Creation in Korea

Though you could certainly be forgiven for being unaware of it, Seoul (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) has been the official World Design Capital (WDC) for 2010. In what has been a pretty scanty itinerary of events, the highlight of the design year, the Seoul Design Fair, is on until October 7th in Jamsil Sports Complex. With my visiting parents as curious as I was to see where modern Korean design is at, the three of us went for a look-see on Sunday morning.

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An oft-repeated mantra about Koreans is that, due to certain cultural factors, they lack creativity. Korean schools, it is said, stifle critical and creative thinking by emphasising rote learning above all else, while the rigid hierarchy in business and academia discourages initiative. To some extent, this remains true. Despite having some of the biggest car and electronics companies in the world, no Korean company has ever produced an iPod, a 5 Series or even a Walkman.

As usual with such generalisations, though, it’s exaggerated and often plain untrue. Having worked with several creative companies in Korea, I’ve seen how cultural mores can impede the flow of ideas – with, for instance, underlings (myself often included) afraid to pipe up in front of the boss. But I’ve just as often been taken aback by the inspired notions I’ve heard from Korean editors, writers and designers.

In addition, having acknowledged the importance of design, Koreans have now taken to it with characteristic zeal. Seoul alone now has in the region of 11,000 design students, and the most interesting stuff on display at the Seoul Design Fair was the fruit of student design projects. Ranging from advertising and architecture to clothes and consumer knick-knacks, the pieces in the university exhibits made a mockery of the notion that Koreans aren’t creative.

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Besides a few displays in Jamsil’s main pitch area and a sizeable “Designer’s Market” of quirky clothes, accessories and gadgets, much of the rest of the fair was taken up with furniture and interior displays from Japan, Germany, Spain and elsewhere. Nice as some if it was, the selections were often uninspired and seemed rather pedestrian in comparison with the more adventurous stuff the Korean students had come out with. While no-one is claiming that Korean design is yet on a par with that of design titans like Sweden and Italy – and though a good chunk of Korea’s top designers still feel the need to study abroad to gain the necessary expertise – Korea has both a long history and an exciting present in design. The problem, as it often is here, is a failure to get that message across overseas and sometimes even to Koreans themselves. And sad as it is to say, Korea’s potentially fascinating but largely unknown World Design Capital status is symptomatic of how this continues to be so.

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