I like that when I interview designer Na Kim, we’re in a boxy apartment on the fifth floor of a Bruno Taut building in Berlin. I like it because in some ways, this style of architecture—with its modern, winding staircase painted various shades of bright red and shaped by the dictum of “form follows function”—is exactly where this design story begins. But seen in another light, this design story begins much further afield, in the city of Gwangju in Korea, in a small stationery shop where boarding school girls collect reams of bright polka dot stickers. This is because when it comes to Kim’s design process, rules and carefully devised systems combine with deeply entrenched personal memories to form something wholly distinctive, yet vigorously defined.
After studying product design at KAIST and graphic design at Hongik University in Korea, Kim moved to the Netherlands to complete a Master’s at Werkplaatz Typografie, studying under the guidance of the prolific Karel Martens. She later founded Table Union in Seoul, a design studio and creative platform, and designed Graphic magazine between 2009-2011. In 2018, she art directed the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial with Prem Krishnamyrthy and Emily Smith, and this year, she was behind the design of the sixth issue of Eye on Design magazine. Kim is one of those rare designers that continually stretches and flexes the possibilities of graphic design thinking. Since 2015, she’s been reimagining the contents of her own monograph in a variety of forms: Her SET wall installations mine her own past commissions and works, shown together regardless of production year, medium, or context, and imbued with a new order based on a continually revolving set of rules.
I’ve been emailing with Kim on-and-off again for nearly a year, and below her emails signature, she has listed all of her upcoming talks and shows, a series of dates and locations that make up what feels like a never-ending design tour. Kim seems to be constantly moving between lecturing, installing new shows, and exhibiting—skipping between Seoul and San Francisco and back to Berlin again, which is where she’s based. We take advantage of a stiller moment in winter to discuss her current design thinking, the role of archiving and sampling in her practice, and the importance of personal memory and attitude to her process.
I know that your path to becoming a designer was not traditional, in that you didn’t originally study creative arts.
Before going to university, I went to a science high school. I studied math and physics—nothing to do with art or design at all. And I wanted to go there because, to be honest, I liked that all the students had to stay in dormitories. Boarding school felt quite special to me. Going there also meant I could go to university one year earlier than others because it was a specialized school.
How did you then decide to study industrial design?
I was trying to work out how I could turn my direction towards art. I was considering architecture, or something between engineering and creating. In the end, industrial design felt quite natural to me. But I was disappointed when I realized that the curriculum at my university was very tied to the market and embedded in consumer research. If I wanted to use the color red on a specific product and the market said it wasn’t sellable, then I wasn’t allowed to go in that direction. I kept wondering: What’s the role of the designer then? I also realized that I like designing 2D work—mockups, manuals, or panels explaining concepts.
What attracted you to 2D composition, in contrast to designing 3D objects?
I noticed that the method of communication was very different for 2D design. With 3D, I found that there was always some outsourcing element that I needed to consider. It takes a lot of time: You need to sketch, make basic mock ups, find materials, etc. All these components are enjoyable, but you have to consider so many factors. With graphic design, the material could simply be one piece of paper. You design on the screen, and can print something in your office or at home right away. You don’t need to go to the offset printer, the real thing appears already just with your home printer. It’s hard to say which is the mock-up and which is the final product, compared to product design. If you compare the process to architecture, the contrast is even greater.
If I wanted to use the color red on a specific product and the market said it wasn’t sellable, then I wasn’t allowed to go in that direction.
I saw a video about you made by a Korean television network, which shows your former studio in Seoul and your vast collection of stickers, tape, and other kinds of stationery, which you’ve used in your work in the past. It made me think about origins—and the things designers are drawn to before even knowing what graphic design is as a discipline. Were you always drawn to stationery?
I did collect a lot of stationery when I was younger. In general, a lot of young girls in Korea collect these kinds of papers and sticker sets. I didn’t know what to do with it all at the time, but I was drawn to the patterns and materials. Then I kept going throughout university, until I had a lot of boxes of the stuff. I had unusual papers, clothing tags, wrapping papers, plastic envelopes. I really wanted to do something with the collection, so one day, I just attached them on the wall.
