The tiger that still roars

Peter Hall reports on the current economic difficulties facing South Korean businesses but finds a group which may find its salvation in a commitment to design.

A trip to the Far East raises many questions about the role of design in the ailing tiger economies.

The three UK-based product design students who left Kimpo Airport in Seoul earlier this month clutching their prize money from the 1997 LG Electronics Design Competition must now be thinking that they got out of South Korea in the nick of time.

At the time of writing, the economy is in dire straits, the South Korean currency is plummeting against the dollar, and talk is in the air of the 11th largest economy in the world requiring a US-led bale out of up to $100m (59m) – far more than the rescue of Mexico in 1995.

The Western press, with a certain amount of “told-you-so” glibness, is pointing at the crisis that has swept across South East Asia as the inevitable comeuppance for tiger economies that enjoyed explosive growth in the past decade. In South Korea, blame is being pinned on the swollen, family-owned conglomerates, or chaebol, for borrowing recklessly to achieve fast growth. Seven of the chaebol have already collapsed or gone bankrupt.

The winners of the LG Electronics Design Competition, including Alex Tan of London’s Royal College of Art, Andy Boucher of the University of Plymouth, and David Swann of the University of Huddersfield, will be relieved to have received their prize money in US dollars rather than the devalued South Korean currency. It may not have escaped their notice that their benefactor which is owned by LG Group – founded in 1947 with the name of Lucky Chemicals – is also a chaebol (with annual revenues of $64bn – 38bn).

But, if US magazine Business Week is right, LG may be better equipped to weather the current tsunami than overstretched rivals like Samsung and Hyundai. Business Week’s Seoul correspondent Mark Clifford identifies LG as “one to watch”, adding: “After lagging during the late-Eighties, it has embarked on a very wide-ranging restructuring programme and for the past several years has been paying more attention to profitability.”

Of more interest to the international design community is the company’s zealous adoption of the international design religion. “Design is the most effective vehicle for adding value to our products,” said LG CEO John Koo at the awards ceremony in Seoul, “and LG is dedicated to the enhancement of its design capability.” Though it’s something we’ve all heard before, and something I heard from the same lips in Seoul two years ago, the evidence appears to be there.

Koo has committed $4bn (2.4bn) over the next five years to the establishment of a research and development centre in four floors of a new skyscraper currently under construction in Seoul.

According to Chul-Ho Kim, who heads the in-house team of the corporate design centre, the investment will also be used to provide training and refresher courses for the growing in-house staff, now at 215, to encourage collaboration and “synergy” among the various design groups, and as an incentive scheme. It will also be used to foster the growth of LG’s collaborations with institutions and design consultancies across the globe.

LG has an ongoing love affair with Western design. It has tapped the design resources of Britain’s Tangerine, Italy’s Sottsass Associates and Fitch and Ecco Design in the US. It established design centres in Wales and Ireland and has worked with students in Syracuse, New York.

Over 1200 designers entered this year’s biennial design competition, and among the jurors were Philips Corporate Design’s Stefano Marzano, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Anthony Jones, and Katherine McCoy of Cranbrook, Michigan fame. According to Chul-Ho Kim, LG is looking for more product design groups of international stature with whom to raise its “design status”.

Quite how well LG is equipped to survive the current economic crisis is of course dependent on the depth of the problem. And, to be honest, the extent of its design commitment has yet to be truly revealed. Among the Western collaborators I have spoken to, some have voiced fears that LG has just mutated its Eighties me-too approach to product development by tapping overseas designers for styles to attach to its goods, rather than embarking on thorough design investigations that will yield new ideas and breakthroughs. Call me idealistic, but I prefer to note a degree of fearlessness in Koo’s embrace of design that bodes well for LG – and for Western designers and design students for years to come.

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