Juwon Han+Saejoong Kim

02.22 2017 INTERVIEW DATE

Studio COM, Interior designers

Bogwang-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul

Studio COM (pronounced C.O.M, http://www.studio-com.kr), located in Bogwang-dong, was established by two young designers Juwon Han and Saejoong Kim in 2015. Whether it be space, furniture, exhibition or stage related—everything three-dimensional, their skillful practice crosses borders and particularly stands out in the field of designing exhibition spaces, where it’s notorious for its tight budget and schedule. Breaking the conventions of obvious art & culture spaces, they are being conceived as the messiah of those and are recently expanding their realm in directing commercial interiors that also set them apart from others. It seemed pretty clear to us that the two rather plain-looking men were the most inspiring creators of Seoul today. We took a look inside their studio and their latest work in Gyeongnidan-gil, a bar named Substance.

Yoojin Jung

Could you tell us how the two of you first met?

(Han) I had a birthday party held at my place and had designer friends based around this neighborhood over, who also brought their friends, and their friends’ friends, and that’s when I first met Saejoong. He was this quiet, reserved guy but after the party, he’d send greetings every holidays and also come over to my house even though our friendship had yet to build. Back then I was working as an independent designer right after graduating from college and Saejoong was assisting an interior designer, looking forward to opening his own studio someday. And friends kept encouraging us to work together with the idea that we’d get along pretty well, work-wise. So we kind of owe them for that.

(Kim) Although we didn’t know each other well, we agreed to team up for possible projects and our first was to design the space for an exhibition <Mr. Pavilion> at the Arco Museum, held by Junglim Foundation. The show was about architects proposing new ideas on pavilions. We didn’t realize until we finished the project that we hit it off pretty well and that we could keep working together.

Considering you didn’t know each other well, how did you reconcile your ideas in the beginning?

(Kim) Back then neither of us had a decent studio so we decided to start working on the rooftop of my house and whilst at it, we exchanged a lot of our thoughts on architecture and design and etc. When you’re not so close with someone it could get awkward so we tried to keep the conversation going.

(Han) Actually, that was more awkward.(laugh) Saejoong would ask “Hey Juwon, do you like these?” and show me pictures of brutalism architecture from his phone, and I’d go “Yeah, actually, I like them too.” showing him similar photos from mine. In fact, it was wicked.

What were your first impressions? Do you see each other differently now?

(Kim) Juwon is a completely different person from what I had thought. I thought he was this meticulous person who makes thorough plans but he’s more of a person that goes by his impulse. This other friend had the impression that he’d listen to minimal music but actually he’s a great fan of rock music from the 80s and 90s, like some mid-aged guy.(laugh) I’m a lot more cautious and usually take pauses along the way but Juwon just boldly heads forward so I think we’ve got this nice synergy going between us.

(Han) Teaming up with a careful and deliberate guy like Saejoong enabled me to expand our boundaries of work. Well, Saejoong is the same guy as I imagined in the beginning. There’s this steadiness about him.

How did the name ‘studio COM’ come about?

(Han) Saejoong had one already in mind which was ‘Computer Carpenter.’ It sounded too indie-like so we tried to think of something else.

(Kim) We’re terrible at building names. We had rock bands, song titles, even names of nursing homes on our list. We later went with ‘COM’ but then people thought it sounded like a tech company that went under. We were heartbroken when one of our clients called us ‘studio.com.’(laugh) Actually, we thought of changing our name even until recently. We had absolutely forgotten about how designer Giljong Park from Giljong Arcade advised us, that we shouldn’t think too hard and come up with a name everyone can easily search on the internet. And we soon realized the fatal problem. When you type in ‘COM,’ you get every possible sites that exist on the web, including porn and gambling sites. But the name had already spread across pso we decided to stick with it and say that it’s short for ‘composition.’

You opened your first studio in Bogwang-dong. Is there a specific reason you chose the neighborhood?

(COM) Both of us usually oversleep in mornings so we looked for a place closest to our homes and this neighborhood was right in the middle. There are quite a large number of graphic design studios such as the ones we’re close with, ‘Works’ and ‘Sunlight Studio,’ due to a cheaper rent. Ours used to be a laundry for 20 years so the ceiling is very high. At first we didn’t notice it because the place was full of laundry hanging above us but as the place cleared up, we noticed that the height was unusually high. So we made two tall bookshelves to make the best of it. Friends told us the shelves made us look very ambitious…(laugh)

As creators, how do you perceive Seoul as a working ground?

