Our definition of success can be quite different at different points in our lives. We oftentimes look back at what could be regarded as tremendous success and, using the lens of a different life phase, re-evaluate, seeing very different challenges and contributions that we may find more meaningful. Roy Kim is in this process right now, evaluating how he can make the world a better place.
Making the World a Better Place Through Design
“We all have these two mountains to climb,” says designer Roy Kim, referencing the David Brooks book he has recently read, “The first mountain is about achievement, money and success whilst the second is about becoming who you truly are and focusing on what matters to you.” Considering Kim has worked on over $40 billion worth of new developments — a portfolio that includes skyscrapers, iconic residential apartments and luxury condominiums — effectively changing New York’s skyline, I’d say he’s reached the summit of that first mountain. But after two decades of building a career in luxury real estate, Kim’s decided to begin his second ascent: parting ways with the big-shot companies in which he made a name for himself to launch his own thing. “I’m coming back to my roots. It was never my goal to work in luxury; people associate me with luxury because I worked there for a long time,” he explains. “I believe my true purpose is to make the world a better place through design — if you are only working for the ultra-rich, it’s a very small segment of the population.”
Part of Roy climbing his second mountain is his recalibration of what is important in his daily life. He now begins each day with meditation, followed by prayer, and then sometimes reading the Bible. “The most impactful spiritual teacher for me has been Eckhart Tolle. Living in the present is literally the most impactful thing any of us can do. It’s the simplest and the hardest, like many of the fundamentals in life: giving and receiving love. One of the reasons I love my dog so much is that, when I’m with her, I’m in the ‘present moment,’ especially when we are out walking.”
Living in the Present
As we are writing this, Roy is on a cruise ship off the coast of Thailand during the global coronavirus outbreak. “This whole cruise has also been a lesson of ‘living in the present.’ In the past, I would have been very upset about this entire episode, but I am learning more and more that if you focus on the present, 9 times out of 10, things are just fine — your ego is making up the rest. I would say, a pretty profound place to test living in the ‘now’: being marooned on a cruise ship in the South China Sea, as the coronavirus is breaking out!” More about this interesting travel experience soon.
“Where do we want to go from here?”
Taking the vast experience he accumulated working with some of the top names in the industry (as well as a hefty Rolodex), Kim now splits his time between designing interiors and providing design consultancy. Since starting his own business, the pace of his life has also drastically changed — he and his husband got a place upstate to get away from the city buzz from time to time. And it’s not just Kim — he says several of his friends of the same age are going through a similar shift: “Politically, what’s happening in the world is forcing us to think like this. Most people are so depressed with what this political administration has done to harm people, to harm the environment, harm the social fabric of the country. It’s forced us to step back and ask, What have we accomplished? What have we done with that wealth? Where do we want to go from here?”
“If you ever move, I’m your guy”
The idea that quality of life is not, and shouldn’t be, necessarily connected to affluence was something Kim understood early on. His childhood in Calgary wasn’t well-heeled, but it was as rich as it gets: orienteering, skiing, and sailing were all part of his school curriculum. “I went to a regular public school but had a world-class education,” he reminisces. Like many Koreans in Canada, Kim’s parents owned a grocery store and it was whilst watching and helping them out there that Kim started to develop a strong work ethic. Filling items on shelves also made him realize that he had a very spatial and visual mindset: “I can pack like nobody! If you ever move, I’m your guy,” he laughs. Years later, at architecture school, Kim found out that his aptitude for filling spaces with objects went well beyond the grocery store. He fell in love with design, a field that encompassed for him a passion, mission, profession and vocation all at once. Finding his raison d’être, that thing for which you don’t mind putting in those extra hours and sleepless nights, meant Kim began a very steady ascension up the career ladder.
Top-Class Employments From the Start
He won a fellowship at university and his very first employments were already top of the class: working with renowned architects such as Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas. The frill of it all didn’t get to Kim’s head, however. He would notice all the things swept under the rug in these shiny offices, be it unpaid internships, or unfair treatment of employees. Even more important than his curriculum, Kim was building an image of what he truly was, or what he didn’t want to be, at least. “These very fancy, respected, internationally known companies really get you in the door — it impresses people — but from what I’ve seen it’s really what you bring to the experience. I started learning that lesson very early.”
Shaping the New York Skyline
By 2006, Kim was living in New York City, his work having shifted from pure design to design and real estate. That’s when his life really changed gears; he was working round-the-clock on constructions that were literally shaping the city’s skyline. “Being on the developers’ side, there were no barriers between you and the work — you are paying the bills and doing the work,” he reminisces of his years as senior vice president at Extell. “We did everything, from finding the site, deciding what it will be, developing a strategy for this new space, then a design strategy, what kind of buyer we would target, hiring an architect and designers and managing the design team.” Working on such distinguished projects, Kim also had the chance to hire some of the world’s best architects and designers, bringing them together to make ideas come to life: “Combining them is not as simple as it sounds. You have to be able to create a team that will complement each other very well. It was an amazing education to see how all of these global world-class designers are approaching their work.”
“A good interior should really uplift you”
Roy Kim has none of the pomp and pride you’d expect from someone who has made a career in luxury real estate in the Big Apple. He’s built gigantic skyscrapers, but he continues to rise: “I have really been trying to discover what it means to live in your true being. That’s my second mountain,” he says. Through his several developments, both spiritual and physical, Kim keeps his feet very much on the ground. “Design is really not about price or money,” he says. “A good interior should really uplift you, it should do all the things you expect from someone that loves you; it will make you feel supported and good. We, designers, are by nature a spiritual group of people. We are taking care of people, at the end of the day.”