Tommy Lei tells stories through photos, home renovations

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Tommy Lei calls himself a “creative soul.”

Whether he’s photographing his travels or renovating a home, he has what’s best for the subject at hand.

This chapter of his life started during the pandemic, when he discovered a “really deep love for interiors” with his first home.

“I believe in having a house you can call a home,” Lei says.

“Just from personal experience, I really love it when I walk inside a house and let the house do the talking. I never try to force something that doesn’t work in a home.”

He says it’s unfortunate that so many homes are quickly flipped in Los Angeles, as the house’s soul gets lost in the process. When he purchased his Spanish revival colonial in Pasadena, he absorbed the personality of the home.

“Again, I let the house speak to me,” he says. “I think that’s a big part of my interior design philosophy.”

Lei carefully chooses the homes he renovates. He accepts personal referrals but isn’t actively looking for new clients.

“I want a project to speak to me,” Lei says. “I’m definitely open to renovating projects that are more on the preservation side or the side of refreshing a home, decorating homes that are in need of a seasonal refreshment.”

Involvement runs deep

His involvement with the arts runs deep. Also during the pandemic, he saw a lack of respect for artists of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage.

He co-founded the Golden 8ours, a modern AAPI artist collective, to spotlight emerging Asian American talent or other artists who shy away from self-promotion.

“It’s important to pay it forward, and I think that can happen in any community,” he says. “It’s most important in the community that’s hugely underrepresented when it comes to art.

“As much as I love all of our pedigreed artists, like Basquiat and Andy Warhol, I believe in supporting living artists and their livelihood. I push my people to look around their local neighborhood, city or gallery and support a local artist who needs the exposure. It’s just so important to support your artist friends and living artists.”

He considers himself an artist as well. An avid traveler, Lei hoarded decades’ worth of photos from his trips. He couldn’t peruse artwork during the pandemic, so he — albeit quietly and shyly — decorated his home with his photos. That generated interest on his social media platforms.

“My audience asked if they could purchase prints,” Lei recalls. “I started using my own space as a way of showcasing my photographs. I had perceived my decadeslong photography hobby as just a hobby. I didn’t see it as anything beyond that.”

While renovating his first home, he took his collection and blended it with works from other artists whose work he’s collected over the years.

“It was a cool way of creating a gallery wall that spoke to me on a personal and artistic level,” he says. “To see my own work mixed in with other people, it made the space so much more personal in that sense.”

From that point on, he promoted his work and exhibited in galleries including those in Brooklyn, Minneapolis and LA’s Chinatown, where he grew up.

“I feel like (the public) views Asian Americans as doctors, engineers and lawyers,” he says. “They never quite see us as artists. That’s become my personal mission — to really lift up our artists in our communities.”

Global citizen

Lei is a global citizen, someone who doesn’t stick with the touristy spots. He partakes in activities that take him out of his comfort zone.

The destination doesn’t have to be anywhere flashy either. Lei recently returned from Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he took in the architecture and the history.

“My next trip, I hope, is going to take me back to Asia for a little bit,” he says. “I have not been back since 2019, and that was the biggest trip I had out there. I want to go back to my homeland of Hong Kong. I really do miss it.

“I’d love to go back to Santa Fe sometime this year but explore outside of the immediate city. I’d go to Taos and explore the wilderness a little bit. I’m also hoping to journey out to Japan. Asia — or anywhere that calls me, really — would be a big focus of mine this year. I was approached about doing a trip to South Africa. I’m looking into that as well.”

The key to his trips, photography and home renovations is the story and preserving it.

“I’m never that photographer who shoots in your face or who makes you pose in a certain way,” he says. “I find it uncomfortable, just as a bystander. I try to photograph people in their element, their best light, their natural state. I want to tell the stories around me no matter what I do. I love that act of preservation, solidifying that moment in time that you can never truly go back to.”

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