Nº 270
Focus:

Graphic Seoul

Text: Sul-Ki Choi, Sung-Min Choi

Sul-Ki Choi and Sung-Min Choi are the duo behind the Seoul-based design studio Sulki and Min, which specialises primarily in graphic design for cultural institutions. Their work to date includes corporate identities, publications, and advertising for museums, galleries, publishers, foundations, and artists.

Having studied in South Korea and the US, they both now teach graphic design and typography themselves at the Kaywon School of Art and Design respectively at the University of Seoul. Here, they give us an overview of the South Korean graphic design scene and offer insights into the relevance and characteristics of both established and up-and-coming designers and studios.

 

Sitting between its larger neighbours, South Korea is often seen as just another Asian culture, despite the people’s pride in its distinct identity, most clearly felt in its own (designed) alphabet called Hangul. This was a persistent, if high-minded concern in the development of modern South Korean graphic design: a struggle to articulate its cultural identity in the work of a profession that was formulated by foreign ideas (as there is no indigenous word for “design” in Korean) and promoted as an economic tool for a fast-developing country. Sang-Soo Ahn’s Hangul typography from the 1980s was a radical answer to this problem: a reconstruction – not a mere application – of modern design principles in the Korean context. In the main, designers were just busy building design businesses in the booming economy.

Then in the mid-2000s there was a break along with some young designers who decided to go independently. These new practitioners – including ourselves and other designers introduced in the following – often put forward their own personal interests in their work, challenging the notion of the designer as a subservient professional. Some of them started publishing books and magazines, while others created works for exhibitions. The borders between design and other fields appeared increasingly blurred: if you were a designer, then you could also work as an artist, publisher, author, or all of them at the same time. Graphic design looked fun again.

This, of course, is not a unique story. All of this must sound familiar to a European or North American reader. But compared to other Asian cultures, it is perhaps not such a common story. And it was certainly not an expected development in the corporate-dominated South Korea, not even in the aftermath of the burst of the dot-com bubble. No wonder many people saw it as an unsustainable fad.

But the pattern has sustained, even while the Korean design industry at large has been suffering a slow growth. New studios were set up (some by college students), new sources of inspiration were found (mostly on the Internet, and rarely in some mystified “traditions”), and new outlets for their work were created (the small yet vital independent publishing market, epitomised by the wildly successful Unlimited Edition Seoul art book fair). Through this development, the question of cultural identity has become increasingly irrelevant to many designers, who are already busy enough exploring their own interests.

The works shown here – represent by no means a comprehensive coverage, but simply a small section of the diverse scene – should testify to the liveliness and richness of those explorations. We do not care if they are “South Korean enough”. (Do you ever worry if your work is, for example, German enough?) But they are all meaningful – and beautiful – in ways that are specific to this culture and society. And that should be good enough for a representation of South Korean graphic design.

Find the following graphic design studios from Seoul in form 270: Na Kim, Sunny Studio, Dong-Shin Kim, Byung-Rok Chae, Workroom and Workroom Press, Jae-Min Lee, Studio Hik, Sung Kim und Kijo Kimm.

 

Ahngraphics Typography Lab

agfont.com

Founded by graphic designer and typographer Sang-Soo Ahn in 1985, Ahn Graphics has been one of the most influential design studios in South Korea. Recently, the Ahngraphics Typography Lab – the firm’s research and development unit set up in 2012 – started making interesting contributions through its historical typeface revival projects. If revivalism has always been a feature of Western typography, it’s a new phenomenon in South Korea, where the relatively short history of modern printing meant that many things had to be made from scratch.

 

Min-Kee Bae

baeminkee.com

Intellectual inquiries and formal experimentation are not separated in Min-Kee Bae’s work, who earned his PhD with a study on information visualisation. Still his work, although hyper-conscious and precise both in its visual and verbal forms, is not dryly academic, but full of wry jokes and surprising details. The posters and the exhibition “Put Up and Remove”, which he created based on the information found on the Internet about how to put up posters and how to remove stickers from a poster, is a case in point.

