When in Seoul, Design as the Romans Do

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When in Seoul, Design as the Romans Do

The Korea Design Center in Seoul's southern suburb of Seongnam was bustling with hundreds of young Koreans waiting to get in to see the exhibits. The sunlit lobby of the eight-story glass and steel-beam structure was filled with clusters of people waiting to board the center's glass elevators. The visitors ranged from professional or aspiring designers to design dilettantes, and all had come for the same reason: to get a taste of Italy.

"Italian Design: Arts and Techniques" is a group of exhibitions that introduce the original work of Italy's best-known designers and design companies. This event is something refreshing for Korea, for it represents a bold step to stimulate and enlighten Korean design. In fact, the peninsula is notorious as a producer of copycat products. Just walk along the street in Nonhyeon-dong lined with upscale furniture shops, or the less fancy shops in Sadang-dong, and you'll see the latest in design trends. But the products come in two varieties: real or fake.

Take, for example, the Wassily chair. This series, created by the celebrated designer Marcel Breuer, costs $700 or more, but you can have a knock-off version that was made in Korea for less than $100. Many buyers who groan about spending so much for one chair choose the counterfeit and wonder, "What's the big deal?" For the answer, ask the designers and companies that invested time and money to create the model and seek to enter foreign markets. Numerous industrial design journals warn of the danger of introducing original works in countries like China and Korea because of the many mimicking manufacturers in those countries. Both Chinese and Koreans have a strong penchant for Italian designs, but they generally loathe to pay the real cost for them. Japan, by contrast, is not considered a copycat country.

When asked about the risk of marketing original works in Korea, Alberto M. Prina, the managing director of a design consulting company and a professor at Milano Polytechnic University, said that copying is common worldwide. He pointed out that international laws to protect original works have been around for more than 100 years. Mr. Prina, who visited Korea last week to give a lecture, explained his theories on originality. "Concepts cannot be sold, and creativity is attained from stimulation," he said. "That stimulation comes from just having fun and feeling comfortable around the object you're experiencing." Mr. Prina said that design students should, at first, respectfully follow their teachers, but that real creativity comes only from personal experience. From there, he said, the creator can realize his potential. He also expounded on the evolution of design: how materials progressed from wood to other materials, and how contemporary creativity is so much more diverse, especially with the advent of mass production techniques.

Another speaker at the exhibit, Silvia Suardi, making her first visit to Korea, said that she was impressed with Korea's modern outlook. She said that compared with Italy, Korea's technology was developing and changing much faster, which would help in building relations with Italy. While noting the local students' interest in Italian design, she emphasized the importance of maintaining one's cultural heritage. "You are what you were in the past," she said. "If you know the past, you know what to do today - it's a vital part of creating something new. Italians still adhere to the 'Italian way,' or a more humanistic approach. Often we simply follow our instincts, which makes Italian design beautiful and unique."

Her remarks seemed to be agreeable to young Korean visitors, too, who openly - and loudly - admired the form and the function of Italian designs on display. Though their parents might have bought fakes in the past, this generational shift may bring significant changes to the local design industry.

"Design Italiano: Arte e Tecnica," co-organized by the Italian Embassy, the Italian Cultural Institute, and the Italian Trade Commission, is sponsored by Korea's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy and the Italian design industry association Federlegno-Arredo. The show runs through Sunday, open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Shuttle buses, also free, between Seoul and the Korea Design Center in Bundang district in Seongnam leave every hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. from the Dongmun (East gate) of the COEX center in Samseong-dong. For more information, call 031-780-2266 (English available).

[INTERVIEW]Innovative Italians Take A Backseat to No One

Roberto Piatti, the managing director of the Italian design company Stile Bertone, was in Seoul recently to give a presentation on Italian car design. Bertone is known for its forward-looking engineering of car bodies and interiors. Mr. Piatti met with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition after his presentation and expressed his passion for invention.

IHT-JAI: You're familiar with Korean car designs. How did that begin?

Piatti: I've done various car and industrial projects since 1991, in collaboration with Korean companies like Daewoo, Kia, Hyundai, Samsung and Asia Motors. The Daewoo Espero is one of the models designed by Bertone.

IHT-JAI: What are your predictions for the future of car design?

Piatti: I've been working on something new for interiors, which have remained essentially unchanged for the past 100 years. Operating a conventional car means you sit in a fixed position - your hands are on the steering wheel, feet on the pedals.

But comfort means being able to change positions. I wanted to design an interior in which drivers can move their feet, cross their legs and move their arms. So I've introduced a new concept called "drive by wire" technology. Like when you operate an airplane, the vehicle is operated electronically, with no mechanical links. To make that work, I studied human intuition. In this model, every control is in your hands; instead of using your foot, you squeeze the handle to brake. Instead of a regular steering wheel, which you need to turn many times because one revolution equals only 20 degrees, the new model lets you steer with your fingers, like you do on a Sony PlayStation video game; except this is serious. Cars also come in left or right-hand drive. With this new system, drivers can switch between left and right. Also, Nokia has developed a phone whose information can be loaded into the device's control board. As you approach your car, the car recognizes the identity of the phone and assumes your personal driving settings. The phone can also download your favorite music and play it inside the car, which would be the first with a surround-sound audio system. The idea was hugely successful at last March's Geneva Motor Show.

IHT-JAI: So, with this device, could a person drive from the backseat?

Piatti: That's the next step. The new prototype car for the device comes with an elevated backseat, which would allow passengers in the back a full frontal view. So if the controls were detachable, a person in the backseat could actually drive the car.

IHT-JAI: How realistic is your idea?

Piatti: It has already been translated into reality. You can test-drive the car now in Italy. We've invested 120,000 working hours in and spent $6 million on the concept, and Korea will have the car on its streets within three or four years. One day people will say, "Once upon a time, there were cars with pedals, large steering wheels and dashboards!"

by Ines Cho

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