Cover Story
Heart and Craft
Jennifer Choo 
Lee is not just passionate but fiercely determined as well

Lee Ee Vee is not someone who does things by halves. From successfully spearheading The Last Polka, one of Malaysia’s first artisan ice cream makers to moving to Paris to learn the French language so that she could enroll in an interior design course there, it is evident Lee is not just passionate but fiercely determined as well.

Her current endeavor is called Thirty3eleven, her own ceramic brand which is a culmination of a lifelong love of design. For the time being, the brand is a one-woman show.

“I’m the designer and ceramic-maker at Thirty3eleven; just me and my two hands! I get the occasional help from my husband to lift heavy things,” she laughs. “It’s a small outfit and I’d like to keep it that way as it gives me a lot of flexibility when it comes to managing work and life.”

The bright and articulate 34-year-old started taking lessons in ceramic-making two years ago. “Moving into ceramic has been an interesting journey. Design, and specifically interior design, has always been close to my heart since I was little. I remember lying in bed before sleep and decorating in my head, imagining colours, furniture, positions of the rooms in a house… But I never went to design school because I couldn’t really draw, thinking I needed that as a talent in order to succeed.”

“In hindsight, that’s not really true,” she says, finally deciding not to let that “disability” stop her from pursuing her passion. “As I got older, I knew I had to give myself a chance and pursue design. This is, of course, the shortest possible summary of seven to 10 years of a confusing but exciting journey of discovering myself and what I was meant to do in life. I took up pottery classes and have been figuring my way around the craft ever since.”

The name Thirty3eleven is a combination of numbers from a Bible verse, Exodus 31:1-3, which says: “And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills.”

Lee believes this verse was given to her years ago as a life purpose or calling and wanted the name to serve as a reminder for the reason of her work.

Moving into ceramic has been an interesting journey for Lee 

Setting up Thirty3eleven was no easy feat; in fact, Lee confesses that it was the hardest thing she has ever done. “Mastering the skill alone is challenging enough. I took only 14 lessons. The rest of it I learnt on my own through books, YouTube, Instagram and talking to other potters. I feel I have barely scratched the surface. I consider myself extremely fortunate that there are already people who are interested to own a piece of my work even as I’m still learning the craft,” shares Lee.


Since Lee doesn’t sketch, she usually starts on a project with paper templates for most of her hand-built work and makes changes from there. The final piece shrinks by about 15%, so calculations are made accordingly for the prototypes.

Sometimes she just dives right in with a ball of clay, rolling and coiling it until she has some semblance of a shape. The shape is then fine-tuned, the clay moulded according to the flow of her hands and the way the material dries.

Another interesting thing to note about Lee’s creations is that they are made using clay from Johor, a feature that came out of convenience and practicality.

“That was the only available clay in the studio where I took the pottery lessons. In general, we don’t have access to various types of clays like other countries do. Porcelain is quite expensive when imported, so are the other variations of stoneware clay. Singapore, on the other hand, with its stronger currency, imports clays from places like Australia and the UK so that opens up a wider range of material to work with.”

“It’s a cost issue but there is definitely something to be said for using resources that come directly from your own backyard – you can proudly declare that your creations are made in Malaysia in every sense of the word,” she enthuses.

Indeed, Lee’s pride in what she does and passion for the craft imbues each of her lovingly made pieces, which she views through the lens of an artist making limited pieces.

“At the moment, I strive to see ceramic as art, and like a painter who can’t ‘outsource’ his brushwork to someone else, I’d like to think it’s the same with ceramicists – the designer and maker are one. I suppose it’s a very idealistic way of seeing things, very much inspired by how ceramicists work in the UK, Australia, and Japan. Of course, there are bread-and-butter issues of trying to keep that way of doing business where people are not accustomed to paying a high price for handmade work.”

Design-wise, Lee leans towards clean and minimalist aesthetics. “My designs blend perfectly into contemporary homes and the modern table setting. My pieces are not colourful nor quirky and I think it mostly reflects my introverted personality.”

Due to Lee’s limited production capacity, most of her pieces are only available at pop-up events and craft markets in the Klang Valley, although some pieces can be found at Kedai Bikin in Bangsar.

Nevertheless, she feels truly encouraged by the response so far. “I mean, I’m just starting out. I have more design ideas in my head and a Pinterest board full of inspiration than my two hands can make. I try to introduce a few new designs each time I have a pop-up event to keep things interesting but each new design takes time to develop. There are always new techniques to learn, colours to experiment with and the process can take months. I’d love to make some porcelain jewellery. There’s a bag of porcelain clay sitting in the studio and I can’t wait for some free time to start working on my first jewellery collection,” she muses.

Being in such a niche industry certainly has its fair share of challenges, even more so being a solo outfit. “Ceramic is such a tiny industry in Malaysia so there’s a real lack of support, resources, even materials and tools. I recently had to travel all the way to Singapore to purchase ingredients and I still get tools shipped in from the US so we are really limited in what we can make by what’s available locally. Knowledge support is another challenging area but thankfully there are plenty of online forums that you can refer to.”

Social media is a big help too. “Potters on Instagram are very generous with sharing their know-how on the craft. But there’s only so much help one can get remotely, especially when you’re trying to troubleshoot a problem, so to have a local mentor would really go a long way.”

To give her 120% to Thrity3eleven, Lee has had to make some sacrifices, including giving up The Last Polka. “A new craft business requires a lot of attention and effort and it would have taken me a lot more time to get it off the ground if I was still involved in another business. Some people have the ability to juggle a few things at a time at once but I find that I do my best work when I can give it my full attention. To be frank, I haven’t stopped practising, researching and learning for a single minute in the past two years.”

As Lee continues to pursue her dream with a single-minded focus, she remains hopeful that the Malaysian design industry will continue to grow and mature. “I sincerely hope for more government funding and programmes that directly support independent artists like me because without proper financial resource, there’s very little we can do to inspire and nurture creativity collectively as a nation. It takes a village to build an industry – no one individual is enough, especially when it comes to nurturing the next generation of talents.”  

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 266.