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From parasols to non-functional benches

Installation view of the exhibition “The Next of Public Design” at Culture Station Seoul 284 in central Seoul / Courtesy of Culture Station Seoul 284

Exhibitions explore how everyday life was reinterpreted in designs

By Park Han-sol

From parasols to non-functional benches

One of many large green parasols installed throughout the city provides shade for the pedestrians at a crosswalk. Courtesy of Nowon District

When naming some of the recent successful cases of public design in Korea, one popular answer would be the large, green parasols located at crosswalks throughout the country. Seocho District first installed the sunshade to protect pedestrians waiting for the green light under scorching heat in the summer of 2015. The design soon became popular and now, more than 5,600 of them can be witnessed shielding passers-by from both sunlight and rain.

These parasols are one example of public design, which, as its name indicates, is a field of design that serves a wide scope of users in the public sphere, and can apply to features including street signs, school fences, park benches and crosswalks.

Because it aims to be universally applicable and thus becomes an overly familiar scene, it’s only natural for the general public to fail to recognize their values and influence on our everyday life.

The exhibition, “The Next of Public Design,” at Culture Station Seoul 284 in central Seoul, brings to the fore such previously unseen aspects of design by turning the train station-turned-museum into six distinct public spaces ― playground, park, street, school, alleyway and subway station.

For those waiting for a bus at outdoor stops in Seoul, two different versions of benches can greet them ― a self-cooling bench that comes with smartphone chargers on the side and a carbon-heating bench that maintains the surface temperature of 36-38 degrees Celsius, each aiming to protect people from the blazing hot summer and harsh cold winter weather, respectively.

Some parts of the city adopted LED traffic lights placed at ground level to minimize the risk of accidents for passers-by crossing the street without looking up from their smartphones.

Nearly half of the installations of public design on display at the exhibition have been created by non-governmental entities. These include a fluorescent backpack cover with the 30km speed sign that can be worn by small school children to warn drivers of the permitted speed within school zones as well as “the speaking fire extinguisher” that comes with audio instructions, more helpful and fitting in the case of an emergency.

From parasols to non-functional benches

Lee Kwang-ho’s “Obsession Series” (2020-21), front, and Seo Jeong-hwa’s “Structure for Use” (2021) at the exhibition “Switch Things Up” / Courtesy of MMCA

Whereas “The Next of Public Design” introduces mainly designs that reinterpret our lives in the public sphere, the exhibition, “Switch Things Up,” held at the Gwacheon branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), takes a more personal, aesthetic approach in bringing everyday spaces and objects into the gallery space.

The exhibition is inspired by Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga’s (1872―1945) characterization of human beings as “Homo Ludens” ― Ludens meaning “playing” in Latin ― to indicate that the basis of our culture lies in our innate ability and desire to play.

The featured artists’ handicraft items and installations accordingly redefine our functional space and object from the perspective of “playful humankind.”

Lee Kwang-ho’s “Obsession Series” (2020-21) is an amusing reinterpretation of an unorganized living room ― a perfect playground for children playing with toys. Objects of varying sizes and materials resembling a stool, carpet, sofa and gigantic ball of yarn are strewn across the platform in a seemingly random order.

“The display is inspired by the scene of a carefree child with scattered toys galore on the floor,” he said at the museum, adding that he hopes to see viewers create their own versions of living rooms by placing the colorful items differently in their heads.

The benches also appear at MMCA Gwacheon, but this time, with a non-functional, tongue-in-cheek touch. The creator of “Structure for Use” is none other than Seo Jeong-hwa, a furniture designer whose job entails planning and creating practical objects for everyday use.

His ironic installation is made up of more than a dozen aluminum benches stacked up together like Lego blocks, making them impossible to serve their usual, functional role.

“Unlike my other furniture built for practical use, this one is devoid of such qualities, because I made it for fun,” Seo explained. The work then invites museum-goers to imbue the piece with a new creative role based on its geometric shape and aesthetic alone.

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