Photography By Justin Dotson
Her roots could not be more blue collar – her dad was a police officer, and her first job was cleaning carpets – but Cathy Lee built a reputation designing upscale homes, and now she’s sharing her style and her secrets through Cathy’s Marketplace showroom
We all have known people who were “born to do it,” those whose life course seemed set from small-kid times. For most of us, however, it is more often “live to find it” when it comes to our life’s work.
That is exactly what we find in Hawaii’s little designer-who-could, Cathy Lee.
She of humble Pearl City roots, absolutely zero interior design schooling and the pedigree of a carpet cleaner and a vending machine hawker has now become one of the most ubiquitous voices in home décor in the Islands.
The daughter of a police sergeant dad and a baby sitter mom, she had no desire to enter the world of interior design, but that is not to say she didn’t have goals.
“As a young girl, I always knew I was going to do something with my life,” says Lee, whose father began a carpet-cleaning business after he left the police force. “I didn’t know what it was going to be and I had no skills, but I could scrub carpets real good!”
A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” her first venture into business was to purchase 14 vending machines. She had heard from a friend what a gold mine they could be, and she wanted to try it out for herself. Within six months she had turned them into a profitable business, which she sold for three times her purchasing price.
A businesswoman was born.
“A lot of people have the misconception that I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth because I made my mark doing high-end homes, but that is so not true,” says Lee. “What allowed me to make something of myself was this drive my parents gave me, and when I see opportunities I act first and think about it later. That has been the secret of my success, and also the cause of a lot of stress and tears over the years!”
This drive took her in many different directions, from event planning to a video dating service. While neither of these made her rich, the latter allowed her to meet the love of her life, Darrell Lee, a local gastroenterologist and the yin to her yang.
“My family truly is my inspiration,” says Lee, who has a daughter, Nicki, 13. “My husband, being a physician, is an inside-the-box person, which is my perfect partner because I am so outside-the-box! He’s my rock and I am his sail.”
His foundation is certainly important, but it is his willingness to let his wife’s imagination fly that has allowed her to rise to these heights in the interior design world. When they began to remodel their second home in Hawaii Loa, Lee’s Type A personality kicked in and soon the designer stopped returning their calls.
Eighteen months of studying, repainting and making every mistake in the book later, Lee came away with a home that not only doubled its value, but also landed her on the cover of Homescape magazine in 2003. The story dubbed her as “The Natural.”
“I am the furthest thing from ‘a natural’,” says Lee with a laugh. “What I am is a hard worker. I study things and I sweat over it. I didn’t know what I was doing. Some people can cut flowers and bam, they are beautiful. That’s not me, that has never been me. I broke the rooms down and created a process.”
This process was such a success that she put her other businesses aside and started buying, renovating and reselling high-end homes in the Kahala/Diamond Head area. Her reputation grew, and despite her lack of formal training – or perhaps because of it – her vision continued to be acclaimed.
“When I am designing anything, it is about the story,” says Lee, who stresses the importance of this to her success. “Whether it be an event, a house or even our family Christmas card, I come up with a story – I am a storyteller.
“When I was flipping houses I would try to imagine who my buyer was going to be – where do they come from, is this a Mainland buyer or a local executive? Then I would design the house for them – what would make them smile, where would they entertain, where would their Christmas tree be? Now, working with clients I find this method to be even more effective – not to be McDonald’s and take their order and give them what they want, but to give them what they don’t even know they want and give them an even more elaborate story.”
People became enthralled with her stories and soon were asking her to design their homes next, but because of her lack of pedigree she decided it would be better to teach a man to fish and began setting up workshops through a new venture called RSVPstyle.
“People keep asking me, where did you buy that? Who did you get to do that?” explains Lee. “So I decided to start sharing with people how to do it themselves. I wasn’t prepared to do it for them, I didn’t go to school for this. So I thought I would teach them what I learned through trial and error and a lot of mistakes along the way.”
She found herself making regular appearances on the KITV morning show, offering her insight and packing the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall with homemakers who wanted to capture some of her magic in a bottle, because if this local girl from blue collar roots can do it, why can’t we?
“What motivates me more than anything is helping people, inspiring people,” says Lee about her workshops. “I am not a designer – I couldn’t design your home. But what I could do is tell you the mistakes I made, what made it easy for me and the step-by-step process that I went through that you can go through and do it yourself.”
It was this desire to help and a deluge of people coming to her with their old décor that have led Lee to her newest venture, Cathy’s Marketplace. Filling the entire first floor of the old First Hawaiian Bank building on University Avenue is a space that brings the contents of Lee’s brain to the public. Part consignment shop, part eclectic retail outlet, part design center, it is a great starting point for anyone looking to remake their home. It started out as a series of storage lockers, and former clients and admirers would bring Lee their old furniture hoping that she would find a way to recycle them into the community through consignment.
“These are people who don’t want to be on Craig’s List, having people coming into their homes or garages,” says Lee, who opened the store 18 months ago.
“But while it is a great concept, I don’t have to buy any inventory. I realized I had a bunch of different things that did not necessarily reflect my style. I can’t be 100 percent consignment, so that I can add that freshness, that vibe and pull it all together. It is things that I want but cannot find here in Hawaii.”
She makes the most of her circular 4,100 square feet of space, taking shoppers on a voyage through her styles, bridging the old with new, accenting antiques with pieces of modern flair, giving one the access to pieces you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the state.
“I look for things that they (the big furniture stores) don’t bring in because they need to bring in the things that the mass consumer is going to want. They have to play it a little more safe,” says Lee while pointing out her golden stump stools and oversized Indonesian treasure chest. “I have a more eclectic sense of style, so I like those funky things that make you say, ‘Where did you get that?'”
It isn’t all about sales, though. She still has the desire to help out others like her who wanted to create a beautiful living space but didn’t know how, and that is why she created her Style Center.
Along with magazines and books to help spark creativity, she also provides a guide, a la Angie’s List, of the local contractors whom she has found through experience to be the best for your job.
“I remember when I first started remodeling, you don’t want to go through the Yellow Pages,” says Lee, who recently staged the demo apartments for Kamehameha Schools at its foray into affordable housing at Six Eighty Ala Moana. “I have hired the good, the bad and the ugly, and it is tough. So when people have a remodeling project they can come here and, besides finding furniture and accessories, if they need a style center, we have it here so they can add style to their home.”
She also shares tips in her column “Celebrate Style” in the Sunday Star-Advertiser supplement Hawaii Renovation.