A/D/O by MINI | Sanghyeok Lee: “Domestic Architect”

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Product/Industrial/Furniture

Sanghyeok Lee: “Domestic Architect”

South Korean designer and artist Sanghyeok Lee creates poetic pieces that challenge perceptions of which objects belong in interior or exterior spaces.

When he moved to Berlin, Sanghyeok Lee found himself in a precarious situation that many creatives in the city are familiar with. After graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven in 2012, he was jobless, overwhelmed by German bureaucracy and steeped in uncertainty. Fortunately, he was commissioned to create a piece for an exhibition in Seoul that year on the theme of “design something that you would use yourself”. This meant that Lee got his first gig as a recent graduate – and the opportunity to reflect on his role as a designer in the world.

“At the time, scaffolding was everywhere in Berlin,” Lee told The Journal. “The closer I looked at these temporary structures, the more I could see similarities between them and my own life at the time. Scaffolding is necessary and useful to construction sites but once the building is complete, they’re stacked together and moved to the next place. They don’t stay in one place.”

Like scaffolding, Lee, at the time, felt he was “useful” as a person and a designer but in a constant state of flux, moving from one place to another. The parallels deeply resonated with him and it became the starting point for his first commissioned piece after graduating. The result was his shelving unit design Useful Arbeitsloser (Jobless), which went on to win the Danish Time to Design award in 2013. 

Additionally, the ready-to-assemble piece was included in the Nomadismi exhibition in Milan in 2013 that explored how design could accommodate a nomadic lifestyle. To enable the user more freedom and flexibility, Lee used European maple (which is lighter in weight than Canadian maple) for the wooden structure and opted for brass joints.

“I didn’t want to use any glue because I wanted the design to mirror how scaffolding is assembled,” he explained. “The diagonal rod at the back holds it all together – and is a direct reference to scaffolding.” Lee added that the piece features rods of varying lengths so the user can choose different heights for the shelves – a nod to modular storage systems. 

After a three-month residency at the Danish Art Workshops in 2013, Lee unveiled the Useful Living series, an extension of the design and thinking behind Useful Arbeitsloser. Again mimicking the adaptable nature of scaffolding, the series consisted of a bookcase, rack and chair. However, instead of maple, the artist-designer chose to build with oak, a common material used in Danish design.

Although Lee led a nomadic lifestyle during his early years of living in Berlin, he’s now ready to put down roots in the city. “I moved around quite a bit at the beginning of my career and it somehow worked out,” he said. “But as someone who is interested in creating tangible things, I realized that I need a lot of space, tools and materials. I can’t only work on a computer.” 

These days, Lee identifies more as a “domestic architect,” rather than as a designer or artist. “I like the idea of applying the practices and processes from architecture – which is mostly about planning and designing buildings in an outside space – into a domestic, inside space,” he said. By recontextualizing our relationship to objects in interior and exterior spaces, Lee hopes we can enter into a more open and attentive dialogue with the objects around us.

For instance, in Useless Arbeitsloser, he brought scaffolding – an object that is typically used outside of a building to aid on construction sites – into a domestic space where the structure evolved into an elegant furniture piece that welcomed modifications depending on the user’s needs. “In a way, the piece blurs the lines between what we perceive as belonging inside or outside,” he said.

Similarly, in a more recent project titled Domestic Architecture, Lee brought an arch (a structural element often used in exterior architecture) into an interior context by creating a sculptural stool out of Carrara marble. Currently, he’s developing more objects for this series.

When asked about what’s up next for him, Lee presented a small model of a piece he’s developing for a public art project in the city of Gwangmyeong, South Korea, called Today’s Weather, which, unsurprisingly, centers on the theme of weather. 

“I chose to focus on sunlight because it’s an important source of energy,” he said, “We don’t often look at sunlight directly but see it in relation to shadows. The concept I’m working on consists of a large disk with a translucent half-sphere at the bottom of it that captures and disperses sunlight evenly. It’s still in progress, but the aim is to encourage the public to interact with the piece and experience sunlight in a different way.” 

It sounds like Lee is recontextualizing nature in an exterior space so that we can become more attuned to it – which seems necessary now more than ever.

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