FAR EASTERN designers are making a strong showing at 100% Design this year. As well as a Japanese pavilion, there are debuts from South Korea and Thailand.
Each country is at a different stage of its design evolution. Japan is by far the most mature of the three, as its manufacturing sector has long recognised the value of design input, and it has innovative individuals like Naoto Fukasawa championing the cause.
South Korea is said to be where Japan was perhaps 20 years ago. But, like Thailand, its leaders appreciate that it can’t compete with China making cheap copies, so both the president of South Korea and the mayor of Seoul have put their weight behind the country’s design push.
At the moment, the impression is that Thailand and South Korea are following in Japan’s footsteps, aesthetically speaking. Clean lines and a sort of modern Minimalism are much on show.
But these countries’ designers also seem to share an interest in traditional materials and techniques. Woods and natural fabrics abound, as do old craft skills.
In its book ‘100 Designs with 100 Stories’, the Japan External Trade Organisation busily promotes modern Japanese design, particularly its electronics wizardry. However, elements of its stand at 100% Design hark back to an earlier era.
Products made from locally grown cedar, and a new take on the traditional tatami mat, are on show this year.
Takumi Shimamura is designer at Qurz, which makes his Wooden Bags. The cedar used comes from Kochi, where the government planted lots of cedar forests for housing back in the 1930s, but, Shimamura explains, cheaper wood was then imported so the cedar wasn’t used. He sees using the cedar as a form of recycling (a popular theme in Japan, he claims), and traditional craftsmen make the bags for him. ‘Their skill is very precise and cool,’ Shimamura says, although this workforce is shrinking as the craftsmen age, making the cost of using them more expensive.
Meanwhile, tatami floor mats are traditionally made of grass and have a rustic look. These new ones – called Tatamist, and made by the company Soejima Isao Shoten – come in five vibrant colours.
Design is the latest buzzword in South Korea. Or, as Eunjoo Maing, deputy director of the Korea Institute of Design Promotion, puts it, ‘Public organisations are investing a lot of money in public design projects. One of president Lee Myung-bak’s election pledges is “to build a creative Korea through design”, and Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon is appointing a designer as a vice-mayor, while the capital itself has become the first city to win the title of World Design Capital for 2010.’
In fact, the city’s government has earmarked $180m (£92m) to finance projects ahead of 2010.
However, Maing, whose organisation has set up South Korea’s presence at 100% Design, claims that the country has too many designers. ‘Every year, about 26 000 design students graduate from college or university. This ranks us the third in the world,’ he says.
KIDP has been supporting 87 of the brightest of these young guns with financial support since 2004. ‘Now it’s time to do some marketing, and expose them and their designs as much as we can. Through activities like 100% Design, we hope the world will see the nation of South Korea in a better or more positive way,’ Maing adds, blaming the Korean War and North Korea’s nuclear threats for damaging his country’s image.
Exhibitor DaeKyung Ahn contrasts the Korean aesthetic with that of China. ‘Many Asian countries, including Korea, have been influenced by Chinese culture a long time ago,’ he says. ‘However, while Chinese culture is very colourful and spectacular, Korea’s is not. Korean culture is very simple and pure.’ He puts this down to his country’s natural environment. ‘We have four obvious seasons and clean water and mountains, and these things have definitely influenced our culture and design.’
Thailand, perhaps, has the furthest to go to convince the world that it understands and values design. But officialdom, at least, is convinced of design’s standing in the country, ‘Design has a strong status in Thailand. For the industrial sector [for exporting], design is one of the main factors, meaning products such as furniture, decorative items and fashion.’ So says Natama Koonpol in the Ministry of Commerce at the Royal Thai Embassy in London.
And while the ministry may have faith in product and fashion design, Koonpol admits that graphic design and packaging is still at the development stage.
The country may have its own traditions of design and manufacture, but for the export market, designers and their clients are being encouraged to follow global trends, says Koonpol.
Indeed, many of the exhibitors have an international flavour, particularly Deesawat, known for its wooden pieces using locally sourced teak; Kenkoon and its designer Metchanun Suensilpong; Take A Luxe; and Pimpen.
‘“Future natural” is the aesthetic theme in Thailand,’ says Jirachai Tangkijngamwong of Deesawat. ‘It uses the abundant natural materials, which designers are free to mix and match, and relies on craftsmen to create aesthetically designed Thai products. We would like to reinterpret the traditional and culturally crafted items into contemporary products, using design and newly explored natural materials.’