With the opening of Spirit of jang-in: treasures of Korean metal craft at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Joanna Bayndrian has a close look at Korean design.
There has been a flurry of Korean cultural activity in Sydney recently with 2011 being the official Year of Friendship between Australia and the Republic of Korea and the celebration of fifty years of bilateral relations. The Powerhouse Museum presents its own exhibition titled Spirit of Jang-in: Treasures of Korean Metal Craft. Highlighting a wealth of material covering the Korean Bronze Age to the present the exhibition displays the distinctive style of Korean design. Spirit of Jang-in will give Australian audiences insight into one of the world’s preeminent design cultures introducing a rich visual milieu.
Australian engagement with East Asia has been dominated by Japanese and Chinese material cultures for the better part of two centuries. Japanese culture and design strongly represented at nineteenth century International Exhibitions and Japonisme and Chinoiserie became popular in the interior design industry. Post-war globalisation of Japanese manufacturing, pop culture, and the recent boom in China’s creative industries ensured the spotlight presided over Korea’s closest neighbours. The aesthetic approaches of minimalism and naturalism have been traditionally framed by many influential design theorists like Bruno Munari as radiating from a Japanese epicentre. Japan and China shared the limelight while Korea quietly occupied the back seat.
Geo-politically the histories of Korea, Japan and China are intimately intertwined, and cultural and artistic fusion has been natural. There are many idiosyncrasies and overlaps, cuisine being only one of them. So what makes Korean material and visual culture distinct? What are its points of difference from the better-known aesthetic traditions China and Japan? Looking across a variety of design fields we see products that are distinguishable for their clarity of form and coherence, arrived through a unique combination of industry and a connection with nature.
Historically, metal is one of the most striking materials dominating design practice in Korea. According to Powerhouse Museum curator Min-Jung Kim, metal is used for telling stories of Korean history and culture. Metalwork can be understood as manifestations of the spirit of jang-in: an artisan’s self-consuming mastery of their craft. While some pre-modern metal craftsmanship was produced for Buddhist ritual practices and mirrored designs from China, Korean metalwork exhibits some unique qualities. Korean eating utensils made of metal are distinguishable from the porcelain spoons and wooden chopsticks found in China and Japan. The indigenous hammering technique of bangjja yugi was once used to craft copper alloy tableware: sets of non-decorative dishes that appeared in sets of three, five, seven or nine; a set of twelve was reserved only for the King.
Other metal artefacts are distinguishable for their decorative motifs. A silver-inlaid bottle currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection, that was once thought to be Chinese, has since been identified as originating from Korea in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries due to its waterfowl and willow motif. By the late Joeson period (1392–1910) fauna and flora of the Korean mountains increasingly displaced typically Chinese symbols such as the dragon and phoenix in many areas of artistic production. The ‘true-view’ approach to landscape painting came to prominence in the eighteenth century which, as its name suggests, favoured representations of local scenery and nature over more distant Chinese subjects.
Hangul—the Korean written script—is perhaps one of the most distinct elements of Korean culture. Developed in the fifteenth century in a move toward cultural and linguistic autonomy from classical Chinese, Hangul represents the world’s youngest phonographic script. Two style blocks of moveable Hangul metaltype are showcased in the Spirit of jang-in exhibition. Publishing in Hangul, a standardised script, was a key development in the movement toward mass literacy in the Joeson period. It was not until more recent times that the distinctive script was also embraced as a vocabulary of design. Pioneering typographer Ahn Sang-Soo was one of the first to break with the time-honoured traditional Hangul on realising the script’s aesthetic and artistic currency when it is transformed into multiple fonts. He explains ‘from the 90s we became aware of a Korean design identity. And this identity is anchored in our Hangul’.
Across a number of design fields Korea’s creatives are leaving their mark. Big-names such as Lie Sang Bong and Zinoo Park in fashion design, Kim Baek-ki in architecture and industrial design, and furniture designers Chulan Kwak and Choi Byung-hoon are building a reputation for contemporary Korean design on the global stage. While designers today increasingly prescribe to the ‘design as art’ dictum, the minimalist, naturalist qualities of traditional crafts are reaffirmed in contemporary practice. The renowned furniture designer and artist Choi Byung-hoon expresses ideas of weight and balance through his work. Using materials such as wood and stone, Choi is able to emphasise the material’s natural curves and forms. Metalwork remains a strength of contemporary Korean design too. Jeweller Sim Hyun-seok, who exhibited at Studio 20/17 as part of Sydney Design 2011, creates flawless sculptures depicting everyday objects that are close to the wearer, such as doors and chairs.
Spirit of jang-in features pieces from his camera series: minimal structures notable for their technical precision and geometric clarity. Also feature in Spirit of Jang-in is Melbourne-based jeweller Jin-Ah Jo. Jo explores the idea of knowledge rearrangement in the bi-cultural experience through her pendants: bulging half-spheres bound together to create hybrid forms. She also designs pendants in the shape of Hangul characters, an ode to her Korean design identity.
The city of Seoul is the centre of contemporary Korean design production and exhibition, infiltrating all aspects of popular and public culture. The city itself has some remarkable design features that challenge earlier associations of the capital as a ‘grey’ urban centre dominated by monolithic housing structures. Seoul was named the World Design Capital 2010, a title awarded to a city that has executed visions for economic and cultural development through the use of design. This program has seen the dissemination of an official Seoul colour palette and seven new Hangul typefaces. Measures such as these are intended to create visual harmony for Seoul’s public spaces. Currently under construction in the heart of the city is the Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza. The concept behind the structure is ‘metonymic landscape’, or the return of the city to nature. The much anticipated completion of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza will no doubt confirm Seoul’s pending status as a global Mecca for design.
Considering the wealth of Korean material and visual cultures today, it is clear that an important facet of the ‘Korean Wave’ is indeed Korean design. From metalwork to furniture, design concepts and products stamped ‘Korea’ should continue to appear in Australia’s museums and galleries well after the Year of Friendship has concluded; and appreciation of the distinctiveness of Korean design will no doubt continue to grow.
 Michael Fitzpatrick, (2008) “Typography is the trunk of the tree”: The emergence of Korean design.” Creative Review 28(7), p. 40.