Kwangho Lee

11.25 2015 INTERVIEW DATE

Designer

Seongsu-dong, Seongdong-gu, Seoul

Designer Kwangho Lee makes furnitures that accentuate the charm of its materials. Works created by weaving rolls of electric wire and pvc hose or finishing metal surfaces with a variety of hues of otchil (Korean lacquer) allow us the opportunity to encounter the unfamiliar facets of the familiar, everyday materials. Although he is known to us as a furniture designer, he doesn’t bound his creations into a single category. Sometimes they are sculptures at commercial spaces, art works collected by art museums or just daily products, all made out of his usual materials, completing the varied spaces with much diversity. We paid a visit to his studio nestled in a red bricked building, where his discovery and experiment of materials continue to take place.

Yoojin Jung

Your major work is the woven light fixture, which triggered your fame. We read in an interview that you were inspired by your grandmother and mom’s knitting.

In the 1980s, during my childhood, my house was adorned with my mom and grandma's crochet works. So it was sort of like an imitation of them. In the mid-2000s when I began my career, the design industry was concentrated on mass production. Opposed to that, I was a lot more interested in making products made by hand instead of machines and I figured weaving wires into something was the best way to use my hands to mass-produce and the least wasteful of expending materials.

 

From wires, metal, otchil, marble, wood to acrylic; that’s a very wide list of materials you use.

Materials are always a big interest of mine so I constantly search for the next. The most popular work is the woven series but I’ve actually been working on my copper works since 2009. The woven chairs are shaped into clean, cubicle forms which ties in with the shape of my copper works so there’s always a connection that links my series with each other and an extension to another. When you focus on using a single material there’s likely a limit of forms you can come up with. And obviously if you stick to that single material, you will only end up with a narrow range of possible shapes and forms. So I constantly seek to discover and approach as many different materials as I can.

 

The proportions of your wooden furnitures are quite unusual.

Wooden furnitures in perfect and beautiful proportions already exist and it didn’t feel right for me to follow the same path. Besides, I personally like proportions that are a bit more fat or narrow compared to the average. So those are more attuned to my own taste rather than the preference of others, but thankfully, I’ve found people that like it.

 

You’ve been working as an independant designer over the past decade and today you’re also a father to three children. There must be some special emotion about enduring such time.

Compared to the average of Korean men’s ‘ideal marital age,’ I became a father pretty early. If my primary concern was about my financial state as an independent designer, it would’ve been a tough call to make our first baby. But my wife and I adore kids and that mattered more to us and so we now have three children. On second thought, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have saved big money even if we were childless. Raising them is not easy but they’re the strongest driving force of my life. Cuddling with them, kissing and sniffing the scent of their bare skin enables me to acknowledge life by instinct.

 

What is it like to live as a designer in Korea?

A designer is just another job out of the many. To be frank, I don’t live an artistic life. And raising kids doesn’t get that much different, you know. I have my work and also my duties at home and a number of other personal things to take care of so life goes on pretty tightly. I guess there’s a bit of a misunderstanding about certain professions. And I think it’s important that you become aware of this problem quickly. I only chose to become a designer out of all the jobs out there and this is one of the means to make a living. And because of that I focus on the simple but very important fact that I have to work hard. A job is just life and it shouldn’t sugarcoat it.

 

Your works are also included in today’s hot commercial places. Do you ever in some way feel a little ironic about that?

Yes, of course I do sometimes. But being a designer doesn’t mean that I have to transition my lifestyle into a highly sophisticated, trend-sensitive one. In the beginning I attended parties and gatherings quite often. I was curious about the people that came and what they were talking about. But sooner or later I realized that there’s always a limit in the chance and time of exchanging ‘real talks.’ Rather than to be at parties where only the loud music is left, I choose to spend time with friends and peers of similar fields that have similar concerns and talk about what it is that we should be doing and our true roles and things like that. Those mean a lot more to me.

 

We were told your first studio was located in Hongdae. What sparked you to move to Seongsu-dong?