(Kim) For the past few years, Euljiro has come in the limelight among us creators. Creative people in Korea cannot go past the region because this is where everything you need is found, materials, parts, workers and traders and all sorts but paradoxically, it lacks craftsmanship. I’m pretty sure there’s a limit to what you can create from there, creativity-wise.

(Han) Most of the creative people are inspired by Euljiro but I also agree that there’s a certain limit. The region may look fascinating to the general, but the machines, the materials are all industrial so you can’t get better finishings or qualities. The level of a country’s production in fact depends on its infrastructure. When we look at some of the products from abroad, you just can’t picture how they are made. I mean, the level of its basic material is higher. To our opinion, Giljong Arcade uses the best out of Euljiro. We can’t imagine any other that would do better.

Where does studio COM get creative inspirations?

(Kim) If you take a good look at our productions, there’s a repetition of structure. Majority of the projects we worked on had tight budgets so we usually finished them with a single material. They all lacked the process of covering the inner structure with an outer one so it sort of enabled us to use the unworked, raw material and expose them as they were, which relates to our favorite brutalism architecture. Furthermore, rather than focusing on the functionality only, we try to glam up a bit with sculptural structures.

(Han) My pastime is to drink beer and watch old music videos from my ipad. I love the confidence of the 80s and 90s music videos, which created them unbelievably beautiful under this economic prosperity. They do look cheesy as we’re in the 21st century, but I personally think our generation doesn’t chase things beautiful anymore. I think the colors of children’s books I saw as a child and the stages of music videos, all those sensitive emotions I acquired daily have eventually come to life through my practice.

Studio COM opened at the end of year 2015 and earned its fame in a flash. We presume you’d have many thoughts on your future path.

(Han) We usually designed exhibition spaces that collaborated with graphic designers. With short lead time and low budget given, we decided we’d concentrate on appliances and furnitures instead of finishing the whole space. The choice we made under the circumstances of a low budget was to go experimental with cheap materials. We’d use cheap construction materials such as MDF, particle boards, plywood. The structures we came up with kind of caught the attention of exhibition related groups, which led to our gradual growth. And I think because our ‘know-hows of the poor’ has molded our foundation, the homogenous sophistication produced by other interior designers feel rather too distanced.

(Kim) We do have the urge to succeed commercially while pushing forward with our own style. But when I look close, it seems like people see it obvious to make things pretty and cool. Well, we’ve got a whole ocean of things nice and pretty out there. Nonetheless, we want to actively use materials we purposely didn’t use and still build our own style. To be frank, nowadays we’re in this phase where we’re reflecting on ourselves, wondering why we became known to a lot of people in such short period of time. And I think we certainly had that unique esthetic sense that came from building every appliances and space with our own hands. That experience we’ve had, experimenting through our hands in order to take the intolerable lightness of cheap stuff and turn them into something beautiful, along with the failures we had, have become a great source.

 

 Would it be correct to describe studio COM as designers and manufacturers at the same time?

(COM) Yes, and we think that’s our strength—being designers while being manufacturers too. Unless it’s a project that’s too big for us to handcraft everything, we’d always want to keep our hands busy. In the beginning we couldn’t help but to do the woodwork ourselves due to the budget but now, the self-manufactured woodwork has become our very own way of designing and manufacturing.

All outfits and shoes worn by studio COM is YMC – You Must Create(http://www.youmustcreate.co.kr).

RECOMMENDED PLACE

Cosmos Wholesale

2F, 29 Euljiro 11-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
2 3 Euljiro 3-ga
010-5630-6699
14:00-20:00(Wed-Sat), 14:00-22:00(Sun), closed on Mon·Tue
  PRICE RANGE

“It’s quite amazing how they find all those rare, crazy stuff.”

After you climb up the steep stairway of an arcade in Euljiro, you’ll find a store that pulls all things universe through its door. It’s filled with magazines, vinyls, videotapes, board games, t-shirts, toys...everything cute and ugly and scary. The store was established by a photographer, artist, fashion designer and editor, each collecting their own favorites to sell. “We sell what we don’t want to sell. We are cute.” As you can tell from its introduction, this is quite an exciting place, stubborn and strict with its unstated rule.