 

Everyday Practice

everyday-practice.com

Although they have engaged in projects of diverse nature, Everyday Practice’s work seems to be strongest – and most distinctive – when it’s socially and politically committed. While small-scale, artisan-minded design studios tend to be self-contained and inward-looking, the three partners of Everyday Practice (Joon-Ho Kwon, Kyung-Chul Kim, and Eo-Jin Kim) are not afraid of reaching out to the community to make a difference in people’s lives.

 

Eun-Joo Hong and Hyung-Jae Kim

keruluke.com

For the past few years, Eun-Joo Hong and Hyung-Jae Kim have been among the most prolific design practices in South Korea, creating graphic identities, promotional materials, and publications for major art institutions and newly founded spaces, as well as publishing the vital cultural magazine Domino. Their playful and hands-on approach is especially vivid on the websites they make – with conceptual ingenuity and editorial integrity, but without the excess of slick polishes.

 

Jin and Park

jinandpark.com

Working both as graphic designers and artists, Dal-Lae Jin and Wook-Hyuk Park’s work shows an apparently seamless integration of these two activities. The simple and suggestive forms combined with a sense of humour are evident throughout different mediums, including graphic identity, printed matter, publication, installation, and performance. We already introduced Jin and Park in form 267.

 

Waterain

waterain.kr

Waterain is a union of the writer Jong-Sori Kim and the graphic designer Eun-Jeong Hwang. “From the inspirations of the material, we produce the nonmaterial and return it to the material.” Notwithstanding the somewhat cryptic motto, their work was made of urgency: the need to give concrete – material – expression to the young Korean artists’ efforts to organise independent events and venues for their work. The Scrap, an innovative photography art fair, is a recent example and was a big success last year – also thanks to the effective branding by Waterain.

 

OYE

o-y-e.kr

As a significant feature of independent publishing and zine culture, risography arrived in South Korea in the late 2000s and early 2010s with print shops respectively design studios like Green Greem, Busan or Corners, Seoul. Hezin O or OYE, (a frequent collaborator of Corners) effectively exploits the materiality of the digital stencil printing process – including its shortcomings. Her knowing appropriation of graphic illustrations from bygone eras underpins a perception of risography in South Korea, which is sometimes called retro printing.

 

Practice

we-practice.com

While many contemporary graphic designers have been trying to expand their boundaries, Yoon-Seok Yoo’s studio Practice has been holding on to the more traditional roles of the profession, working with diverse clients, not at all limited to cultural institutions. Apart from the consistently simple and bold solutions, their work displays the merits of a collaborative approach that is not dominated by the principal, but channels the individual talents of the staff (currently Ji-Yeon Yoo, Hong Kim, and Won-U Lim).

 

Shin Shin

okhyeok.egloos.com

Dong-Hyeok Shin and Hae-Ok Shin emerged from the Typography Workshop, a student-organised, self-learning group at the Dankook University in the late 2000s. Informed by otaku-level knowledge [editor’s note: otaku is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests] of design and its history, Shin Shin creates works of strong ideas with an obsessive attention to detail. They have also been instrumental in the development of the experimental music scene in South Korea, providing visual expressions for artists, labels, and programmes.

 

Shrimp Chung

cargocollective.com/shrimpchung

The self-proclaimed screen-based designer Shrimp Chung creates posters for music events and parties – at which she also often deejays – which are better known as animated GIFs circulating the social networks than in their actual printed form. But the effects of her work do not remain in the Internet. As a vocal feminist, Shrimp Chung has produced materials for fundraising events and parties. And together with Hye-Mi Yu and Vakki Park, she also created “Jabchinda”, an exhibition that explored design and gender-related issues.

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Nº 270. South Korea
Mar/Apr 2017

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