Hair how-tos and curious chairs: The best projects from Seoul Design festival

Sitting down with designers and brands at this year’s festival, we get into their work, references, and K-design at large.

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If you were to walk into one of the most striking structures in Seoul – Dongdaemun Design Plaza – just weeks ago, you would have found some of the city’s freshest projects across product design, architecture and branding organised under one sculptural roof.

Seoul Design festival has been running for 21 years and, during that stretch, 5,615 designers have been spotlighted through the event. The idea of the festival is to act as a stepping stone, for designers to be discovered by an international audience and for visitors to step into the burgeoning design scene that exists in Korea. Organised by Seoul Design Foundation and Seoul Metropolitan Government, this year’s edition operated under the “hot potato” theme of sustainability, as the Foundation’s design industrial support team manager Jung Hyosoon puts it.

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5unday: Seoul Design 2023 (Copyright © Seoul Design, 2023)

But, first, Seoul Design confronted the elephant in the room when it comes to sustainability: lip service is high.

“I don’t know the meaning of sustainability,” said Shigeru Ban in a talk with Designboom founder Birgit Lohmann and Design House CEO Lee Young-hye. Reflecting on his work creating paper structures – like his famed cardboard cathedral – and using recycled materials “before it was a buzzword”, the architect addressed how we need a complete reappraisal in architecture today about what passes for good design. After all, how can a beautiful concrete structure that will last no longer than a few years continue to be seen as successful?

We saw this theme tackled in countless ways when diving deeper into the festival, from individual projects to installations exploring emergency housing. But there was optimism and even playfulness too – the festival identity even, has moved from a more “luxurious” tone in previous years to something fun and readable, according to Jung Hyosoon. Here are a few projects that caught our attention within the DDP and the topics on the minds of their designers, from the challenges of sustainable production to a trend-soaked market.

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5unday: Seoul Design 2023 (Copyright © Seoul Design, 2023)

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E&W Design: Seoul Design 2023 (Copyright © Seoul Design, 2023)

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E&W Design: Seoul Design 2023 (Copyright © Seoul Design, 2023)

Story of Chair

Collaboration was a key theme throughout Seoul Design this year. In the Young Designers section, students were paired with corporations, while a whole hall was reserved for 60 collaborative projects made between working designers. One such project was Story of Chair.

Its creators Jang Seung-tae and Kim Jae-yong – an artist and designer, and commercial designer, respectively – both met online on the DDP Platform, where creatives could upload their works and hunt down collaborators whom they felt an affinity with. Together, they created a chair-art piece, with a base that resembles a slab of orange marble.

“Plastic chairs are significant and symbolic in Korea,” says Seung-tae. The artist tells us about the blue plastic chairs you commonly find outside of convenience stores in Seoul, and how you often hear chair legs scraping against the concrete late at night (the blue plastic element in Story of Chair is derived from this reference). The marble bottom of the chair is made from production excess – leftover shredded sponge wrapped in PVC plastic. “People tend to think when you see a sofa, you see the materials used for that piece,” says Jae-yong; Story of Chair attempts to show the excess that is ordinarily hidden.

Like many other projects across Seoul Design, Story of Chair engages with sustainability. But its designers push further, asking if production can ever be sustainable. “I know in Europe and globally there’s a lot of talk going on about eco-friendliness,” says Seung-tae. “But it can’t be a trend. It needs to be the baseline.”

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Jang Seungtae and Kim Jaeyong: Story of Chair (Copyright © Jang Seungtae and Kim Jaeyong, 2023)

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Yinka Ilori x MCM: There is Good in All of Us (Copyright © Yinka Ilori / MCM)

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Yinka Ilori x MCM: There is Good in All of Us (Copyright © Yinka Ilori / MCM)

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Yinka Ilori x MCM: There is Good in All of Us (Copyright © Yinka Ilori / MCM)

Yinka Ilori x MCM

A collaboration between the luxury fashion brand MCM and the British artist and designer Yinka Ilori could also be found. The project explores the concept of upcycling via ten chairs in electric colourways, with extra legs protruding from some and telescopes jutting from others. The material for each was sourced from leftover MCM products and invites us to find beauty in discarded objects. Hence the telescopes; the public is invited to look into the chairs and see beautiful refractions.

It’s interesting to see Yinka’s work in this context. This collaboration is his first ever time exhibiting in Korea – a market where he is less-known, according to MCM. But at Seoul Design, his ambition to connect with audiences through colour and storytelling is as successful as ever. After we heard about the urgency of sustainable practices in the opening panel, it’s uplifting to see the joy that can be derived from methods like upcycling too.

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Yinka Ilori x MCM: There is Good in All of Us (Copyright © Yinka Ilori / MCM)

Brushlab

In the Young Designers section, we were transfixed by some screens playing how-to videos featuring people washing their hair with what, in truth, looked like alien-looking brushes. The project was the work of four students at the University of Seoul Department of Industrial Design – Jiham Lee, Dayeon Kim, Celynn Kim and Yeongwon Lee, in collaboration with the corporation Amoredo Pacific Lab.

The students were responding to the boring task of hair washing. “It’s a bit repetitive and mundane”, says Celynn Kim. “Some of us can be lazy and just wash our bangs, and kids often don’t like washing their hair.” So the group developed a set of playful brushes that help make the process more fun. Then they created a whole ASMR-inspired brand, complete with lab infomercial videos and graphics. The project has since been picked up by prestigious media outlets like Monthly Design in Korea.

Despite the clear evidence of creativity at the core of this project, Celynn says it can be hard as a designer to grow your own identity and personality in the current landscape. “If you look into the development of Korean design, it has been led by the government. One characteristic of this is it has a lot of fast changes in terms of design trends.” Dayeon Kim confirms: “These days we see things that have been influenced by too many places.” Still, it’s hard to not feel optimistic after sitting down with student designers who are keen on forging their own path. Dayeon, for example, is interested in the visuals of design relics from hundreds of years ago – “I want to continue the legacy of this calm aura now.”

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Jiham Lee, Dayeon Kim, Celynn Kim and Yeongwon Lee: Amoredo Brush Lab (Copyright © Amoredo Brush Lab)

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Jiham Lee, Dayeon Kim, Celynn Kim and Yeongwon Lee: Amoredo Brush Lab (Copyright © Amoredo Brush Lab)

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Jiham Lee, Dayeon Kim, Celynn Kim and Yeongwon Lee: Amoredo Brush Lab (Copyright © Amoredo Brush Lab)

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Jiham Lee, Dayeon Kim, Celynn Kim and Yeongwon Lee: Amoredo Brush Lab (Copyright © Amoredo Brush Lab)

When Seoul Design first began linking designers with businesses, “it was a challenge to match people”, says Jung Hyosoon, with only eight pairs in its first year. This year, Seoul Design matched 280 designers with brands, each creating projects similar to these four students from University of Seoul. It’s a different format to that which you might find from the likes of London Design Festival or similar, but this more corporate approach has clearly given way to exciting concepts, and possibilities for the designers behind them. We look forward to see where this rapidly expanding event goes next.

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5unday: Seoul Design 2023 (Copyright © Seoul Design, 2023)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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