Hyungjin Kim and Yekyung Kang of Seoul-based practice Artefact discuss the kinks in South Korea’s design education system, how to make spaces stand out in the commercial battlefield of a densely populated city, and why they opt for materials that provide both structure and finish. 

With only four years on the clock, South Korean design practice Artefact has built an impressive body of work that spans Seoul’s competitive retail and hospitality industries. Rooted in the city’s cultural underground scene, the studio designs minimalistic spaces rich in materiality and with a strong architectural character sensitive to its urban surroundings. 

How did you two meet and why did you decide to start your own studio?

HYUNGJUN KIM: I initially wanted to study fine art, but my family was quite conservative and, as was common in those days, I followed my parents’ advice. But after studying psychology and biology at university, I entered Korea’s underground scene, was soaked in techno music and started to run a record label while working in a small bar and doing mostly graphic design. I’d produced some small stage and installation designs for events when I – through a friend – suddenly found myself in charge of a store renewal project for an F&B brand run by a mid-sized company. It covered everything from brand identity to spatial design, so I asked around for someone to help out. That’s when I was introduced to Yekyung Kang, which meant the start of Artefact. Four years later, I think that client was an angel, entrusting a relatively unexperienced punk like me with a project of that size.

YEKYUNG KANG: I studied spatial design and then worked with Seoul-based interior designer Void Planning, who’s work has actually been featured in Frame beforeKorean designers were not as popular abroad as they are now, so it was amazing to see their work on a global stage and a stepping stone for me to dream about my future. The studio’s design approach pursued modernity and minimalism, while unravelling artistic elements and natural sensibilities into space. It has greatly influenced my work.

HK: Now I handle all things communication, while assisting and experimenting. Yekyung is in charge of the actual design work.  

Located in a quiet alley off of Hongdae, one of Seoul’s most iconic shopping streets, the café called Slit has an architectural character that helps the relatively small space leave a big impression. Its arresting façade is compiled of steel plates installed diagonally to create triangular openings.

What is it like to study design in South Korea? And what do you think the educational system is currently lacking?

YK: I believe that the design education system in Korea is too focused on university entrance exams and job market employment rates. On the surface, it follows its slogan of developing designers for this era, but in practice it focuses on the numbers. Design classes taught in high schools force a passive learning style on students. Students thus become accustomed to education that requires memorization rather than thinking skills, which has a negative effect on creative thinking and developing a strong voice of one’s own. Education should nurture skills and leave behind its excessive obsession with grades and measure with more than one standard.

HK: I didn’t receive a design education myself, but with the growth of the audio-only app Clubhouse, I now have many opportunities to listen in on student discussions. What I’ve noticed most is an anxiety about the gap between the ‘at school’ and ‘in practice’. Looking at education overall in Korea, I think there is an absolute lack of horizontal communication and culture of discussion. The words of professors are perceived as the absolute truth and questioning those, or expressing a different opinion, is something of a taboo. To create a good foundation for design education, it’s important to change that atmosphere and to become more open. 

In designing Seoul’s Will.B café-cum-bakery, Artefact wanted the entire building to be perceived as a single mass, thus uniting architecture and spatial design. The terrace is finished with concrete to blur the boundary with the street.

There’s quite a specific material sensibility to your work. What role do materials play in your designs?

HK: Texture and structure are important factors in maximizing the empirical aspect of a visit to a physical space. We have a tendency to avoid overly decorative materials and we don’t use a lot of finishes that differ from their ‘ground’ surface, like laminate. Making things look pretty is not everything, so we stay away from the polished look. Most people are surrounded by these doubled-side-finished materials in their daily home life, dulling the senses in a way, while we all have an innate sense of structure. Therefore, rather than dressing, wrapping and covering, we generally prefer exposing. Sometimes we intentionally reveal structures when working on a ceiling, for example. We opt for materials that can be structural and a finish at the same time. These choices allow people to feel the architectural scale and get an impression of depth. 

YK: The ‘aura’ of materials matters to us. We often use metal as our main material. I like its heaviness. At our flagship store for male tailor Estado, metal blends with the elegant yet masculine character of the brand.

To utilize the elongated small space of the tailor Estado to the fullest, Artefact installed a bar that includes a consultation space, work space and accessory display.

You combine architecture with interior design. In your work, how does the former inspire the latter and vice versa?

YK: Architecture and interior design have no choice but to interact. We believe you can only really achieve good results if the image of architecture melts into the interior space, which could be achieved when architectural designs consider more than just exterior and structure.

HK: We don’t think about architecture and interior separately. We like to look at the surrounding environment and draw physical properties from it. We aim to establish connectivity between exterior and interior. We tend to not only think about the space given to us, as we think there is a lot of potential value in the relationship between site and environment. 

YK: Compared with other design firms, we ‘add’ very little to the outside of our projects. Seoul, the city in which we are active, is overcrowded and most sites are ‘visually damaged’. Type ‘signage of Seoul’ in your Google search bar and you’ll find images of façades covered in an insane amount of signs. And that across the entire street. In a landscape like that, you cannot feel the natural energy of the buildings or the flow of the street at all. Making your façade bigger, brighter and more conspicuous in order to survive in Seoul, the battleground of the retail and hospitality industry, is understandable, but times are changing. It is possible to create a sufficiently attractive space by returning the surrounding environment to a natural state – even if that’s a concrete building. By giving the street some space, many commercial outlets can coexist. 

This is a shortened version of an interview originally featured in our May/June 2021 issue, Frame 140. To read the full discussion, get your copy here.