Small business spotlight: Tiffany Lee, green tea leaves design

Designer Tiffany Lee received her BArch in Architecture in 2002 from UH Mānoa’s School of Architecture. By day, Tiffany is a Project Manager and Operations Director for architectural firm, WATG Honolulu, and in her free time she is the owner and designer of the jewelry brand green tea leaves design. Tiffany found a new creative outlet in jewelry design and fabrication. Green tea leaves design is a line of simple and minimalistic jewelry that draws inspiration from Japanese aesthetics.

Tell us about the story behind green tea leaves design. What inspired you to start your own business?

A few years ago, I was looking for a simple silver arc necklace and couldn’t find one that was quite right. A friend who had a background in jewelry suggested I make one and taught me the basics of metal work. I immediately loved it. 

Jewelry design and metal work is such a tactile and malleable medium. I love the dichotomy of it. It calls for a great deal of precision and timing and is limited to the physical properties of metal and heat, but at the same time is so completely open to your imagination.

Where do you draw inspiration for your products?

I am drawn to simple lines and strong shapes and am also greatly influenced by the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi” - the beauty of imperfection and naturalness. Thus, each of my pieces are designed to highlight the natural qualities of metal and stone and to showcase its handcrafted process: hand cut, shaped, hammered, and polished.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of running your own business? What’s been the most challenging?

After five years of design school and over fifteen years in the practice of hospitality architecture, having this bit of total creative control and design freedom has been so valuable and balancing to me. I can make whatever I want, regardless of anyone else’s critique or opinion.

As an architect, I worry a lot about how my decisions affect my office, my staff, and my clients. With green tea leaves, it is very freeing knowing that I am completely autonomous and solely responsible for my success and failures. I have the ability to take more chances or be more conservative when and if I feel like it.

This has also opened me to a huge network of other artists and creatives outside of architecture. They have inspired and taught me so much about different art forms and their design process.

How has your UH education helped you on this journey?

My education from the University of Hawai’i School of Architecture was life-changing.  Not only does a design education give you the tools for a successful career, but it opens your mind to a greater appreciation and understanding for the world and its built environment. It teaches you critical thinking, resilience, and problem solving and gives you the ability to view life through a different and curated lens.

Looking back at your time at UH, do you have any special memories, favorite courses/teachers or a UH experience that really impacted you personally or professionally? 

My design studio professor in my third year of architecture school, Spencer Leineweber, has been my greatest inspiration. In my first years of architecture school when the prevalent architectural style was bold and hyper-masculine, it was very difficult for me to articulate what would eventually become my own very minimal style.

Spencer taught me the beauty in the quiet of Architecture. She loved the small and more intimate moments we can create through materiality, proportion, and scale. The Japanese design aesthetics I learned from her are still ones I deeply treasure and respect. Her love of historic preservation also began a mindful practice of always incorporating the historical and cultural context of the place in design.  The years I had with her truly shaped my life as an architect and as a person.

Do you have any advice for students or alumni who would like to follow a similar career path? 

Listen to yourself. In any design profession, it’s often very difficult to trust yourself and your voice. But you are the only you, with a very unique and distinct perspective – listen to it.

To learn more visit or follow them on Instagram.

University of Hawai‘i Alumni