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.
As the youngest child of a Parisian architect — with three older brothers working in the same field — Victoria Wilmotte had one thing going for her when she started studying furniture design at London's RCA four years ago. But she also had a few handicaps: she was only 20 years old, she had just been rejected from Paris's ENSCI school, and her professor at RCA, Jurgen Bey, couldn't comprehend her strange working methods. Obsessed with materials and surfaces, she wanted to spend all her time in the workshop, skipping the thinking and brainstorming part and going directly to prototyping. "Jurgen Bey was really into concepts," says Wilmotte, now 24. "He was more about a table telling stories, but I only wanted to talk technically. He basically said, 'I don’t understand you. But continue.'"
Tom Dixon, Bram Boo, e15, and Thomas Eyck all showed products in copper at the 2010 Milan Furniture Fair, which closes today. There was also a minor strain of fur-covered chairs — plus one hairy, Cousin-It-style storage unit by the Campana Brothers for Edra — and a tendency toward LED and OLED lighting. But as far as Sight Unseen is concerned, the only trend worth writing home about was the diaristic glimpse into process that so many designers chose to offer this year, supplementing their finished products with sketches, models, and real-time demonstrations.
Juliette Warmenhoven grew up in Holland’s so-called bulb district, near Haarlem, in a small village called Hillegom. Her father is a flower farmer. If it all sounds very quaint, it might have been 20 years ago — but then tulip production went the way of the meat industry thanks to globalization, and farming became a race to create the maximum amount of homogenous bulbs in the shortest amount of time. “My father feels farming is like working in a factory now,” says the Arnhem-based designer. Just as shrink-wrapped steak has been divorced from the killing of the cow, plants are more about the perfection of the end product than the actual growing process. “I believe that when you explain that process to people, they get more feeling out of it,” she says. For Everyday Growing, her graduation project at Arnhem’s ArtEZ school, she built a series of small monuments to plants’ humble — and often imperfect — origins.