You started to create compositions and designs from this collection—your ongoing ‘Found Composition’ series especially springs to mind. And then of course, some of the forms from your collection featured in 2015’s SET, your monograph of work from the previous 10 years. How did the idea for this book come about?
I had my first solo exhibition in 2015 at Doosan Gallery in New York, which was tied to a six month residency program and an ongoing part of the artist award prize I received from Doosan in 2013. Actually, I had had solo exhibitions before, but this was my first solo exhibition in a white cube. This prize is an art prize, and I was the only designer to receive it. So I felt a bit of pressure with that and wondered: Is it OK to show my body of work as a designer? The fact that it was also my first time in New York added another layer of stress to everything…
At first, I couldn’t decide what to do in the space. Should I simply present my design work? Or should I try to consider the language of art in the space as well? I ultimately decided to first consider the medium that I was most familiar with: the book. I wanted to make a book that would cover 10 years of my archive. But I didn’t want to simply show a work, followed by a caption, followed by a description. That felt so boring, and I didn’t want it to be a traditional monograph. When you create an archive or monograph, it’s linked to the end of something. For me, the other side of the archive is always connected to a kind of death. So my question became: How can I make something light, simple, and awake? What would be an impolite way of doing a monograph?
And you didn’t design the monograph yourself. Why not?
I invited another graphic designer to work with me, one of my friends at Werkplatz back in the day, Joris Kritis. That was the first challenge I experimented with: Changing the role. I became artist and client, which I realized is a totally different way of communicating. He gave me a proposal. Then I rejected it. And then he gave me another proposal. And then I rejected it [Laughs]. It was an interesting experience for me because it put some distance between me and my own designs.
We decided to make an abstract swatch of my work, like a sample book, or a Pantone color sheet. We made it as abstract as possible, and had this ping pong working process that gave me the chance to think about my own designs and how others look at them. The book came out partly expected but also fully unexpected. Designers who knew about my work were surprised by the presentation: They expected clear descriptions, like a standard portfolio. But it’s not clear at all, because it’s all colors and shapes.
“When I don’t question something, it means there’s a reason to keep going.”
How did SET the book transform into the first SET installation?
The book was published just before my exhibition began, and I still didn’t have any idea what to do in the white cube. I had put most of the money for the exhibition towards the publication, with the idea that I’d think about the exhibition later…
One of the things I loved about the publication was how we arranged the abstract shapes on the pages in a clear sequence and with little information. The layout itself became very important. That’s when I thought it would be interesting to trace the layouts on the wall.
I started to project the pages onto the wall, and then I thought, why not make a painting of the shapes on the surface? For the white cube at Doosan Gallery, I tried to translate all the pages onto the space. So I took the length of the wall and divided it into the page numbers. The wall height is the page height—that’s the basic rule I always repeat with SET. I couldn’t include all the shapes in the space, so I chose the compositions in the end.
There’s been 16 versions of SET to date, some are installations in different locations and some that take other forms. How does the space and context dictate the way you approach a version?
For the the SET series, the book becomes a method to create different rules inside a new context. For the second installation, instead of including all the page numbers, I selected specific pages. For the 16th version, the curator wanted to sell prints, so I made the compositions on the wall black and white, with separated layers cropped within frames revealing the original colors of each shape on points (and which were the limited edition posters). For version 12, I painted all of the letter “A’s” [from the monograph] on the venue’s wall. I’ve also done a version as a digital print on textile, as a pillowcase and duvet, as a set of stamps. Making a new SET is like playing a game with myself.
When will you know that the SET series has come to an end?
It’s been five years now. I can keep doing it, but somehow, I’ve begun to question it more and more. When I don’t question something, it means there’s a reason to keep going. But if I keep asking questions, then I think there needs to be a reconsideration. Right now, I’m wondering: How can I make a good conclusion? It doesn’t mean that I need to finish it and never do it again, it just means I need one kind of conclusion for myself.
One of the things that I’ve noticed about your trajectory is that you went from engineering and building to focusing on industrial design to specializing in graphic design. Then, once you learned the rules of graphic design, you extended this particular language to other mediums. You’ve designed tables, created sculptures, and painted installations. How does cross-medium thinking figure in your practice?
