The Making Of
Kwangho Lee’s Enamel-Skinned Copper Series

Kwangho Lee fancies himself a simple man. The 29-year-old grew up on a farm in South Korea watching his mother knit clothes and his grandfather make tools with his bare hands, which ultimately became the inspirations behind his work. He values nostalgia and rejects greed, and more like a craftsman than a designer, he prefers sculpting and manipulating ordinary materials to engineering the precise outcome of an object. “I dream of producing my works like a farmer patiently waiting to harvest the rice in autumn after planting the seed in spring,” he muses on his website. It all starts to sound a bit trite, but then you see the outcome: hot-pink shelves knitted from slick PVC tubing, lights suspended inside a mess of electrical wire, towering Impressionist thrones carved from blocks of black sponge. Lee may have old-fashioned ideals, but he designs for the modern world, and that’s the kind of transformative alchemy that draws people to an artist. Considering he chose the name “Ordinary objects can become something else” for his breakout project — those electrical-wire lamps, which he brought to his debut with New York’s Johnson Trading Gallery last year — it’s a concept he embraces.

In fact, his latest work for the gallery — enameled-copper furnishings which will be shown at Design Miami in December — marks the start of a long-term project directly aimed at linking the past to the present. For “Very Korean,” Lee and his designer friends will travel to rural areas and explore the culture, foods, habits, and materials native to their country, then produce a collection of objects that translate these old ideas into new forms, like his planned series of hand-hammered silver tableware made with local forging methods. Lee chose to reinvent traditional Korean enameling in his initial explorations for the project because he studied metalworking at Seoul University, and watched as enamel was slowly cut from the curriculum. “It’s becoming a forgotten craft,” he says. He used the process in school on smaller housewares and jewelry, as is typical, but for the gallery collection he “just poured the enamel — bam! — onto big furniture, and then even craftsmen didn’t recognize the technique,” he says. In fact, there was nothing all that different about it, besides his use of shape and scale; Lee did everything else somewhat by the book, as he describes in the process pictures posted here. But as with the rest of his work, the results became somehow extraordinary.

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Lee's design process typically isn't very exact: He starts with an ordinary material and an idea, and creates most of the forms with his hands. But for the copper series, he says, "I had to carefully plan out, in sketches, how to make each piece, because the largest copper plate I can get in Korea is 4 feet by 16 inches." He orders the plates from a local copper factory before bringing them to a welder.

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After the initial sketches, though, he leaves most of the design process up to chance and the inconsistent effects of the kiln. “The only thing I intended on was leaving the welded edges of the pieces as-is,” he says. “Usually you sand them down so the surface comes out very smooth, but I kept the welded trail, which creates a little wall that keeps the paint from dripping where you don't want it to. The rest was up to the kiln.”

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An example of one of those rough edges, clearly visible before the enamel has been applied. Lee chose copper as the substrate for the project partly because it's so light and easy to cut, weld, and manipulate, unlike steel.

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The simple shapes he used for the series didn't hurt, either. They were inspired by his Obsession collection — the furniture made from PVC tubes — whose boxy volumes arose naturally from the process of trying to knit a solid. Pictured is Lee sanding the surface of a naked copper chair, which helps the enamel adhere better.

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Thoroughly cleaning the surface is also crucial for adhesion.

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Lee's loss of control over the pieces begins during the painting process, which takes place back at his university workshops where the biggest kiln in South Korea happens to be located. Much like working with ceramics, he can see where he's applied paint, but he can't necessarily maintain an even thickness, which makes for unexpected effects after the piece is fired.

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“Where the paint is thinner, it can burn, but the thicker parts experience different effects,” he says. “I do this part all on my own, so it’s always possible to make mistakes.”

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The colors themselves also change as the pieces are fired. “I can now manage to calculate the right temperature for each color, but the patterns and the way the paint flows and drips is always different from what I expect,” Lee says. “But that’s what I enjoy about it.”

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A cabinet being pushed into the kiln.

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Once inside, a piece will cook for four to five hours at temperatures of up to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Afterwards, it needs a full day to cool down, lest it crack from the sudden temperature change.

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During the firing process, the bare copper surfaces become oxidized, as shown here. It turns pinkish and its charred outer surface flakes off, making the piece look almost corroded. Lee leaves it as is, simply wiping it off to keep it clean.

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Lee had never used enameling on large-scale furniture before he began this project; he spent his first three years at school focusing on sculpture and jewelry, the latter being the typical realm for this type of work.

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In his third year at school, he turned away from metalworking to develop the knitted wire lamps he's best known for, using that as a jumping-off point to pursue a career in furniture design. So in a sense, the copper series ties up some loose ends for him.

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That said, he normally works with materials even more ordinary than copper and enamel, among them styrofoam, rice straw, gardening tubes, and paper — plus the electrical wire, telephone wire, and PVC tubes. "I believe that many of the most mundane objects have boundless capabilities of transforming into something else," he says.

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A dining table from the series.

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Variations in the final colors, due to the varying thicknesses of paint.

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A side table with two colors applied on top of one another.

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It's mostly only the colors and names that separate Korean enameling techniques from those of China or Japan, according to Lee. “In Korea they used to use only seven colors,” he says. “It’s different now, but I tried to stick with the traditional colors: red, white, blue, green.”

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Burnt-copper dust that's flaked off the objects during the oxidation process. While it's already traveled successfully around the world, as a whole, Lee considers this series initial research for his upcoming "Very Korea" project. “I plan to make more functional objects with regional materials that are produced in Korea or found in nature here, addressing the value of handicraft in our daily lives,” he says. “But I also plan to look deeper into myself in the process. Experimenting with these materials will allow me to trace back memories of my grandfather and my history.”