Expressing Personal Narratives Through Design. Studio Visit with Sanghyeok Lee.

Sanghyeok Lee’s practice is defined by its expressive nature; design pieces being created not purely to explore new avenues of functionality, but also, and perhaps more notably, as vehicles for his personal narratives. This week we were delighted to drop by Sanghyeok's Schöneberg studio for a pleasant discussion of his approach to practice, design influences and personal design philosophies.

Serendipitous is how one might describe Sanghyeok’s introduction to the design world. It was in high school when a programmer friend of his requested his Photoshop skills for a website that Sanghyeok realised the functional possibilities of his artistic inclinations. It was here that he first began to explore the path of the designer.

“I did a foundation course at the design school... You learn graphic design, product design, everything.

Though it didn’t take long for him to diverge from the pursuit of designing purely for the digital space.

“I really got into making 3D things. Nothing on the computer so much, but things you can touch… For me, touch sense is the most important thing. I was the person in the museum always touching things when it says ‘Do not touch’.”

Sanghyeok went on to specialise in product design for two years in Korea before his more conceptual way of thinking left him yearning for something deeper than a pure technical understanding.

“I always wanted to learn: What is design? And well, I learned the concept of design came out of Europe. So I said yeah, let’s go to Europe.”

And so, in the iconic Dutch design city of Eindhoven, he found what he was looking for.

“I got really good training in how to tell stories, and how to persuade people with your story… When the story is too subjective it’s difficult to see from our side, so it’s about how this subjective story can become objective and make connections with other people.”

Sanghyeok’s first exploration into this new expressive approach to design occurred not amongst the rural windmills of the Netherlands though, rather the stateside metropolis of Rhode Island during an exchange program.

“Everybody had to build a chair according to their curriculums, but because I was an exchange student, I could just do whatever I wanted… So I was thinking about what I could do, and my Father always told me you have to sit straight, because I was always sitting leaning on one side, which made me think: What if everyone would sit like me?

“The chair is called MeChair, and it was the first project I was doing in my own way. Telling my own stories. Slowly I did more work like that. Projecting my experiences or feelings into the work.”

Sanghyeok went on to reveal the story behind his Listen to Your Hands project; a table that influences the user to be more aware of the way we use our hands, and more broadly, our relationship to our domestic environment.

“It’s a table that has drawers on top which are all connected so if one drawer is opened and closed, the others react. You have to be very slow and gentle with your use - then you can close all the drawers without opening the others. It was just from an interest of me touching things; how I put emphasis on the sense of touch.”

Another project born from a personal, emotional narrative is the above shelf, Useful / Arbeitsloser [Jobless].

In 2011, following graduation, Sanghyeok set his sights on Berlin. Qualified, capable and riding the high of some serious industry acclaim for his graduation project, he felt confident in his identity as a designer. Once arriving in Berlin, though, reality set in. He was jobless. And coupled with other life stresses, he wasn’t in the most positive of headspaces. So he decided to explore this in the studio.

“If I had to fill out some kind of form when I first got here I had to check ‘Arbeitsloser’, which means jobless… So the shelf is called Useful / Arbeitsloser [Jobless]. It’s two different contrasts; useful and jobless, which was basically my situation. It was quite depressing at the time. I came in the wintertime so it was cold, I had no language communication, and I had to deal with my Visa and renting. All these different things came at once… And then I saw the scaffolding structures and I was thinking about them. How they’re very useful at a construction site, but basically they have no home as they’re moving around site to site. And I thought, that’s like me. So I translated it into the work.”

“It’s also about contrast. Playing around with contrast. Because I was useful and I was jobless. It’s not heavy wood. I went with the light colour route plus heavy metal with brass. So I played with the contrast to create some kind of harmony. Together, that was the principal of the project.”

The above photograph features a model of Sanghyeok’s first public artwork. The final piece will be around four metres wide, two metres tall and is to be installed in Gwangmyeong, South Korea this coming June.

“The project, titled ‘Where the light touches’ is something I’ve been working on for about two years, so I’m very thrilled to see how it is realized in real space. It’s under the theme of today’s weather; about capturing and accumulating light in the public space. It was a completely different approach than for objects in the domestic space.”

Sanghyeok’s work transcends pure function. It’s expressive and it’s thoughtful. It makes the user ask questions and reconsider behaviours much in the way that a piece of art might. Yet he doesn’t entirely define himself by this. 

“I never actually introduce myself as an artist. I say I’m a designer. My background is design which is why I get used to calling [the work] design, but actually what I do is mostly in the direction of art.”

Though the identity as both an artist and designer might still not encapsulate the nuances of Sanghyeok’s practice.

“Maybe I’m going more in the direction of the architect. Not the architect who builds buildings, but the architect who is building the relationship to space inside the building… A domestic architect.”

“I really admire how architects think about how they apply their work to production. If you see my range of works, it’s not so many, because it takes quite a long time.”

“An architect builds the house, apartments or buildings so they’ll stand for over 100 or 200 years or whatever. I like to think that way. I don’t like how the furniture industry is so fast. Every year, new products. They’re searching for the people’s taste all the time but they’re never really testing things fully. Is it okay for over 100 years?”

Thank you to Sanghyeok. You can find links to his work below.

Website - Instagram

Words by Ewan Waddell.

Photography by Ewan Waddell, Jaeuk Lee & Dahahm Choi.