Thank you for the plastic hat . . .

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Thank you for the plastic hat . . .

Looking for the hip and unusual? In the Zu story, gizmos abound

What do you buy a person who has everything? How about a love letter inside a test tube decorated with a heart-shaped knob? A small bedside lamp that gives off an illusion of a surreal blue sky? A trash can that comes with an evergreen grass cover? A miniature suitcase to hold your business cards?

In the backstreets of Apgujeong-dong, you can find Zu, a small wonderland of interesting gadgets and gizmos. They're new. They're nifty. And, most surprising, they're Korean.

Zu opened in December 2000. According to the executive manager, Park Kyoung-bum, the shop may be small, but it is significant. Zu's 33 square meters are just enough to display 20 new items at a time, and, since opening, nearly 450 creative and off-the-wall items have passed through the store.

Mr. Park, 35, works in a small studio where eight people collaborate to create hip new products, such as a clock with pebbles instead of numbers. Only about 50 percent of their concepts make it to actual production. "Our concept is 'funky,'" Mr. Park said. "By doing that, we can build a relationship with consumers."

Zu imports some items and manufactures the bulk of its products in its studio. After conceptual sketches and development, sample items are produced. Zu aims to present ideas to interested consumers. Mr. Park said, "Working on design products is different from electronic goods and fashion. Electronic goods have clear functions and, unlike clothes, design products are not necessities. We need to suggest ideas, so a bit of propaganda is needed."

He is aiming to improve the functional aspects of his ingenious items. His slogan: "I make things that can make you feel better."

Mr. Park, a native of Masan in South Gyeongsang province, has been in the design business for the past 10 years and has worked in many fields, such as display, interior design and women's accessories. When he was designing women's accessories in the early 1990s, he got his ears pierced to discover what it is like to feel the weight of earrings. To Park, not only the design itself matters, but also understanding the consumer.

Even after a few years, he feels that the company is still just learning about distribution and the local mind-set. "Korea is going through a transitional period," he said. "After the Olympics in 1988, the need for artistic production was discovered at the corporate level. People started paying more attention to what's being shown to the public and corporate identity. There should be government policies to support designers, to help them create things at the national level. In fact, Koreans are beginning to understand the concept of the artistic studio, however slowly. I get proposals from big companies to design their new products."

He has two major complaints about Korea. The peninsula is one of the few modern countries that does not have international design fairs, so almost every season he has to attend gift shows in Hong Kong and Japan. And because Korea no longer has a factory culture, he is forced to turn to China for production.

But he remains hopeful and laughs when he looks back on his hard days. "My staff and I used to eat cheap Chinese take-out every day. But if I were just looking for money, this would not be the job for me. I just wanted to prove that it was possible."

Zu is located near the Galleria department store in Apgujeong-dong. For more information, call 02-540-4580 (Korean service only).

In Incheon, these kitchenwares are bowling over the competition

"Why should a brand name always be in English? A Korean word can be both visually and aurally attractive, and meaningful at the same time. I think 'Gamgaq' does exactly that," said Joon Chung, the founder of Gamgaq, located inside Samsung Desco Homeplus in Incheon. It's an unusual shop, specializing in contemporary housewares and furniture, that has a black-and-white portrait of its bearded founder mounted on a pristine white wall.

The colorful wares almost burst against the all-white walls and floors. Mr. Chung, 55, said he paid extra attention to furniture and kitchen utensils because he is targeting contemporary livingware in Asia. After a year of market research, he discovered that more and more people today are looking for functional daily goods that look attractive.

"Apartments today already come with minimal interior designs," he said, "and you want to buy things that can readily fit into the environment. In the past, say even 10 years ago, when consumers wanted a broom, they'd just buy a broomstick from a corner store; it didn't matter how it looked. It would be plain and ugly, and so when it was not in use, you had to hide it. Now times have changed. You buy practical things that look good all together."

So his dishes are minimally designed but functional. Unlike imports from Europe, his collections include many bowls, "just the right size" to serve rice or soup or instant noodles. They look like fragile porcelain but are sturdy plastic, dishwasher-safe and affordable.

One of his best-selling pieces of furniture is a flat sofa consisting of cubes and rectangular solids. Depending on how the individual shapes are placed, the sofa can turn into a day sofa or a bed. What makes Mr. Chung's concept different is that his furniture is designed for Asians who prefer to sit around on the floor.

