of indoor qualities like air, water, light and noise as well as the presence of mould and electronic / magnetic field radiation. I think we are moving into a time, especially in the design profession; where it is no longer acceptable to just design for aesthetics, we need to think long term both in terms of environmental sustainability of the physical building as well as the health impact of being in that space.
What are some differences working here to working in Australia?
In my profession, the major differences are the typology of projects. As I mentioned, in NYC most are interior renovations on existing buildings; whereas in Australia there is a lot more greenfield sites meaning new builds and more freedom in design.
I have also found a wide range of aesthetic differences, most notably in private homes. The American tastes tend to be more traditional, with preference towards separate kitchen and breakfast eating areas rather than the Aussie style of large open floor plans where kitchens and living spaces meld into large family gathering spaces.
American style has a lot more decorative detailing and traditional materials – think detailed kitchen cabinets with ornate brass knobs – whereas Australian tastes tend to be much more European and contemporary.
I think a lot has to do with climate, in Australia we like to live a much more indoor/outdoor lifestyle, blurring the transitions between the two and really allowing the natural environment into our homes, whereas in NYC there is a lot more indoor living with smaller windows and a focus inwards. I really miss designing large open plan spaces where the climate has a huge impact on design decisions, like orientation, cross flow ventilation and shading as this is my personal style of living, it just reminds me so much of the beach!
Any advice for other Aussie professionals working in NYC?
Don’t be afraid to move horizontally to get what you want. I think a lot of people – and I am talking specifically to Aussies on the E3 – get stuck in an organization where they are unhappy because of a fear of not being able to find another job in a competitive market (not true at all) or worried about visa issues. Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out and go for what you want. This city has so many opportunities and you won’t find them unless you are willing to take a risk.
Advice for Australians looking to find a sponsor for the E3 visa is to really know everything about this visa before going into an interview. You need to understand the differences between an E3 and an H1B and be confident in explaining that. Know the perks of the E3 and be able to explain them in a way that makes the employer realize it’s an advantage to hire you over someone else requiring a more extensive and onerous visa.
What’s your favorite New York spot?
It would have to be Central Park. My strong interest in Biophilic Design and my own personal connection to nature means I need to visit it regularly to keep me grounded. There is something so calming about walking through the park, especially the north woods where you can look up and not see a single building, you really do feel like you are not in the city anymore. I love early Sunday morning ABC’s (activity based catchups) with my friends as this is a rare time we can socialize without it revolving around food or booze!
What do you miss most about Australia?
Many things. I miss the lifestyle, the weather, the beaches, the laid back ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. I miss family of course and friends. I miss tomatoes that taste like tomato and mango’s fresh from north Queensland (I don’t miss the price of avocado though!). I miss driving and always being 20 min from a beach and never having to deal with traffic. I miss being able to rock up to the airport 20 min before takeoff and getting straight onto the plane. I miss the dinner parties and the backyard barbeque….but mainly the beaches!
What are your top 3 tips for friends visiting NYC?
Don’t stay in Times Square or anywhere near it, make friends with the subway, and actually get out into real Brooklyn (not just Williamsburg and DUMBO), oh and see the Highline. (Sorry this is four but I couldn’t help myself!)
Favorite NYC brunch spot:
Banter or Citizens of Chelsea…Aussie of course!
Favorite NYC cocktail spot & cocktail of choice:
God there are so many! It really depends what you’re going for as there are specialty places all over, but I would have to say of late it is The Edition Hotel. They have a great bar on the first floor that does a great dill cocktail with gin called Dill or No Dill. YUM!
How did you get into your job in NYC?
I was very open to opportunities and applied in a wider variety of positions than I would have if I was in Australia. I think it also helped that I had a very clear understanding of the visa requirements and was able to explain it in a way that did not intimidate the hiring staff. My first job in NY was an architectural position at Robert A.M. Stern which was such an amazing experience and taught me a LOT about the American way of doing things in terms of design.
What do you like about being part of AWNY?
I love the community that it opens you up to. The way that everyone is there to help each other from simple questions about where to buy vegemite through to more complex issues like where to find a tax accountant who specializes in Australians. The thing about NYC is there’s always someone that has done it before you and I find that Australians especially are willing to pass that information on to help another Aussie facing the same issue, there’s a real sense of camaraderie. I’ve never met a fellow Aussie who hasn’t let the ladder down for another Aussie to climb up.
What was your biggest win this week?
Having one of my early Homepolish jobs professionally photographed and ready for publishing as well as having one of my favorite developer / clients move towards closing on a new property in SoHo which he wants to develop as a ‘wellness residence’ using my design expertise as the guiding principles for healthy home design!
What’s the biggest challenge or road block you’ve been faced with since being in NYC and how do you overcome it?
Probably the initial hesitation towards visa sponsorship. Employers don’t usually understand nor have they heard of the E3 (although it’s becoming more common in 2017) so you need to be very educated on it so you can explain how easy it is for them to sponsor you. Once that hurdle was overcome, it was more just the sheer number of people you are competing with in finding a job. In Oz it was never an issue getting work but here you are just a tiny tiny fish so you need to get very good at applying and interviewing and get used to the fact that you don’t land it the first time – that’s normal – and it just takes time.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given about living/working in NYC?
Never become complacent. Always look to grow, evolve and push yourself to that next level. There are so many things to achieve and there is no better place to do it than NYC. Suck it up, take regular nature breaks and don’t be afraid to take risks.
Who are some Aussie ladies doing awesome things in NYC who are currently on your radar?
Sophie Wilkinson is head of Design and Construction at Common Living, and another Radeladian crushing it in the construction world. It’s so refreshing seeing other women on the job site and Sophie is one of those ladies I often turn to for construction or project management advice. What she has built at Common is absolutely incredible given she has been there from the very beginning. Its so great to see someone so hardworking and dedicated to their craft really kill it when they are left to spread their wings.
I am also crushing on the work of Aussie interior designer Paris Forino. She is doing some incredible projects around the city and overseas. She has found a beautiful mix of Aussie style with American chic and it’s awesome.
Brooke Holm is an amazing photographer who recently moved to NYC (she is technically not Aussie – born in the US, but raised in Oz, so I’ll claim her) and is an extraordinary photographer. I first discovered her when I saw her name repeatedly show up under all the amazing architectural photos I would see in publications like Houses and Architecture Australia; however her talent doesn’t stop with architecture, she also captures landscapes and still life in such beautiful detail and I constantly find myself suggesting her art to my clients!
CJ Hendry is an Australian artist who I creepily Instagram stalked and actually recently ran into at an art show. She does these amazing hand drawings with meticulous detail, all with a fine felt tip black pen! And while her art is incredible, I really love her vibe which is such a laid back ‘she’ll‐be‐right’ Aussie breath of fresh air in this city!
I also really admire the work that Emma Isaacs is doing with Business Chicks. This woman is a pocket rocket and is really kicking ass. Her company is relatively new to the city (they are HUGE back in oz), and its so great to see her amazing attitude spread through the city to other like minded business chicks!
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