White House party planner Jung Lee talks taste
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My personal style signifier is a graduated Bulgari diamond necklace I bought at a charity auction, paired with wooden beads given to me by my mother. She is Buddhist and these beads were given to her by her monk. I don’t have a clothing “uniform” because I consider myself a chameleon; I dress for my clients, who range from Brooklyn hipsters to more conservative Californians.
The last thing I bought and loved was an Apple Watch Hermès. I haven’t worn a watch in a very long time, but since I was constantly losing my phone this seemed like a good solution. I went with a classic tan strap that works well with everything.
The place that means a lot to me is the area around Kent, Connecticut. I’ve never found a place where I feel more at one with nature. This part of north-west Connecticut is rural, and while it feels a world away, it’s actually not too far from my home in New York City. I love to hike Kent Hill or spend a day at the Mayflower Inn & Spa – the dining room there is so warm and inviting and their lunch is excellent. I also love a leisurely dinner at nearby Arethusa al Tavolo, if I can get a table. Everything is so fresh – especially the cheeses, butter and ice cream, which are all made at their Arethusa Farm Dairy.
The best book I’ve read in the past year is The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav. It’s about how we all experience a psychological and spiritual evolution, and it seems particularly relevant to my life right now. It also stresses the importance of inner strength so that you can weather adversity.
My style icon is a mix of people. I admire people who have a strong sense of self and a point of view. Jackie O was so classic, and I love the way Harry Styles mixes everything. Diana Ross c1970 is another style icon – I once designed a party themed around her look. The Calvin-Klein-meets-Kate-Moss minimalism of the early ’90s is inspirational – I love beige, white and creating experiential installations in modern spaces.
The thing I couldn’t do without is a really good, full-bodied California Cabernet. Nickel & Nickel is one of the best. I also love a Bordeaux.
The best gift I’ve given recently is a set of black Rimowa Classic luggage to my son who is studying abroad. I gave him three black suitcases – in varying sizes from carry-on to enormous – with different-coloured wheels. I like that they have old-school locks and hardware – and that he’ll have them forever.
And the best gift I’ve received are cards from my kids. I am fanatical about birthday cards, thank-you notes and letters, and ones from my kids are the most special of all. Less tangible, but equally treasured, is the unconditional love I received from my very traditional parents when I told them I was divorcing. It’s a real gift when people surprise you in wonderful ways.
The last music I downloaded was Lana del Rey’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, which has a really cinematic sound. I also listen to mixes from the DJs that I work with – hip-hop, jazz… basically anything but country music.
I have a collection of really fine china and crystal. I have my mother’s china from Korea, powder-blue Limoges, Hermès, early Conran and black Alchimie dinner plates by L’Objet. I love how dark plates make food stand out – even pizza! My crystal includes Moser and Baccarat, all of which make a good Cabernet taste that much better.
I’ve recently rediscovered The Odeon in Tribeca. It’s such a nostalgic brasserie and it’s as good now as it was in the ’80s. I love that it’s not trying too hard, and the profiteroles are outstanding.
Among the best wedding favours I’ve seen was a surprise fleet of cars to take everyone home. Another was illustrations of each guest that were used as part of a seating chart and later framed and sent as a memento. And we once sent four-piece place settings to each guest – handpainted with their name – the week after a spectacular wedding.
An indulgence I would never forgo is flying in a premium way. I used to feel guilty about it, but with the amount of travel I do for work, I now realise that it’s a necessity. Being an Asian immigrant, I was constantly apologising. But no longer.
In my fridge you’ll always find everything you need to throw a good party: champagne – if money is no object, then it’s Cristal – plus lots of wine, Arethusa half-and-half for my coffee, soft cheeses, manchego, berries and apples. I love eggs – ideally from the Kent Farmers Market – that I eat over-easy with rocket, olive oil and cracked pepper.
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a sparkly silver Dries Van Noten sweater.
The beauty and grooming staples I’m never without are Shiseido hair products, Antica Farmacista bergamot-scented body lotion and Olive Young Korean beauty products. Olive Young is a chain and whenever I am in Korea I stock up on serums, creams and foot products.
My favourite room in my house is my hallway, for dinner parties. It is the room that wasn’t supposed to be and it has become the setting for family gatherings of 14 people or more. I was inspired by the first dinner held in Astor Hall – a wedding for 400 guests that I organised – where everyone was seated at one long table. I now have a built-in banquette and a table that I bring into this hall space and it becomes a warm meeting place.
The key to a great party is to know your guests – if they’re vegan, plan the menu accordingly. Recovering alcoholics? Serve appropriate options. Good food is anything unique. It could be Korean food or a really good cheese party. You just never want it to feel like a food court. Introduce people to special food and drinks. Château d’Yquem is always a good idea at the end of the night.
When I need to feel inspired, I walk – in the woods near my Connecticut home, in the city streets or in Ravello, where you feel as close to heaven as one can on earth. I also get party ideas from TV shows, magazines, advertising and from my kids.
My favourite app is Waze, which has been life-changing. Whether I’m in Asia or Europe or in the back of a cab in NYC, I have to know where I am going at all times. I’m also fairly reliant on Net-a-Porter, because I tend to need things immediately. And I have the Air France app on my phone, to keep me updated on the way to JFK.
The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Cindy Sherman. I love how she takes on different personas; I sort of do this in my own work as I am always playing a different role according to my client or a setting. I would also love to collect Jasper Johns – particularly his American-flag paintings. I am the most patriotic person you’ll ever meet.
The works of art that changed everything for me were by Sylvia Weinstock. She was a cake designer who made the most fabulous creations and we became fast friends while I was organising a wedding. She had a great impact on me because she was bold and unapologetic and stressed the importance of loyalty.
The best music to get people moving has to appeal to several generations. Start old-school and turn it into a dance party. A great party should transform over time. At a recent State Dinner at the White House, we finished with jazz musician Jon Batiste, who brought a playful element to the night. Everyone got out on the dancefloor, regardless of what language they spoke.
The best souvenir I’ve brought home is a pair of Murano vintage lamps that I bought at the Marché aux Puce many years ago. I’m a collector and buy things to be kept for the rest of my life. These lamps sit on a table in my apartment, but now they have black shades.
My beauty and grooming guru is Steven Rice, who does my hair – both the cut and the colour – and my make-up. I met him while I was in Mexico doing a wedding and we’ve been friends ever since. He comes to my home at odd hours and even cuts my kids’ hair.
The podcasts I’m listening to are the Harvard Business Review’s IdeaCast, which features entrepreneurial thinkers; and Deepak Chopra’s Infinite Potential, for its wide-ranging mix of guests who talk about living a purposeful life.
In another life, I would have been an architect – hands down. I like things that aren’t fleeting and that bring joy forever; buildings do just that. They stand the test of time and can act as places that welcome and protect.
An object I would never part with is an Alan Shields art piece. It’s about 14sq in and is made of clear Plexiglas and bits of tapestry and thread, and has a mirror behind which accentuates the whole thing. It sits next to a vintage Pierre Cardin cabinet from the ’70s and I love the contrast of materials.
The best bit of advice I ever received was to be courageous. My mom has always led by example. She came to this country and couldn’t read or write English, and always stressed the importance of being humble and grounded. She gave us kids the education and the lives we have today, and she’s the picture of courage.