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.