"Even if you grew up in the Western culture," he said, "once you get used to sitting down on the floor, you find it very comfortable. It's very natural, in fact. And sitting on the floor should be comfortable and stylish." Right next to the sofa are candy-colored floor mats.

Mr. Chung, a graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology and formerly a journalist for United Press International, said his creations suggest a comfortable yet stylish lifestyle, and are the culmination of his more than 30 years of experience in the design industry.

His new shop is less than one year old, but Mr. Chung has come a long way in design. Few know who he is, but many people would recognize his works that dot many a Korean street. For instance, he and his company, Sympact, have designed many familiar signs and logos ?Asiana Airlines, the Galleria department store, the KBS network, the cellular phone company One Shot 018 and Tong Yang, to name a few. He has worked as a creative consultant and university lecturer, and his design works have won a number of design awards, such as the Art Director Club of Korea awards and the Best Design awards by Monthly Design magazine.

"I aspire to become the Terence Conran of Asia," Mr. Chung said, referring to the world's leading designer who has introduced the idea of stylish living through his architectural projects, as well as designed famous retail shops such as Habitat and Conran Shop in Europe and the United States.

For more information, visit the Web site,, or call 02-790-5100.

[INTERVIEW]Fee, fi, faux: If you can't create an original design, rip one off

Ahn Hee-young is the vice president of the Korean Society of Interior, Architecture and Design and the dean of the College of Art and Design at Konkuk University. Mr. Ahn is currently working on various design projects: He is a jury member of the Han River bridge lighting design competition for the World Cup, and the chairman of Living News 21 Seongnam, a national design fair in Seongnam city. He recently spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo's English Edition.

IHT-JAI: Where is Korean industrial design heading?

Ahn: The status of the Korean industrial design industry is, in short, pitiful. First, there is a fundamental problem with the Korean educational system. Koreans tend to think that the arts and physical education are for kids who perform poorly in school or who are considered vain. But product design requires bright and creative minds. Where there is no invention, designers cannot improve their ideas. In the future, in creating design works, engineering and marketing should combine and support inspired designs.

Decision-making in education is limited by the bureaucracy, so the development of the curriculum is much slower and lacks an understanding of the industry. The art schools need to be independent, like the Rhode Island School of Design and the Parsons School of Design.

IHT-JAI: What do you think of Korea's reputation for imitations and knockoffs? Do you see a danger in showing original works from abroad to the Korea public?

Ahn: Real creativity comes from spending time experiencing objects. Aspiring designers should come in contact with original works as often as possible to absorb genuine inspiration from the artist.

Imitation products in Korea have a historical context, which should be understood. When Koreans earned less than $2,000 a year, many homes hired helpers, such as maids, because their labor was cheap. Home owners never had to worry about their kitchen, no matter how backward it might have been; it was the workers who used the facilities.

As the Korean industry developed under former President Park Chung Hee, domestic helpers went to work in factories. As the wages of helpers increased, housewives had to do the work, such as firing the coals and pumping springwater from the well. That's when they began changing the kitchen facilities, and sink manufacturers subsequently got rich. Homes got rid of their old coal stoves and installed running water.

When the national GNP hit $5,000-7,000, home owners wanted new furniture. So, Hamsaem was the first Korean company to make Western-style furniture.

When the national GNP exceeds $10,000, more changes occur. This is when copies become problematic. Even if a fine designer comes up with a good design and tries to register it at the copyright bureau, it takes at least two to three months to process. Because his idea is not protected during that time, manufacturers can mass-produce copies before the designer possesses his own idea, which often creates legal problems.

IHT-JAI: Why do you think so many Koreans prefer designs from abroad?

Ahn: Koreans say: "Furniture, Italian. Cars, German. Television, Japanese." They place such importance on brand names. After the Korean War, "Made in the U.S.A." was considered superior; during the Japanese rule, "Made in Japan." Young people nowadays prefer trends that are popular globally.

After the fall of the yangban, or aristocratic, culture, middle-class Koreans adopted a materialistic value system: "More money can elevate one's status." Korea is a place where that kind of vanity is actually acknowledged out in the open. If you're dressed in certain clothes and accessories and drive a certain car, you just get different treatment. No other countrty in the world is so conscious of material success.

by Inēs Cho

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