That was a very natural way of thinking for me. I never tried to force roles onto myself. I’ve never said: From now on I’m an artist, or a graphic designer, or an industrial designer. It feels like if I want to do something in a particular way, then I should do it. If an idea should be a poster, then it should be a poster. If you believe a medium is the best for explaining a concept, then that’s the one to go for. I feel like graphic design is my basic language—it’s about visuals, communication, typography. And it doesn’t matter what the medium is, it’s more about having a good understanding of the language I’m working with. The language is important—and the attitude and point of view.
In 2014, I was invited to create a work for a show at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul called Human-Space-Machine. Stage Experiments at the Bauhaus. What I ended up doing as a result of this invitation is very connected to this topic of cross-medium thinking. I was interested in how these stage experiments can sometimes feel like graphic design, because they’re considering a basic language and experimenting with that basic language.
I looked at the performance Space Dance [from Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Dance], which shows the basic elements of the choreographic theories at the Bauhaus. There are three dancers, one red, one yellow, and one blue, moving at different paces along a geometric system of lines painted on the floor. I traced the dancers frame by frame from a video of the dance, noting the height and length and speed. From this analysis, I created a score of the sequence, which I then installed around the glass courtyard of the museum—with red, yellow, and blue colors charting the individual movement of the three dancers.
I forgot about the work for a while. Then early this year, for the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, I was invited by the Gwangju Design Biennale to create another Bauhaus piece. Gwangju is my hometown. I wanted to extend some of the ideas from my 2014 installation. I was thinking about body language and the movement of the dancers, which got me thinking about my own memories. In particular, I remembered this Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam that I sometimes go to. To get to the toilet, you have to go outside and up this spiral staircase. I often think about this scene where someone is in a hurry to go to the toilet, and they have to run up this spiral staircase which feels really long. I thought about the human movement inside the spiral stairs, and how you go around in a circle in the same speed.
“My design process basically emerges from the process of archiving.”
I wanted to bring this personal memory to the Bauhaus piece. I created three spiral staircases, one for each dancer, and the steps contain the score in relation to the speed of the dancer. The yellow guy is always quick, twice as fast as red, which is twice as fast as blue. For me, this collection of thoughts and projects is an example of why medium isn’t necessarily important to my process. For me and my work, it’s less about medium specificity, and more about understanding a language, going back to specific memories, and making connections.
I know that personal memories are an important part of your making process. And also, collecting and archiving. I’m interested in how these areas come together.
The role of archiving is definitely more important than cross-medium thinking when it comes to my work. More and more, I realize that my design process basically emerges from the process of archiving.
I sometimes think about collecting, revisiting a collection, and archiving through an exercise I refer to as “Found Fiction.” Because when you archive, you often create a kind of fiction from the collection. It’s like the process of writing autobiography: If you write about yourself, you always write fictional things, unconsciously, because you can’t remember details. So I realized that fiction always happens in the process of collecting and archiving memories—it becomes a found fiction. Something is found, and fiction happens to it. I like to see this process amidst defined systems.
“It was a slice of a particular moment, taken at that moment in time.”
I can see that process with SET, which is both a systematically arranged sample book and a kind of autobiography. Graphic magazine, though, is the work that perhaps most overtly functions as an archive—issues like the Yale issue, and the Werkplaatz Typografie issue, are such vital time capsules of particular moments in graphic design.
Graphic always starts with the idea of archiving, because each issue features a different graphic design scene. Graphic has one theme, and looks at that theme without adverts; it’s just one focus, and the same questions are asked to every designer interviewed, whether young or old. It has the same format issue to issue. I liked that overall consistency. It was the attitude of the archive: We treated all the material with the same position.
But also, we could never cover all of a scene as we always included a specific selection of designers in an issue. So actually, each issue became more-or-less a sample of a scene. It was a slice of a particular moment, taken at that moment in time, which only came out the way that it did because we knew someone involved in the scene, or because a certain exhibition was going on at that moment in time. Accepting the imperfections of archiving, I came to realize, is quite important.
In what way does a slice of something give you an understanding of the whole?
A slice of a moment doesn’t mean its disconnected from the past or the future—it’s the example you’re showing at a particular moment in time, but each particle inside it is reoccurring in some way or connected to the bigger picture.