Seoul: Printed Matter, Politics, and Performance
Four studios talk about the current design scene in South Korea’s capital
Translation by Sehee Lee
Photography by Brendan Pascoe
Last fall, Google Design sponsored the 2016 AGI Open in Seoul, South Korea. A two-day design conference for students and professionals put on by Alliance Graphique International — one of the world’s oldest design organizations — the event is open to anyone interested in the subject. For a sampling of talks by emerging and established designers from the conference, you can watch our AGI Open Seoul playlist. While in Seoul for the event, we had the chance to visit a few studios around the city — to better understand the culture of design in the South Korean capital and to meet designers where they work. Below you’ll find highlights from each of the visits, and a chance to get to know the designers in their own words.
Studio: Sulki & Min
Year Established: 2003
Members (pictured above, from left to right): Min Choi, Sulki Choi
Location: Yeongtong-gu, Suwon-si, Gyeonggi-do
The first thing you notice when walking into Sulki and Min Choi’s airy, second-floor office space, is row upon row of books. The library includes a highly organized personal archive, alongside a comprehensive collection of design classics — including three rare copies of beloved Dutch graphic designer Karel Martens’ Printed Matter. Sulki and Min work predominantly in print, and the library acts as a window into their prolific practice, highlighting a love of typography, and a wide-ranging interest in subjects far beyond graphic design. We sat down to discuss blending the personal and professional (they married and started a studio together after graduate school), Seoul’s community of designers, and how to successfully balance structure and confusion.
Bryn Smith: You recently moved your studio to a residential neighborhood outside of Seoul. Has that changed how you work?
Min Choi: We had a new baby so we wanted to be much closer to home. It’s very residential and quiet, which we like. Some people think it’s important to be in the right neighborhood, and we thought that too when we were moving from Changsung-dong. But it doesn’t really matter where you are.
“We don’t aim exactly at the middle ground between chaos and order, we like to have both at the same time.”
— Min Choi
BS: How did you decide to start a publishing imprint?
Sulki Choi: We started Specter Press in 2006, when we first came back to South Korea after working in the Netherlands. We had books that we wanted to make but we couldn’t find a publisher to support us, so we became the publisher. That’s the practical reason.
BS: What kind of books do you make?
MC: We make everything from straightforward monographs, to publications that are themselves works of art, as well as books on Korean design history and Korean translations of existing texts. We’ve been working with Sasa , an artist friend of ours, to make a series of personal annual reports for the last 10 years — we had our doubts at first, but now we’re convinced we should keep the project going. These personal annual reports document mundane things like the number of movies Sasa  attended and how many bowls of jajangmyeon he consumed over the course of a year. They’re really about quantity, repetition, and compulsion, and each year is different. Making books is the easiest part of the whole process. Selling them is much more difficult.
Studio: Everyday Practice
Year Established: 2013
Members (pictured above, from left to right): Joonho Kwon, Kyungchul Kim, and Eojin Kim
Location: Yongsan-gu, Seoul
At the top of a steep hill in the neighborhood of Yongsan-gu, Everyday Practice occupies the first floor of a tiny, brick apartment building. Their work spills out of every room — poster archive, photo studio, and ad hoc workspaces take the place of bedrooms and a common living area. Eojin Kim, Kyungchul Kim, and Joonho Kwon joined forces three years ago, combining their backgrounds in typography, commercial design, and art respectively to pursue work with Korea’s many non-governmental organizations and cultural groups. What sets Everyday Practice apart is a keen focus on politics, human rights, and other social causes.
BS: What principles inform your work?
Joonho Kwon: Designers have a voice in society and can even influence change. When we started our studio, we decided to focus first on the kind of messages we wanted to deliver, and then on the design tools to deliver those messages. We try not to adhere to certain styles, and instead look for the proper visualization, which could be a photograph, an installation, or even an interaction.
“There is a huge gap between the design world and real life.”
— Joonho Kwon
BS: How is the design community in Seoul changing?
JK: Ten years ago, there were no small design studios like us. There were mainly commercial agencies with a lot of hierarchy between designers. Recently there’s been a shift. Larger cultural clients are starting to look outside agencies for something different and less commercial. As a result, Korean design feels much more diverse.
Studio: Jin Dallae & Park Woohyuk
Year Established: 2004
Members (pictured above, from left to right): Jin Dallae, Park Woohyuk
Location: Mapo-gu, Seoul
Dressed in black and white, the performers trace set paths across the darkened room, stepping in time to the rhythmic beat of an unforeseen clock. Entitled “Moving Present,” the performance is part of an exhibition by Jin Dallae and Park Woohyuk at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul. Partners in life and work, Jin and Park have shifted their focus beyond traditional design, embracing video and large-scale installation and staging exhibitions that explore the influence of order, rules, and patterns on everyday life.
BS: As collaborators, how do your individual approaches inform one another?
Park Woohyuk: When we work together, problems can arise because of our different styles. My way of working is more organized and systematic. Jin Dallae likes unexpected things, unintended coincidences — she’s more intuitive. We are able to better understand our weaknesses by collaborating with each other. For example, I sometimes lack a sense of freedom when designing, while she is the opposite. For us, collaboration involves making sure that both of us are happy, at every stage of the project.
“Don’t follow anyone’s advice, because there is no right answer.”
— Jin Dallae
BS: Your most recent work, on view at the MMCA, is an installation that combines looping video, performance, built structures, and repetitive sound. Can you tell us more about the conceptual framework?
PW: Unlike our regular design work, for our exhibitions the principal theme is always rule and order. The title of this piece is “Moving Present,” which speaks to the present as a collection of short, repeated moments.
Jin Dallae: The reason we feel that every day is the same is because of the daily norms and rules that govern our lives. They’re much like animated GIFs, which have become a cultural phenomenon. Consumed without any particular context, the images begin to spread and go viral. One moment can totally dominate the present.
PW: Life seems like a succession of different days, but in the end, you’ll see the same events repeat themselves. These short video clips actually reflect the reality of our world. But like these looping videos on the internet, our life is just endlessly repeating itself every day.
Studio: Na Kim
Year Established: 2008
Members: Na Kim
Location: Jongno-gu, Seoul
Nestled in a sunny, third-floor walkup, Na Kim’s studio is a riot of bold color and geometric shapes, much like her graphic oeuvre. Trained as an industrial and visual designer, Kim brings a singular sensibility to printed matter, and displays a special affinity for form. Over coffee, we discussed her recent residency at Doosan Gallery in New York, her ongoing collaborations with local galleries and bookshops, and her upcoming talk at the AGI Congress.
BS: When GRAPHIC started, you worked as the magazine’s designer and editor. How did you balance the two roles?
Na Kim: It’s a bit funny to divide cleanly into designer and editor because that’s not the way I work — it’s harder to define. Often the design really defines the editorial direction, like with #16, the Type Archive issue. It was quite a rare experience to have that kind of freedom as a designer, but it also came with a lot of responsibility.
“I’m working in the boundary between art and design. I quite enjoy the role, but I have to put more effort into defining these two dimensions of my work.”
— Na Kim
BS: Your work is often cited as moving freely between art and design. Does that sort of distinction affect your process?
NK: The question I’m asked most frequently is, Are you an artist or are you a designer? I always say that this is a really unnecessary question. What’s most important for an artist or a designer is how to define your language. For designers, you already have a language — because you’re involved in the process, you’re communicating with the client, and you know what the result will be. I’m definitely a designer, but I’m also making art, and I don’t want to put one side in the dark. Many artists are also exploring design, so if you look at it from the outside then everything is mixed, and that definition is not really as important.