Forging a New Craft Aesthetic: Ten Inspiring South Korean Designers

Photo of Sophie Finney
15 December 2016

Combining modern innovation with traditional techniques is no mean feat, yet contemporary designers from South Korea are doing just that. Creating objects that are at once both familiar and new, they manage to keep a firm grasp on the past whilst simultaneously looking to the future.

© Leeyan Kym N. Fontano/WikiCommons

In recent years, South Korea’s design scene has exploded. Boasting biennales dedicated to contemporary craft and design in Cheongju and Gwangju respectively, South Korea has a plethora of designers and craftspeople. The designers we have chosen represent just a small fraction of the talent, which is clearly in abundance within the country. A far cry from the gaudy K-Pop that one usually associates with South Korea, these designers take inspiration from their surroundings. Whether amplifying the beauty of natural materials, using found objects or emulating the biomorphic shapes visible in nature, these designers blend traditional techniques with modern innovation.

Choi Byung Hoon Table | © Gallery Seomi

Choi Byung Hoon

Described as the forerunner of Korean Art Furniture, Choi Byung Hoon combines exquisite craftsmanship with innovative design to create his beautiful pieces. Believing that ‘craft is secondary to the beauty of nature’, his work is focused on this ethos, and he experiments with form, texture and material. Rather than manipulating materials to the extent that they no longer bear a resemblance to their former identity Choi works with them, using the textures of wood and stone to play an important role in the finished article. By reinterpreting and modernizing existing ideas on the relationship between art and functional objects, Choi brings traditional techniques of furniture making up to date.

Jang Jin Ceramics | © R Gallery

Jang Jin

Ceramicist Jang Jin’s work transcends the worlds of art, craft and design. Striving to transform traditional ceramics into ‘living art’, she endeavors to make ceramic items that are comfortable for everyday use. Her pottery is created using simple, clean lines that tie in with Eastern minimalism and her delicate color palette of pale blues, greens and magnolias, are inspired by natural surroundings. Whilst she uses traditional celadon glazes that hark back to the Joseon Dynasty, her work represents a clearly modern aesthetic that has proved popular both within South Korea and the rest of the world.

Kang Myung Sun chair and footstool | © Gallery Seomi

Kang Myung Sun

Although her practice is based in traditional craft techniques, Kang Myungsung uses them to create highly luxurious and modern pieces of furniture. Specializing in the declining medium of lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay, Kang utilizes lacquer and inlay to highlight the beauty of natural form in her work. Inspired by the sea and biomorphic forms, the furniture she creates is light and delicate with soft, flowing curves that both embrace and challenge modern design. The highly iridescent mother-of-pearl inlay contrasts beautifully with the black or red lacquer, giving natural form a modern, monochrome finish.

Kim Sang Hoon Phenomena room divider | © Kim Sang Hoon

Kim Sang Hoon

Believing that ‘furniture should be regarded as another dimension of architecture’, furniture designer Kim Sang Hoon draws his inspiration from both nature and architecture. Objects such as the PHENOMENA room divider appears at first glance to be highly architectural with its clean horizontal lines. However, upon closer look, the form resembles rock strata, with the soft, undulating curves creating an optical illusion that appears at once highly architectural and highly natural. Whilst Kim considers his work to be a part of an interior architecture, he turns once again to nature in the selection of his materials, often working in wood, such as with the PHENOMENA Limited Edition, made from solid Ash wood.

Lee Hun Chung bench | © R Gallery

Lee Hun Chung

Highly innovative, Lee Hun Chung’s work is multidisciplinary as he uses a wide variety of media and practices, often combining seemingly incompatible techniques. Creating furniture using ceramics, wood, concrete and stainless steel, Lee somehow manages to create soft and fluid designs. Having described ceramics as a ‘three-dimensional landscape painting’, he creates interesting effects with celadon glaze using a hand built kiln, relishing the unpredictable results. Lee has an innate awareness of what he describes as the ‘landscape of human beings’: how one will live with and use his designs. He considers it highly important that his pieces are functional, and much of the work made from concrete and ceramics can be used successfully both inside and outside.

Lee Sam Woong octopus chair | © Lee Sam Woong

Lee Sam Woong

Interested in the relationships between people and their environments, and objects, Lee Sam Woong has long been fascinated with the role that design has to play in facilitating these interactions. In his Octopus series, Lee utilizes the natural beauty, reflectiveness and translucency of mother-of-pearl to create interesting effects when light hits the object. Using soft, biomorphic shapes for the furniture, the many pieces of mother-of-pearl give the object a life of its own, creating different perspectives depending on the light source. His furniture is a medium by which to connect people to their surroundings, by not restricting the way in which he approaches material, placing Lee at the forefront of innovation.

Bahk Jong Sun storage unit | © R Gallery

Bahk Jong Sun

Favoring minimalism and moderation in his work, Bahk Jong Sun creates furniture inspired by traditional Korean Hanok houses and traditional furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries. He combines this with the efficiency, practicality and clean lines of Scandinavian design. Preferring to use the beauty of the materials themselves, Bahk avoids adornment, with the exception of lacquer in either red or black. Instead, he focuses on the quality of the wood itself and the precision of the craftsmanship, placing importance on the ability to display the wood grain to its full potential. Although his work is simple and minimal, it certainly does not lack spirit.

Bae Se-Hwa chair | © R Gallery

Bae Se-Hwa

An interesting dichotomy between old and new techniques arises in the work of Bae Se-Hwa as he combines digitization with the traditional techniques of steam bending wood. His furniture, which has a rhythmic, sculptural form, is initially created by digitally rendering a geometric shape and manipulating it until the desired form has been achieved, balancing form and function. Bae then returns to the handcraft technique of steam bending wood to create the shapes required for the piece. Linked to Korean theories of divination, which encourages a harmonious connection to nature, his furniture simultaneously represents both the calm energy of flowing water as well as the quiet strength of a mountain’s silhouette.

Lee Jeong Eun nobody knows me | © Lee Jeong Eun

Lee Jeong Eun

With a seamstress mother and a jewelry designer father, it is hardly surprising that Lee Jeong Eun chose to become a designer. Incredibly multifaceted in her use of techniques and materials, she designs a wide range of furniture, lighting and jewelry that have a strong craft aesthetic. Having grown up surrounded by homemade toys, Lee developed a passion for Korean craft heritage and the relationship between craft techniques and materials. Using a variety of natural materials and found objects, Lee’s work has a folksy aesthetic that is bright and cheerful, with a sense of humor that lends itself to everyday life.

Lee Kwangho zip chair | © Lee Kwangho

Lee Kwangho

Having grown up in rural South Korea, spending much of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm, Lee Kwangho watched his grandfather create tools and objects from what he could find. This ability to manipulate materials into useful items inspired Lee, and he endeavored to work primarily with recycled, everyday materials such as styrofoam or rice straw. His Zip chairs, created from belting together bundles of rice straw and shearing off the top to form a seat, hark back to his childhood. ‘Zip’ (the Korean word for rice straw), is a familiar material to all Koreans, and Lee states that the English use of the word zip also applies as the bundles of straw are literally zipped together.

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