If Danya Li ’19 could give just one piece of advice to students in Syracuse University’s School of Architecture, it would be 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’s gained valuable experience—and had enviable achievements. Her post-graduation accomplishments have been driven by an expansive skillset, versatility and a strong sense of her own goals.
Since graduating, I’ve been able to call myself an architectural designer, a set designer, an editor, a maker, a photographer and an art director.—Danya Li ’19
“I wanted to be an architect since I was in seventh grade,” recalls the Massachusetts native, who chose Syracuse for its renowned undergraduate program, currently ranked fifth in the nation. “I applied only to schools that were in the top 20 for architecture,” she recalls. “When I got into Syracuse, I said, ‘This is the one.’”
The field of architecture is demanding—both as a college major and a profession—but Li has long embraced its challenges. While she carves out her own professional path, she also serves as editor for the School of Architecture’s annual thesis publication, managing 110 projects and sharing her expertise with current fifth-year students who aspire to make an impact with their final designs.
Putting Small Things in Perspective
Li’s own senior thesis was a diorama model titled “The Denuded Image”—an exploration of how photographs can influence and distort our understanding of space. “Going into thesis 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 school’s 2019 Thesis Prize Jury.
Her foray into miniatures led to an unexpected opportunity when she was approached to design sets for Manhattan vintage furniture retailer Coming Soon. “I definitely didn’t expect to be doing set design or miniatures after graduation,” says Li, whose Instagram presence sparked a growing interest in her talents. “My thesis work prepared me to take advantage of this great opportunity, even though it wasn’t necessarily the path I’d planned out.”
Within months, more clients and model design projects came her way, and by late 2020 she was creating sets for the holiday collection of one of her favorite retailers, Brooklinen. “People are so mesmerized by miniature creations,” she says, recalling friends’ and followers’ delight at the tiny radiators she created for the project using 3D printing skills she learned as a student.
Although demand for her design skills was a surprise, Li quickly adjusted to meet clients’ needs and learned from each experience. “Every single project has been so eye-opening because the clients want different things. It’s a matter of using the craftsmanship and skills I learned throughout school,” she says. “It’s crazy, but I truly never expected to have so many built projects by now.”
Embracing the Possibilities
As a student, Li seized every opportunity to immerse herself in all that college had to offer. Semesters in Florence and in London inspired her professionally and gave her a taste for life overseas. “London is one of the cities I want to live in for the rest of my life,” she says. “I would love, love, love to end up there eventually if I could.”
She also joined Delta Gamma sorority, which offered a social life outside the “architecture bubble,” as Li puts it, and led to friendships she will treasure for life. “They were the people I could come home to and decompress with,” she says. “I just can’t imagine my college experience without them.”
Through the School of Architecture, Li landed a summer internship with an architectural firm in New York City before her final year as an undergraduate. “I learned a lot during that internship and I loved being in New York,” she says. The position introduced her to valued mentors and gave her real-world experience—as well as a clearer sense of the options that would be open to her after graduation.
Forging Ahead on Her Own Terms
The process of becoming a fully licensed architect includes a series of daunting exams that many budding architects must take repeatedly before passing. Although it’s common for young professionals to pursue this licensure over several years while working at a firm, Li has other ideas. “I’d love to pave a separate path of freedom so that I can determine what I want to do when I want to do it,” she says.
After spending much of the pandemic at her family’s home in Massachusetts, Li is philosophical about her unfolding path. “I’m a firm believer in ‘when it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,’” she says. “I was able to be home for the past two years helping my mother take care of my father before he passed, and now I have a beautiful new chapter ahead of me.” This new chapter includes a move to Brooklyn with boyfriend and fellow alum Ryan Oeckinghaus ’19.
It’s a matter of using the craftsmanship and skills I learned throughout school—Danya Li ’19
She’s also pivoted to an exciting new freelance venture with Madelynn Ringo, a fellow architectural designer who draws on her training to create unique spaces for brands. “I have a really strong brand design sensibility, and this work is so enjoyable it’s hard to believe that I’m getting paid to design for these dream clients,” says Li, who continues to expand her architectural photography skills in this new role.
Meanwhile, she stays connected to Syracuse’s School of Architecture as thesis publication editor, sharing her wisdom with students and working with the school’s dean, Michael Speaks, thesis director Kyle Miller, and Mark Linder, the professor who taught one of her favorite courses—architectural theory. “They know that I have this unique perspective of being a recent grad, and that I know what students are going through and what to say to them.”
As Li looks to the future, she seems grounded in a sense of purpose and self-knowledge. “Since graduating, I’ve been able to call myself an architectural designer, a set designer, an editor, a maker, a photographer and an art director,” she says. “You have to be true to your own character. And at the end of the day, you’ll end up where you belong.”