If Danya Li ’19 could only offer one piece of advice to students at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture, it would be this adapt but stay true to your character.
Li’s guidance comes from a place of professional and personal insight. Since completing the university’s rigorous five-year Bachelor of Architecture program and earning a minor in sustainable construction management, she has gained valuable experience – and achieved enviable success. Her achievements after graduation were fueled by her extensive skill set, versatility, and a strong sense of her own purpose.
Since graduating, I have been able to call myself an architectural designer, set designer, editor, doer, photographer and art director.
—Danya Li ’19
“I’ve wanted to be an architect since I was in seventh grade,” recalls the Massachusetts native, who chose Syracuse for its prestigious undergraduate program, currently ranked fifth nationally. “I only applied to schools that were in the top 20 for architecture,” she recalls. “When I got to Syracuse, I said, ‘This is it.'”
The field of architecture is challenging—both as a college degree and as a profession—but Li has long embraced his challenges. While pursuing her own professional path, she also serves as the editor for the School of Architecture’s annual thesis publication, managing 110 projects and sharing her expertise with current fifth-year students who want to make a difference with their final designs.
Put small things in perspective
Li’s own thesis work was a diorama model entitled The Denuded Image – an exploration of how photographs can affect and distort our understanding of space. “When I entered senior year, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she admits. Guided by her own interests and the advice of Professor Nicole McIntosh, she designed a project that was nominated for the jury of the school’s 2019 Thesis Prize.
Her foray into miniatures led to an unexpected opportunity when she was asked to design sets for Manhattan vintage furniture retailer Coming Soon. “I definitely didn’t expect to do set design or miniatures after graduation,” says Li, whose Instagram presence sparked a growing interest in her talents. “My diploma thesis prepared me to seize this great opportunity, even if it wasn’t necessarily the path I had planned.”
Within months she was approached with more clients and model design projects and in late 2020 she was designing sets for the holiday collection for one of her favorite retailers, Brooklinen. “People are so mesmerized by miniature creations,” she says, recalling the delight her friends and followers enjoyed at the tiny radiators she created for the project using 3D printing skills she learned as a student.
Although the demand for her design skills came as a surprise, Li quickly adapted to customers’ needs and learned from each experience. “Every single project has been so insightful because clients want different things. It’s about applying the crafts and skills I learned during school,” she says. “It’s crazy, but I really never expected to have so many projects built by now.”
Embrace the possibilities
As a student, Li took every opportunity to immerse herself in everything the college had to offer. Semesters abroad in Florence and London inspired her professionally and made her want to live overseas. “London is one of those cities I want to live in for the rest of my life,” she says. “I would love, love, love to end up there sometime if I could.”
She also joined the Delta Gamma sorority, which offered a social life outside of what Li puts the “architecture bubble” and led to friendships she will cherish for life. “They were the people I could come home to and relax with,” she says. “I just can’t imagine my college experience without her.”
Through the School of Architecture, Li landed a summer internship at an architecture firm in New York City prior to her senior year. “I learned a lot during this internship and really enjoyed being in New York,” she says. The position introduced her to valued mentors and gave her hands-on experience—as well as a clearer sense of the options that would be open to her after graduation.
Forward on their own terms
The process of becoming a fully licensed architect involves a series of daunting exams that many aspiring architects must repeatedly take before passing. Although it’s common for young professionals to earn this license over several years while working in a company, Li has other ideas. “I’d like to create a separate path of freedom so I can choose what I want to do, when I want to do it,” she says.
After spending much of the pandemic at her family’s Massachusetts home, Li is philosophical about her future path. “I’m a firm believer, ‘if it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be,'” she says. “I was able to be home and help my mom take care of my dad for the last two years before he died, and now I have a beautiful new chapter ahead of me.” This new chapter includes a move to Brooklyn with his boyfriend and fellow alum Ryan Oeckinghaus ’19.
It’s about using the manual skills and abilities I learned during my school days
—Danya Li ’19
She has also embarked on an exciting new freelance project with Madelynn Ringo, another architectural designer who is drawing on her training to create unique spaces for brands. “I have a really strong brand design sensibility, and this work is so much fun, it’s hard to believe I’m getting paid to design for these dream clients,” says Li, who showcases her architectural photography skills in this new role further expands.
In the meantime, she remains associated with the Syracuse School of Architecture as a dissertation editor, sharing her knowledge with students and working with the school’s dean, Michael Speaks, the director of the dissertation, Kyle Miller, and Mark Linder, the professor who taught one of her Favorite Courses Taught – Architecture Theory. “You know that I have this unique perspective of being a recent graduate and that I know what students are going through and what to tell them.”
As Li looks to the future, it seems grounded in determination and self-discovery. “Since graduating, I’ve been able to call myself an architectural designer, set designer, editor, maker, photographer and art director,” she says. “You have to be true to your own character. And at the end of the day you end up where you belong.”
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