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Korean designer Kwangho Lee sits in a lounge chair he made entirely from natural materials - wood, latex foam, cocomat (coconut fibre) and wool. Photo: Jihoon Kang

After K-pop, K-drama and K-fashion, could Korean design be the next big cultural phenomenon out of Korea?

  • Korean music, TV, food and fashion have been huge in the last decade. Author Fiona Bae says K-design is next, and tells the story of this burgeoning industry
  • From interior designer Teo Yang to Kwangho Lee, an artist making stools from garden hoses, Bae spotlights this wave of talent, and other K-style trailblazers

Four billion views on YouTube don’t lie: disco anthem “Gangnam Style”, released in 2012 by rapper Psy, put Korean culture front and centre on the global stage.

The world wanted more. What would become known as the K-pop phenomenon gave rise to K-fashion, K-drama, K-beauty and K-cuisine, a trend spawned in Asia and quickly picked up by Western markets.

Now, in Make, Break, Remix: The Rise of K-Style, a new book examining what sparked it all, author Fiona Bae predicts that K-design will become the next Korean wave.

And that, in itself, will be by design. “Through the Korea Institute of Design Promotion, the government has been nurturing design talent for decades, focusing on supporting students and designers who are combining design and technology,” Bae says.

Author Fiona Bae.

“As a result, Korean designers have mastered a unique combination of technology, use of new materials with craftsmanship, and digital know-how – that’s a very refreshing look that resonates with many different cultures,” she adds. “It also feels warm and human-centred, which I think is something we all crave.”

Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, the now London-based author has lived around the world, including four years in Hong Kong. There, an assignment to consult on Korean design perspectives for the city’s M+ museum of visual culture sparked an idea for the book.
The cover of Bae’s book.

“When I looked at the rising global influence of K-culture, I realised people consume it as a mere image, and there was very little to explain why and how it had happened,” she says.

“I also noticed many people were asking if this was a fad. By the time I finished [writing] the book, I’d become much more confident that it will last.”

The book does a deep dive into Korean music and fashion. But, having worked alongside Korean designers, architects and artists in her role running her international communications company, Bae wanted to tell their story, too.

‘We design in the East, for the East’: architect’s celebration of Asian style

“The Western world has long been interested in Japanese and Chinese interior design and I see our contribution to design as the next phase of K-style,” she explains.

“For example, interior designer Teo Yang has introduced a distinctive style that originated from traditional Korean aesthetics but is quite different from Japanese or Chinese influences.”

In the book, Yang – who was named one of the 100 best and most creative global interior designers in the 2021 book By Design, published by Phaidon – shares his journey to professional self-discovery. His portfolio includes hand-painted wallpapers, among them “The Art of Learning”, for British company de Gournay.

The Art of Learning, a hand-painted wallpaper Teo Yang designed for British wallpaper company De Gournay. Photo: Shim Yun Suk, Studio Sim

On returning to Korea after studying abroad, he started out designing “pretty spaces that pleased clients”. However, on moving to a traditional house, a hanok, in the oldest neighbourhood in Korea, Yang was struck by its “wisdom and aesthetics” – noting with sadness that such buildings were being lost to redevelopment.

“This pushed me to steep local value and heritage in modernity through new interpretations,” Yang says. “I let go of projects looking for pretty features and built up a portfolio infusing Korean traditions and aesthetics with contemporary design.”

Similarly, Kwangho Lee, an artist and designer also featured in the book, has taken Korean furniture design onto the world stage with a contemporary take on a traditional skill.

Artist and designer Kwangho Lee, in his studio.

Channelling the ancient chilbo firing technique used in jewellery making, Lee cut his teeth as a designer hand-crafting fine cherry wood furniture inlaid with jewel-coloured enamelled copper panels.

He’s also made lamps from tangled electrical cables, stools from woven garden hosepipes, and a sofa carved from a block of white styrofoam.

In a new collaboration with Swedish furniture brand Hem, Seoul-based Lee has created The Hunk lounge chair and Glyph side table made entirely from natural materials – wood, latex foam, cocomat (coconut fibre) and wool.

Lee’s stool made from garden hosepipes.

“I like simplicity within complexity,” Lee tells Bae. “While it doesn’t stand out from far away, the authenticity and the power of the material are felt when you come close.”

Korean architecture is gaining international recognition as well, Bae notes. “In addition, there is an array of young architects who are designing bold and outstanding buildings across Seoul.”

Among the 21 creators and 18 “trailblazers” interviewed in the book, many are well-known names. However, Bae says it is filled with insights they’ve never revealed before.

Chef Mingoo Kang, founder of Hansik Goo, in Hong Kong. Photo: Hansik Goo
Among them: why chef Mingoo Kang, founder of Michelin-star restaurants Mingles in Seoul and Hansik Goo in Hong Kong, turned his hand from fine dining to cooking Korean street food (Hyodo Chicken); how drag performer Nana Youngrong Kim is changing perceptions of the Korean LGBTQ community; and how fashion brand Mischief’s founders are creating a movement among young women to be more vocal.

Bae will discuss Make, Break, Remix: The Rise of K-Style, published by Thames & Hudson, at Marc & Chantal Studio in Central, Hong Kong, on Wednesday, November 23. To register, email [email protected]