It’s close to where I live and it allows great access to both Gangnam and Gangbuk areas. Most of all I liked the overall air of the neighborhood, framed by the many factories here. Years back it had a vibrant vibe of its own before the hip cafes and restaurants opened.

 

 What was your first impression of Seongsu-dong?

Out of the many reasons I left Hongdae was that it became a tourist attraction, meaning it wasn’t at all a proper environment for my practice. And like many say, Hongdae was no longer special nor fun. On the other hand, there was nothing special about Seongsu-dong which actually felt pretty special to me.

 

 There must be quite a change in the neighborhood compared to four years ago, when you first came.

First of all, it’s really sad to see my favorite places get replaced by others. I hear this word ‘gentrification’ on TV almost everyday, which was a strange word only a few years ago. It stings to witness the hard working people get kicked out of their places. When people that are engaged in similar fields of work gather in a certain neighborhood, that can spark a great motivation and encouragement to each other. Influencing each other, cheering each other, finding trust within each other--relationships like those can inspire you to keep going no matter what. But when a region becomes popular, the landlords start to sell. And what happens next is something we’re all very well aware of.

 

What was the Hongdae area like in the early to mid 2000s, around the time when you were in college and when you began your practice?

The foundation of today’s culture was already made as early as from the 1990s through the 2000s in Hongdae. Relatively speaking, I think the era I spent in Hongdae was a lot  more romantic. After the fast flow of giant capital, the perimeters of Hongdae started to expand very widely. Though before, Hongdae and the neighboring Sinchon and Ewha areas all had their own uniqueness but now it seems like they’ve all become one. Looking at a bigger picture, the whole city feels like it’s losing its own color. The words “Wonna go hang out in Hongdae?” from the past definitely doesn’t mean the same now.

 

As an alternative, its regional characteristics have shifted over to Sangsu-dong and Yeonnam-dong today.

It has but in a lot more sophisticated way. I seek for visual beauty throughout my practice but over-sophistication can feel a little cheezy. Our patterns of life, our culture, our ways of thinking are changing rather at a slow pace but things that provoke us to consume or entice us are too far ahead of us, so it’s more like chasing after other countries than keeping our own identity. I wish the classic, the sophisticated and the unfashionable culture blend altogether, rather than be focused on the refined side only.

 

Do you mean our real lives aren’t there yet but there’s just too much sophistication around us?

I wish the change takes place gradually. It should not just be blind sophistication but sophistication that levels with the surrounding. I don’t like places that are simply nice to look at, or pretty and neat and all. Grey toned interiors filled with plants or cactuses here and there have become a promised rule for interiors at commercial places, which I think makes it all a bit cheezy. I feel very uncomfortable about the fact they all follow the same formula. Simply put, it means there’s a lack of originality and I believe where there’s a clear identity, there’s always a lot more to tell.

 

Ah, before we forget, we noticed the old-modelled car parked in front of your studio. What kind is it?

It’s Volvo 940. It’s a 1994 model. I found a super well-maintained one. They say cars have certain ‘faces’ and today the cars are thought to equally render angry faces. The way I see it, old cars don’t have a specific face but rather seem more machine-like, which is what I like about them. Besides, I don’t think I’d prefer the up-to-date cars even in the upcoming years. I don’t have the money to buy a brand new one anyway. For some reason, I like everything that seems like they’re from the past.

 

RECOMMENDED PLACE

Seoul Forest

685, Seongsu-dong 1 ga, Seongdong-gu, Seoul
2 Ttukseom

“I wish my kids remember this place as one of their favorite childhood place where they had great fun with dad.”

 

 

Seoul Forest is a public park located on the 1,160,000 sqm area of Ttukseom, where it originally had been an old theme park favored by families that couldn’t manage the time to leave the city on holidays. Only 3 minutes away by foot, Kwangho Lee frequently takes his kids to the park whenever they visit their dad’s studio. He likes spending his free time amongst the richness of trees and take his mind off from his tiresome work while playing with the kids on the grass field. As he gazes upon families having pleasant times of their own, he longs for the tranquility of his everyday life to go on and withstand all of life’s storms and hardships that could perhaps shatter everything in a split second like the scenes in disaster movies he enjoys watching.