Lee Cheong obituary

Interior designer who transformed schools, hospitals and care homes with the innovative use of colour and light

My brother Lee Cheong, who has died aged 74, was an interior designer who created inspiring public spaces that touched the lives of thousands of schoolchildren and hospital patients. He was one of a generation of postwar designers who helped transform the dull institutional atmosphere of Britain’s state sector.

A lifelong supporter of the NHS, Lee worked on more than 40 projects across Britain, developing designs that were optimistic, efficient and, above all, appropriate to the needs of patients and hospital staff. His innovative use of light and colour – he was the first to introduce pink hospital beds – was a feature of his stylish simplicity and vision.

Lee was born in Limehouse, east London, to Ah Tay Cheong, a merchant seaman, and Bessie (nee Simmonds), an office cleaner and housewife. He was the second oldest son in a family of 12 children. When he left St Paul’s Way school at 15 he was something of a tearaway, with no qualifications and no plans for the future.

But his fortunes took a remarkable turn when a chance meeting on the street with a friend on the way to an evening art class led to an unexpected invitation. Would Lee join him? Despite some misgivings, he went along.

It proved to be a life-changing moment. Inspired by the creative atmosphere and the open-hearted welcome and encouragement he received at the class, Lee discovered new enthusiasm and hidden talent. A three-year course in interior design at Hornsey School of Art followed and then a further year at the London College of Furniture.

Nottingham Breast Unit reception, which Lee Cheong worked on.
The Nottingham breast unit reception, which Lee Cheong worked on. Photograph: Handout

He could have made a career in furniture design. Some of his early works were chosen for the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in the early 1970s and, almost 50 years later, a number of his designs are still in use (I sleep on the bed he made for me).

His first full-time job in 1973 was with Coventry county council, as specialist furniture designer for schools, colleges, disabled people and care homes. Five years later, he joined Wessex regional healthcare authority in Winchester, where he dedicated himself, as principal interior designer, to rethinking the design of public healthcare buildings.

In 1990, in the wake of privatisation, he and some former Wessex colleagues set up their own specialised unit to continue this work.

He spent the later years of his career as interior design director of the Building Design Partnership, where his work was heavily influenced by guidelines for sustainable development drawn up by the Natural Step, the international network of non-profit groups that focuses on principles of progress with low ecological and social impact.

Looking back on his life, Lee reflected that it was “people who mattered”. Not only was this key to turning his life around, but it underpinned his design philosophy.

He is survived by his wife, Maureen, and his two children, Gus and Milly.

Jannette Cheong

The GuardianTramp

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