Michael Lee An Architect’s Enduring Modern Style

TIMELINE
He started Michael Lee Architects in 1991

BEST OF
Lee has received six Best of Houzz awards—one in 2012, and one every year since 2014

AIA HONORS
He has received six AIA awards, including an Honor Award in 2015 from the Long Beach/South Bay Chapter

“Back in the ‘90s, there wasn’t a lot of interest in Modern work in the South Bay,” says architect Michael Lee. “You had to do Mediterranean and it had to have gigantic bedrooms, and a lot of them. Luckily we had clients who wanted something different.”

For Lee, “different” meant designing fresh-looking structures with an appealing mix of sunlight, natural textures and open layouts, geared towards easy living—style bedrocks of the “warm modern” or “coastal contemporary” style that is currently flourishing in the local market and beyond. 

Lee, however, has been producing such works since opening his doors in 1991, and has since produced a far-reaching portfolio of notable residences and commercial projects—about 200 to date.

What Lee was doing then, and continues to do today, is reconfigure the perception of modern design, from something sterile and inhospitable to everyday life, to, as Lee describes it, something “visually compelling and comfortable at the same time.” 

The time is particularly ripe for Lee’s embraceable mode of design, which has taken his work increasingly beyond the Beach Cities. There are projects in Topanga and San Diego, along with the Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Beverly Hills, where his startlingly elegant Carla Ridge Residence (2015) snagged an AIA Honor Award.

“There’s a broader market for a friendly, modern design,” he explains. “It’s a style that people can relate to. The warmth of the materials, the light. The spaces are fantastic: open floor plans, bigger windows, cantilevers. It involves the use of many fun architectural elements.”

The South Bay, however, is from where Lee hails, and where his career was formed. “The opportunities in the South Bay for a young designer are amazing,” he points out. “There’s a lot of work going on.” Working for famed architect Dean Nota in Hermosa Beach was one such opportunity. Over a period of 10 years Lee designed numerous homes with Nota, and went on to build several of them after getting a contractor’s license to go along with his architect’s license. 

“There’s a lot of work going on.” Working for famed architect Dean Nota in Hermosa Beach was one such opportunity. Over a period of 10 years Lee designed numerous homes with Nota, and went on to build several of them after getting a contractor’s license to go along with his architect’s license. 

To this day, construction management remains a specialty of Michael Lee Architects. In addition, his architecture projects extend beyond residential homes to include restaurants, office rehabs and mixed-use buildings—an area of which Lee is particularly fond.

“I think they’re an interesting typology for the South Bay in particular, because we’ve got these fantastic locations for both commercial and residential uses,” he notes. “It’s a nice way to capitalize on the lifestyles and views of the beach communities.” 

The Beach Cities, where Lee’s family roots span 70 years, and where his design legacy is most visible, has changed considerably during his career, and in many ways, it’s a good thing. “The demand for good architecture—and appreciation of arts and culture, music and food—have really grown exponentially,” he suggests.

“We’re fortunate that South Bay life is a great combination of life in a small town and in a big city at the same time.” A combination of agreeability and glamour, like his designs, which invariably combine visually stimulating elements—a soaring cantilevered roof, for instance, or grand stack of corner windows—with thoughtful pragmatism.

“I learned early in my practice that I was working for the client, who needed to be listened to and taken care of,” says Lee. “They are trusting you with their dreams and their future.”

(clockwise from top left) Scenes from Michael Lee’s Schiff Residence (2016): Innovative beam work across the roof; Horizontal and vertical siding softens the angular forms; A glass wall creates a welcome entrance; Full-height doors expand indoor spaces; Innovative casework combines shelving, wood and glass. 

MICHAEL LEE ARCHITECTS
2200 HIGHLAND AVE.
MANHATTAN BEACH, CA 90266 
310.545.5771 | MLEEARCHITECTS.COM
INSTAGRAM: @MLEEARCHITECTS

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