Top designer wants Korea to up its game

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Top designer wants Korea to up its game

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Clockwise from top: a bath tub design for Samsung C&T, a concept car for Toyota and “Club World” seating for the business class cabin of British Airways. Provided by Tangerine

One of the most famous works by the London-based design company Tangerine is the seating configuration for the British Airways business class cabin.

The firm rearranged the seats in a forward and backward facing configuration to give passengers 20 percent more space. It also became possible for passengers to use the seats flat beds.

The design won the IDEA Grand Prix in 2001, and British Airways eventually commissioned the company to redesign its first class cabin as well.

“With these new seating designs, British Airways’ annual operating profits have increased by 800 billion won [$738 million],” said Lee Don-tae, the co-CEO of Tangerine.

Tangerine is also working with Transport of London, Korea’s Samsung and LG, and Japan’s Hitachi, Toyota and Nikon.

Lee also works as president of Tangerine’s Asia branch and is a visiting professor of industrial design at Hongik University.

The JoongAng Ilbo met him last month at the office of Tangerine’s Asian branch in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul.

Born in Gangneung, Gangwon, his surroundings were far from modern. His father who taught in an elementary school, however, loved to have his son participate in sketch contests - and that sparked a lifelong interest in art.

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Lee Don-tae

For a country boy, entering a college of fine arts was a difficult process. He failed the first year, but eventually picked up industrial design at Hongik University on his third attempt. After finishing his graduate studies at the same university, Lee moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art.

He started to work for Tangerine as an intern in 1998. At that time, the company had only six designers but has now grown large enough to employ about 50 of them. Among the diverse experts from foreign countries, he was able to become successful.

As his representative work for the company, Lee chose the bathroom interior for Raemian, the apartment complex brand by Samsung C&T Corporation.

Its brilliance comes from the convenient bathtub that has space for hand-washing and pets. For the design, Lee won world-famous prizes such as the iF Design Awards in 2009. But he said that he is more proud of the presidential award for Good Design, a local contest.

“I wish Koreans had more confidence in themselves,” he said. “Korean people are very hard working and innovative,” he added.

Still, the current level of Korean design is not so high, he said.

“Large multinational companies such as Samsung and LG have good design teams, but they do not represent the general design level of Korea,” he said. “Design at smaller companies should be improved. Design is an important strategy for these companies to survive and compete.”

He explained that the quality of work depends on time put in and willingness for trial and error.

“Apple allows it designers one or two years to develop a new design,” he said. “ But in Korea, designers are pressed to complete the same work in two months.”

Throughout more than 200 projects, Lee said he has never grown bored. Differences in clients’ level of understanding about design and target customers keep him passionate. The challenges keep the profession from growing tiresome, he said.

For Lee, the most valuable asset for a designer is good writing ability. He thinks that writing is organizing one’s thoughts.

“The most important thing is how you design your own thoughts. This is a starting point for everything,” he explained.



By Kwon Keun-young [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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