Where East, West aesthetics meetIn the whirlwind of modernization in the ’70s and ’80s, tall glossy buildings packed with brand-new Western furniture were a testament to Korea’s new era. Wiped out were aging Korean homes and the familiar ways of life, replaced by all things American ― new, practical and above all, modern.
While local architects and developers rejoiced in their windfall, which helped boost the country’s burgeoning economy, Min Young-baek was dismayed. He was then a young designer just out of Hongik University, a Seoul college famous for churning out art professionals.
“So much was lost,” he lamented.
Why shouldn’t modernism be also Korean? he wondered. Mr. Min began seeking answers to his question. He began his own firm, Min Associates, in 1970 to incorporate Korea’s heritage in modern interior and architecture. “To find my own design identity, I went back to the beginning, the origin of Korean culture,” he said.
Modern Korea, which was busy consuming just about everything from abroad, might have been inundated with garish knock-offs and foreign influences, but what he found in his research was aesthetically divine, philosophically profound minimalism in Korean antiquity. “Korea’s minimalism worked surprisingly well with Western modernism,” he said.
His ability to harmoniously mesh two vastly different time periods has put him at the forefront of Asian design, and now he is poised to further spread his ideas to the rest of the world, having been recently elected president of an international design organization, the first Asian leader of any of the four major international industry groups.
Shaking up old ideas
“See how simple it is? That’s Korean,” he said as he pointed at an antique Korean bookshelf in his office inside Kyobo Building in downtown Seoul. The dark brown wooden shelf was perfectly positioned inside his ivory-and-black office, which featured an ancient map of Seoul but also had modern touches, such as Corbusier leather chairs, Missoni carpets and an espresso station.
Early in his career, Mr. Min’s signature design of creating simple yet unique spaces using traditional Korean elements shocked but also inspired fellow industry professionals.
Famous for having successfully incorporated Eastern sensibilities, aesthetics and philosophy into modern Western architecture, Mr. Min became an award-winning practitioner and leading theorist who believed in Asia’s potential from early on. In 1991, he became the inaugural president of the Asia-Pacific Space Designers Association, during which he sought to familiarize the rest of the world with the region by inviting renowned architects such as Michael Graves, Mario Botta and Stephen Denish to hold lectures in Korea.
Today, formerly Euro-centric interior architects in the West are turning their eyes to Asia and its exploding growth rate, and they look to Mr. Min as a leader and a guide.
At the recent general assembly of the International Federation of Interior Architects/Interior Designers (IFI) in Mumbai, India, Mr. Min was elected as its 22d president to lead 39 associations from 34 countries worldwide. IFI is one of four major international architects and designers’ associations.
He was first nominated in 2000, and following Olle Anderson of Sweden, Mr. Min became the president-elect in the Johannesburg general assembly in 2001. After his two-year term ends next year, Mr. Min will remain on the executive board as the president emeritus.
Tangled in a political scandal
These days, Mr. Min is keeping busy with a series of high-profile projects, such as the SK Telecom headquarters in Seoul, Philippe Starck’s residential project and a cultural project due in 2007 with French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte.
His recent professional success stands in stark contrast with his troubles a few years ago. In 1999, he was accused of being an accomplice in a bribery scandal involving the former Gyeonggi governor and the former president of Gyeonggi Bank, whom he had introduced to each other.
When the Korean press revealed his minor role in the scandal, he soon lost everything; his reputation, personal assets and company vanished. In early 2000, he spent 53 days in jail.
Looking back upon the hardest time of his life, Mr. Min said he learned a great lesson. “Both the governor and the bank president were long-time acquaintances, and I was just doing a personal favor. As a public figure, I should have stayed away from politics.”
Senior members of Korean design industry, including Ahn Hee-young, president of the Korean Society of Interior Architects/Designers, were sympathetic.
“The scandal might have tainted his reputation in Korea, but Mr. Min stands strong as a highly respected, world-class designer, who is better known outside Korea. He has had absolute support from Chinese and European designers,” Mr. Ahn said. He said he suspects Mr. Min was used as a scapegoat.
After enduring a humiliating trial on national television, Mr. Min chose not to go into seclusion. Instead, after he was released, he gave lectures to students at universities and openly shared with them his suffering.
“I told them, ‘If you want to design, go back to your beginning. Just start from the beginning,’ just as when I was beginning a new life,” he said with emotion.
Son of a freedom fighter
He credits his success to his origins. He has lifelong ties to China as the youngest son of a Korean freedom fighter, born at the end of World War II in Chongching, China’s temporary capital.
Fluent in Chinese and English, he is aware of his unique role as a liaison to Asian design communities, and he said his leadership position will play a significant role in the global design industry. “Recent economical and technological development have boosted the design industry,” he said, “but there are less visible boundaries of design and nationalities in the world these days.”
Recently, when Chinese interior designers expressed their wish to join the IFI, they were rejected. “European designers saw the title of the Chinese organization bearing the word ‘decoration’ and said, ‘What is “decoration” supposed to mean?’ ” After Mr. Min explained that the Chinese word for ‘design’ had been mistranslated, the China Institute of Interior Design and China National Interior Decoration Association became IFI members.
“Even big projects can start from a small chat over coffee. Likewise, connecting continents can begin from just one person,” he said.
“Europeans, who are advanced in technology and philosophy, are increasingly interested in Asia; they are especially concerned about China,” Mr. Min said. “What used to take Europe 100 years took 40 years in Japan. Now it takes 10 years in China. Every year, in China, one big city, with a population of 3 million on average, the size of a small European city, is being built. Many of China’s commercially driven products are environmentally damaging and continue to create adverse side effects.”
The IFI members are committed to exchanging information on global issues and promoting so-called “good design principles,” which Mr. Min considers to be the most urgent task in Asia. For years, they have organized meetings to define the identity of contemporary design as a cultural product, improve the quality of designers and lifestyles of the general public and increase the awareness of environmentally friendly projects.
This year’s IFI Awards went to two Brazilian teachers who taught children how to preserve Brazil’s severely damaged urban environment by planting and protecting trees. “That’s the best urban planning there is,” said Mr. Min, with a smile.
In the age of modernism, he attests, defining the Asian identity in the global market has become a priority for Asian professionals. “Having trained under European and American influences, Asian designers grew up with an inferiority complex. As a young aspiring designer, I, too, used to have an inferiority complex.”
No traces of that complex exist now. He said he is content with the way life has turned around for him and his company.
“I feel lucky and grateful that I’m still here working,” he says, looking into his own pencil sketch of his dream studio in northern Seoul.
by Ines Cho