In conversation with Kwangho Lee

Designer Kwangho Lee studied at Seoul’s Hongik University, learning metalcraft and product design. For his graduation show in 2007, he explored traditional processes like weaving and basketmaking, as well as more contemporary ideas like using knotted nylon wire.'

Switching paths to pursue furniture design, installation and interiors, Lee’s practice has evolved to incorporate a mix of common and unconventional materials, from wood and stone, through to Styrofoam and copper, enamelled using a traditional kiln-fired process known as ‘chilbo’. In this way, Lee has used elements of his jewellery training to enter a new realm, often retaining the rough-hewn finishes that represent the processes at work. The woven chair from his ‘Obsession’ series illustrates his love of creating form from woven materials; using both nylon wire and leather, the densely packed materials take the shape of a traditional chair. More recently, Lee has branched out into a collection for Swedish makers Hem, which incorporates 3D printed elements and tiles alongside conventional materials. He is currently working on solo shows in Milan and Seoul for next year.

How did you start your journey as a designer?

My major was in metalcraft because I initially wanted to be a jewellery designer. However, for my graduation project in 2007, I created some bespoke lighting designs using hand-knotted electrical wiring based on traditional weaving methods. This project lead to an offer to exhibit at the Commissaires design gallery in Montreal, Canada. At that point, I changed my whole life and direction – it wasn’t my original plan. At the same time, I think part of me also wanted to be a sculptor, so I’m still looking to take a sculptural approach in my work. My teacher at university once told me that smaller things were much harder to design than larger things, so if we learned techniques for jewellery, it would be much easier to scale these up, rather than the other way around. And people around me said that if you started working on a large scale, you couldn’t ever go back to a smaller scale. So essentially I was lucky – I was told that I could do anything.

Did you find yourself focusing on tiny details as a result?

I just love doing things with my hands. I never had big goals for my design work, so the result is always a bonus. This handcrafted approach is what drew me to VOLA. I’m always very happy to see their process of creating products – it reminds me of everything I learned as a student, from metal spinning to working with copper, clarifying fine details and finishes. It was quite a moving experience to see this. As a result, I really love the brand.

Your work often uses a very strong, impressively diverse palette. Why this emphasis on colour?

I’ve always been curious about colour and what it means to people. I actually have a problem with my vision and colour processing – I’m slightly red/green colour blind. That’s why I started to use very strong colours, so they were easier to distinguish. I believe that the way I see colour is different; it’s part of my process.

Do you enjoy reinventing traditions?

I don’t think I have any fixed way of describing my designs. When it comes to the word ‘tradition’, I don’t see that as the right way of describing any part of my life and work. However, ‘craft’ is a very different matter. Ultimately, what I want is to still be working when I’m in my 60s and 70s. In order to do that, I have to keep evolving.

Aside from the traditional craft processes you reference, were there any other designers or artists who inspired you?

When I was a young student, I respected and admired people who everyone knew. But now, people around me who consistently do something of their own or who create something that is their own in various fields seem to give me a lot of strength and inspiration. Not just design or art but also music, film, actors, singers, fashion designers, scientists, etc. Sometimes I feel these people are like colleagues and strong supporters, even though I haven't met them. They constantly motivate me.


What are your thoughts on the nature of timeless design?

When I started out, my principal focus was on making things well. As a result, everything had to be timeless, because it would hopefully last forever. That’s a good connection with VOLA, because many of their products were designed over 50 years ago, yet they still resonate today and have stayed desirable.

Is it important or exciting to you to think that something you’ve created today will potentially exist for a very long time?

There will always be those people who want something new again and again. But at the same time, there are people who are nostalgic and have a connection with the past. I want to create things with heart and a story, so that they can be passed down the generations.

You often work with prosaic materials like nylon rope and PVC tubing. How do you make a distinction between creating products with a potentially infinite lifespan and those can be recycled back into their constituent parts?

I don’t want to create a big separation between the two. For example, I never start with a big concept about sustainability, I just want to make things that last. I live a sustainable life as much as possible – I’ve just moved to Jeju Island in South Korea. It is a famous volcanic island which has a unique eco-system and very beautiful landscapes. In fact, I’m a kind of ambassador for the place. Connection with nature is very important – it benefits society as a whole, even though the world sometimes seems to be going a bit crazy.

Do you deliberately try and transform the everyday into more enduring objects?

Not really. I thought about this back in the beginning. It seemed natural to me because of how I grew up. My grandparents were farmers, and I saw them transform everyday materials into useful tools. As I mature, I understand more and more what it means to create something so valuable. As to why I don’t use natural materials, it just doesn’t feel right. To me, things like PVC piping are the raw materials that should be transformed instead.

You’ve recently collaborated with the Swedish furniture company Hem. How do you think Korean design culture relates to Scandinavian design culture?

I don’t have a straight answer for this – it’s definitely something I’m searching for. I would say that my art and approach isn’t representative of traditional Korean design. I get a lot of offers to collaborate, and sometimes I wonder what they’re seeing that I don’t see. I’m still looking! But perhaps there’s an international feel to my work. To be honest, I’ve spent most of my life in South Korea, so it’s a weird feeling to get this attention.

Do you ever plan to live and work somewhere else, outside of South Korea?

I did once think about moving to Belgium. Unfortunately, the security situation wasn’t good at that time and as a result my family was not at all keen. Now I live on Jeju Island I’m exploring more local areas, which has widened my eyes and given me a much broader view of the world.

How is your approach to design comparable to your peers, especially in South Korea? Do you think your work stands out?

I would say it stands out. But I was tenacious. When I was at university, I wanted to do something different, even if it caused problems with my professors.

VOLA is sometimes described as a minimalist brand, but your work is often maximalist and expressive. How do you feel about this difference?

I suppose it’s true. Although my work is about expression on a much larger scale, I feel a strong connection with the crafts and processes VOLA use. But there’s always room for minimalist design and maximalist design to co-exist.

How about your future plans?

I’m currently designing a house for myself on Jeju Island. It’s quite a minimal house, very small, but this allows me to design absolutely everything - it has been a fun project to work on. My wife runs a children’s bookstore and there’ll be a store on the ground floor of the house. It will be a very colourful space. Of course, I’m going to use VOLA everywhere, in the brushed copper finish. I’m also currently preparing for a solo show next year, which will be more sculpture than design. In addition to Hem, there are other brand collaborations in the works which I find really exciting.

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