Martin Darbyshire on design in Korea

A new complex by Zaha Hadid, a £10bn design industry and an ambitious source book that explains the South Korean design sector are all evidence of the country’s creative emergence, says Martin Darbyshire

STANDING in the partially demolished Dongdaemun Stadium in downtown Seoul last month, I was surrounded by ghosts from the country’s past and the hopes for its future.

On this site in 1945, 250 000 Koreans gathered to celebrate liberation from the Japanese. The old baseball and athletics stadium had been a landmark in the capital since the mid-1920s.

But now the piles of rubble and tall cranes speak of a new era. More than £120m is being spent on the Dongdaemun World Design Park & Complex, designed by the world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid. The park will be a physical and metaphorical symbol of South Korea’s commitment to design and fashion.

I was there, along with other International Council of Societies of Industrial Design board members, for the signing ceremony to mark Seoul’s selection as World Design Capital 2010. The South Korean capital has been honoured by the council as a city that uses design to revive communities and improve the quality of life of its citizens.

The market value of South Korea’s design industry is now put at £10bn – equivalent to 3 per cent of the country’s GDP. Seoul’s stunning Incheon Airport, currently being expanded for the Beijing Olympics, exemplifies the world-class ambition of the country’s planners. South Korea is a country that takes the power of design seriously. Government, academics, business leaders and designers have a much closer relationship than in Europe, as the roll call of distinguished guests at the Dongdaemun ceremony revealed.

Many of those present have also given their blessing to a new book: Creatio 2007 Korea Design Book. The book’s stated aim is to help a wider audience gain a better understanding of the status of design and designers’ creativity in South Korea. The congratulatory comments in the foreword might suggest that this is no more than a bit of self-promotion, but it is also powerful evidence of the enthusiasm this nation has for design and the design industry.

Within its pages, 100 case studies are featured – a tangible reminder of where some of that £10bn has gone. Almost half of the featured designs are from the product sector and the rest are examples from visual, graphic, packaging and environmental design, architecture, and colour.

Quite how the designs have been selected is not clear, but readers are invited to make up their own minds on the quality of the work. A photograph of each case study is accompanied by a profile of the designer and a short description of the philosophy including, in some cases, a disclosure about what they would do differently. If you are planning to enter the South Korean market and want a Who’s Who of the country’s design promoters and supporters, this book could be invaluable. It lists the educators, design promotion and design societies involved in all the entries, including a short introduction and examples of key conferences they have attended.

Equally, if you are benchmarking design from around the world, Creatio could be seen as a useful taster menu of what is on offer in South Korea.

However, it is unlikely to stretch your understanding of design or the philosophies that lie behind it. In truth, Creatio is a sourcebook produced by the Korea Federation of Design Associations, a government- funded design promotion body.

Nevertheless, Ilkyoo Lee, who heads South Korea’s Institute of Design Promotion, sees the book as supportive of the goals and philosophies of design from the individual designer’s point of view. And he insists that this is not a one-off PR exercise, but the start of an annual publishing event that will encourage good design in South Korea and around the world.

It will be interesting to see how the content evolves over time, charting the success and influence of South Korea on the international design stage

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