Seoul, like so many other great cities of East Asia, bustles and buzzes with life, a modern and dynamic metropolis. At night neon signs and giant digital displays battle for attention, advertise everything from the ubiquitous internet cafes (per capital South Korea is the most 'online' nation in the world) to the all night eateries, saunas and singing rooms. Like Japan and China, Korea and the Koreans are a nation of early adopters. Technology exists to be embraced. The latest digital products, software, systems and means of communication are all readily accepted by a culture which now not only adopts technological innovation but is a world player at its leading edge.
It is against this background that I exit the subway system at Seoul's hip, creative district of Jamwondong before ducking off a busy main highway south of Seoul's Han river. I've travelled on a bullet train from Ulsan's National Institute of Science and technology (UNIST), having recently made the move from the leafy suburbs of South London to start a new life at UNIST's School of Design and Human Engineering.
My final destination is Seoul's young, ambitious and rapidly expanding design consultancy SWBK. Founded in 2008, the firm offers an extensive range of design services from IT-based product design to brand consultancy, service design and their Matter & Matter range of fine furniture. SWBK's global design awards speak for themselves (Red Dot, IF, IDEA, GOOD Design...). They have an ambitious, skilled and highly motivated team, whose knowledge and expertise are sought by a growing list of national and international clients.
Their work also extends to the direction of design and cultural exhibitions. One such expo recently organized by SWBK, is the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition in Seoul. It showcases the work of some of Korea's most celebrated craftsmen, artists and designers; from master Bang Chun Woong's display of Korean Ethnic Earthenware (onggi) to Media Artist Yang Min Ha's virtual, interactive installation reinterpreting the process of making onggi through manipulation of digital content via physical, embodied interaction.
In a way SWBK's Sulwha Exhibition is an apt reflection of Korean society more generally. Traditions of the past live cheek by jowl with a modern tech-savvy culture, creating a hybrid mix of embedded traditions within an emergent, dynamic digital culture.
I pick my way towards the SWBK studios and am greeted at the door by co-founder, Sukwoo Lee. Having worked as an industrial designer for Samsung and then at Teague in the United States, Sukwoo returned to his native Korea in 2008 to co-found his consultancy with fellow designer Bongkyu Song.
I've come on a mission: to find out if, within this tech-driven culture, design firms have decided it's time to finally kiss goodbye to dated, low-tech analogue design tools like hand sketching and model making in favour of a fully digital industrial design process.
We sit down to talk and Sukwoo starts by pulling out one of his sketchbooks...
He then produces a tiny handcrafted scale model of his latest chair design and sets it to rest on a page of thumbnail or thinking sketches of the same design.
"I quite like this kind of sketch' Sukwoo explains as we leaf though his work, 'I feel like I'm freer with this kind of quickly made sketch on paper...just hand drawing. From these sketches we often move to these sketch models," he explains.
At this point Sukwoo scuttles off across the studio to return armed with a large plank of balsa wood. "When I touch this wood," he continues, "and I even smell this, it feels much freer than digital work." Sukwoo speaks of an emergent design language that is explored and considered through the use of sketches and scale models. Like the master craftsmen of his Sulwha Cultural Exhibition, there is something honest in the way he describes his expression of form through hand sketching and hand making. From the start, the impression is that these analog processes are integral to SWBK's working culture and design process; to their ability to explore and develop design intentions?
We move on.
"After this," Sukwoo explains, indicating a wall filled with sketches, illustrations and 3D digital models "we start to sketch a little more of the aspects of the form."
At this point Sukwoo describes how CAD tools (Illustrator and Rhino) are employed to test the potential of the concept. "The CAD model is quite rough" he explains, "but gives the team a better idea of proportion and curvature."