The coronavirus seems to be slowly fading away here in Seoul, with daily confirmed cases fallen to single digits and people roaming the streets as if business as usual – some even without their masks. It has been a long journey for South Koreans, who were behind masks for four months, as our country was one of the first to be directly and severely impacted by the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. As we draw near the end of the tunnel, I speak with five noted South Korean designers to hear how they have persisted through the difficult period and found creative inspiration. 

For Minju Kim, the coronavirus was an unexpected variable that impeded all ambitious plans after she won the Netflix series Next in Fashion. ‘I had been putting all my effort into preparing for the A/W2020 collection, but since a lot of things got cancelled or delayed, I had to find new ways,’ says Kim. Instead of presenting her work in the flesh, she collaborated with Vogue Korea to hold a digital fashion show. 

These days she is redesigning her brand from logo to website, while gearing up for the S/S2021 collection. ‘I’m reflecting on everything, from the ways of presenting a collection to the type of clothes I should make,’ she says. The biggest challenge from this crisis was that fashion has become less important in people’s lives. ‘I’m going to focus on people’s needs rather than beauty in the post-Covid era.’ 

multi-coloured glass spheres against a white background
Prototype of Saerom Yoon’s new work

Furniture designer Saerom Yoon faced similar challenges in presenting his work to the public while exhibitions and fairs were being cancelled or delayed. Logistical issues, such as an increase in freight costs and limitations on where he could deliver his designs, meant that arranging delivery schedules became his top priority. 

‘The design industry is in financial difficulty, and designers have lost opportunities to present works offline,’ says Yoon, who had been named Next Generation Designer of the Year in the 2018 Wallpaper* Design Awards. With more time, however, he was able to organise his thoughts, come up with new ideas, and experiment with new colours. He is currently working with Hyundai Motors on a concept model, and designing installation work for an upcoming hotel. ‘Since I’ve had time to reflect and observe, I hope I’ll be able to see things in the design and art industries with new eyes when this situation is over.’ 

branches of purple flowers against a blue sky
View of Kiyoung Ko’s home garden blooming with azaleas

Kiyoung Ko also dedicated time to deep thinking and observing her surroundings. ‘I started to think a lot about humans – their behaviour and psychology, and their relationships with other people and with nature,’ said Ko, who runs lighting design studio Bitzro. 

Having spent more time at home, held meetings through Zoom, and made very few visits to project sites and meetings, she has started to view the house with a new perspective. ‘I realised the important role lights play in elevating the emotional quotient. A little shift in lighting can immensely change the mood of the home. I have great hope that the demand for good lighting will rise after the crisis.’ 

computer on a desk in front of a white wall with images
Front view of Sukwoo Lee’s seat in his office

For Sukwoo Lee of SWNA, changes have been limited. ‘I would say only 20 percent of my life changed due to the coronavirus: wearing masks during meetings, shopping mostly online, and avoiding social gatherings. I go to the office every day and hold meetings with my team as usual.’ 

Business-wise, Lee’s studio has yet to feel the impact from Covid-19 as it mostly takes on B2B projects, but the impact from the economic downturn is concerning in the long term. ‘If we are to find opportunities, we need to free ourselves from the limitations of geography and be able to expand our client base to various regions. Gradually, Koreans will become used to working online.’ 

black light fixture on a marble tabletop
Light fixture for the newly designed Kukje Gallery’s restaurant by Teo Yang Studio

Similarly, it has been business as usual for Teo Yang, who is working on some exciting new projects – the private residence of a famous K-pop singer whom he’s admired for a long time, a French restaurant for a LA-based chef, and a wellness centre and a restaurant for Kukje Gallery, to name a few. His weekday life remains unchanged, though his weekend scene has shifted from dinner at restaurants and gathering with friends at bars, to Netflix at home with a glass of wine. 

‘I deeply miss travelling around the globe and meeting and being inspired by creative people,’ says Yang. But the challenging period also gave him a creative nudge. ‘I am a homebody, so I always wanted to design a furniture line for like-minded people. Now seems like the perfect time to do so.’ §

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