11 September 2008
Michael Fitzpatrick
The emergence of Korean design

Michael Fitzpatrick

Within the past twenty years, South Korea's design sector has moved forward in leaps and bounds. In this week's Feature, Michael Fitzpatrick looks at the history behind this creative turnaround with the help of Ahn Sang-soo, a past Icograda Vice President and South Korean "visual communications master".

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 edition of Creative Review and has been republished with permission.

Above: Typo Ivy, a permanent installation on the exterior wall of the Lock Museum in Seoul (2007). Designer: Ahn Sang-Soo. Client: Lock Museum. Material: aluminum.

It was only a trip from her flat to Seven Eleven but art student Lee Danbi was wearing a cocktail dress, Cleopatra earrings and full warpaint. "Style is everything in Seoul especially in Hongdae,"says the 23-year-old, referring to the area where she studies. "Design has totally taken over Korea. I'd never leave the house without at least putting a decent frock on," This is the area where South Korea hatches and develops much of its creative prodigy - architects, interior designers, advertising creatives and graphic designers - at a rate never seen before.

"Twenty years ago South Korea was a basket case creatively speaking,"says Kim Kyung Sook a journalist who covers South Korea's cultural scene. "But now, I'd say, we are punching above our weight internationally."

This tiny country perched on a peninsula that sticks out of the Asian continent like a swollen appendix has come a long way since its only creator of international note was pioneering video artist Paik Nam-june who died two years ago. Artistically-minded South Koreans had a lot to battle against - a right wing dictatorship for one that only ended in the 80s. It forbade international travel for most and freedom of expression, outside of government propaganda, was a no-no. Even in more democratic times, South Korea still has problems with its excessive streak of control freakery - Japanese books and media were banned until very recently.

The result is a nation fundamentally unsure of itself when it comes to the visual arts and one that still comes under criticism for too closely following (or simply plagiarising) work from Japan or elsewhere. But now after decades in the wilderness and too many bare-faced rip-offs, South Korea's communication arts are a little more surefooted: like its Japanese neighbour, the country is slowly developing its own graphic language.

Seoul has become the biggest draw mostly because to enter the nation's number one university - Hongik in Hongdae - is seen as essential in this society obsessed by qualifications and academic standing. It is here, too, that, set amidst the jumble of concrete and acres of Korean language (or Hongul) signage that characterises this city of 12 million, you will find students poring over magazines in shops dedicated to every aspect of design mostly from the west. Through publications such as Creative Review (CR), they absorb foreign influences, blending them with their own fast-paced, digitised approach to visual arts.

Working just outside the walls of the behemoth Hongdae Art University you will also find Korea's foremost visual communications master, Ahn Sang-soo, who has overseen South Korea's conversion from inarticulate backwater to the exuberant dynamic scene we see today. Ahn says it is no accident that South Korean communication arts is characterised by displays of naivete, frenetic energy and brashness mixed with uncertainty - "Korea is in its teenage years,"he says, explaining that the lynchpin of Korea's identity and its greatest graphic asset, its unique alien-looking Hangul script, is relatively new.

Above: Letter works for Bogoseo/Bogoseo fanzine (1989) by Ahn Sang-soo.

"Six hundred years ago, before Hangul, everything flowed from China: We shared the same cultural territory, the same world view. Creating Hangul changed all that. It became the vessel of the culture," Ahn says.

Hangul is the youngest of the world's phonographic scripts. It was drawn up by a cabal of Korean scholars in 1443 as a way of stamping a nationalist selfhood on a people forging an identity separate from China. They were also determined to simplify and bring some logic to the terrifyingly complex Chinese script. "It meant cultural independence from China if not political autonomy," Ahn says.

What they came up with was nothing short of stunning for the times - breaking away from Chinese to forge an extremely modern alphabet of only 24 characters. Korea was poised to become a world leader, if a secluded one, in publishing, particularly as the new script came hard on the heels of the country's invention of the first printing press with movable metal type, nearly 80 years before Gutenberg.

"If we didn't have Hangul we wouldn't exist," says Ahn. Understanding how this revolutionary, very modern, minimalist script came to be is the key to understanding the Korean creative processes, he says.

However, Hangul isolated Korea culturally somewhat. "In recent history Japan has always been closer to the West," Ahn says. "Its slogan for development was 'escape from Asia to Europe'. We in Korea, on the other hand, are the most lately developed, internationally speaking."

So, naturally, South Korea's contemporary visual art history is very short, really only getting started in the 60s and then suffocated because of politics until after the Seoul Olympics in 1982. Throughout all those times and particularly after the desk top publishing revolution, it was Hangul typography that shone through. Says Ahn in his gentle, lilting Korean-German English accent that was picked up while working in Germany "typography is the trunk of the tree".

Above, left to right: Poster for Koh Ji-yeon's Gayageum concert; Poster for dance performance Momento Mori, involving "nine mattresses and the notion of life and death" (2008).

But in tradition-bound South Korea, few attempts had been made to change the format or introduce new typefaces to something considered sacred. In 1985 Ahn was one of the first to be bold enough to redesign Hangul typefaces, creating half a dozen new versions. This was the start of the new evaluation of what South Korea had, he says, and a new appreciation of native visual arts by South Koreans. "From the 90s we became aware of a Korean design identity. And this identity is anchored in our Hangul," he explains.

Ahn is also known for the work he does for the radical publication Bogoseo/Bogoseo (report/report) first published in 1988, a type of underground fanzine of its day which displayed a vitality and freshness lacking elsewhere in South Korean graphic design. This magazine was hugely influential on the emerging visual arts scene.

Now the professor works mostly as a tireless promoter of Asian design while holding his important chair at Hongik University - the Mecca for all would-be-creatives in South Korea. Guiding the nation's young creatives is a role this 55-year old typographer seems to relish even as South Korea pitches itself into a digital revolution so all-consuming that the country now holds the title of the most thoroughly wired nation on earth.

As a teacher he realises the digital generation "are different, they think in layers, just as now they have their own recipes for cooking their own dishes," he says referring to how young South Koreans have transformed some Korean dishes for the fast food age, with Coca-Cola and other western additions. "Korea's love of the internet fits into its teenage cultural status," he says. South Korean life has largely moved to the net - apart from the foreign magazine specialists already mentioned or each city's one central bookstore, these days it is nearly impossible to find a news agent anymore, for example, because news is consumed online.

The revolution that Ahn started by taking Hangul beyond the limits of its time-honoured prescribed dimensions is now being completed by the next generation of South Korean designers who are delighting in the freedom offered by the digital revolution. Ahn hopes, as may be the case with art student Ms. Lee, that it is not just about style but may be the start of a truly flourishing, unique and compelling Korean graphic language - one that will complement the beauty and wisdom of Hangul.

Ahn Sang-soo's personal site and blog: ssahn.com
Hongik University site: hongik.ac.kr