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November 5, 2008

October 30th marked the closing of Seoul, South Korea’s nearly three-week-long Seoul Design Olympiad 2008 at the Jamsil Sports Complex, site of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. The first annual SDO, the aim seemed to be introducing the already savvy South Korean population to the world of high design.

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Seoul has been chosen as the World Design Capital 2010 and, in addition to a number of projects going on around the city, like Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemoon Design Plaza and Park and the Han River Renaissance Project, the SDO was meant to whip Korean interest in design to a fever pitch.

The theme of the event—which included papers, lectures, exhibitions, pavilions and a design competition—was Design is Air, a notion adhered to by the more surprising elements of the show. Bill Price’s Air Dome, an air structure that held the Conference portion of the event, was the most impressive pavilion on the track of the eerily empty main stadium. 

Korean artist Jung-Hwa Choi made a better go at the façade of the stadium, stringing it with 1.7 million discarded plastic items.  Buckets, bottles, jugs, tricycles, and more formed a kind of vertical garland on the exterior of the open-air stadium.  As part of a sustainable outreach program, the greater public, and children especially, were invited to help collect the plastic refuse before it was hung from the eaves of the structure, effectively suggesting that not only do Koreans—and all of us really—produce too much waste, but there can be a kind of beauty in what we cast aside.

If design is air, then the organizers of the SDO, fearing perhaps that the battery of Korean designers who made up the exhibition of the same name would float off into Seoul’s hazy atmosphere, sought the ballast of name brand designers.  The likes of Tom Dixon, Jaime Hayon, Ross Lovegrove and Tord Boontje all found their way into the exhibition space.  A boon perhaps for design neophytes, but for those more in tune with the international scene these foreign heavyweights—all displaying work readily seen and available the world over—felt more like ringers than equals.  A sensation enhanced by the otherwise quite good work of the Koreans represented.  Standouts, to my mind, included Lee Seongyong’s Floater, a plastic ladle that floats in a bowl of liquid or soup and 3F-Studio’s winsome little chest, Dodo. 

With an estimated over 2 million visitors, still only a fifth of Seoul’s population, the 20 days of the SDO seem to have been a success.  As design moves closer to the center of Korean life, and as the city gears up for being the City of Design 2010, one hopes, for everyone’s sake, Koreans themselves are driving the shift.  Education about the hotshots of international design is all well and good, but nurturing the local talent—which is ample—is the best way to create a sustainable scene.

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