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(Yonhap Feature) Designer takes on man's most glorious task
By Robert McGovern
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Nov. 20 (Yonhap) -- Perhaps it was the social manifesto at a London college that affected Hwang Kim. It would at least go some way to explain some of the projects undertaken by Kim, a designer who strives to make the world a better place.

   Born in Seoul in 1980, Kim studied at Hongik University before moving to London to focus on interaction and social engagement design at the Design Products Department of the Royal College of Art. One of the three focus areas of the department is The Social Manifesto, "which aims to take advantage of new possibilities and social changes; how can designed objects, systems and spaces improve the quality of life; and what are their impacts?"

   One of his earlier works is the "doorknob for elderly people." Made with frail older people in mind, the work was inspired by visits to homes for the elderly where Kim found that all the doorknobs had a number of problems. His re-imagined door knob simply needs to be pushed when entering and pulled when exiting a room, making the lives of residents a little bit easier.

   On a grander scale, there is his solar powered window cleaner for the world's ever-increasing number of skyscrapers.

   The project that is perhaps the most karma-inducing of all is the cocoon. A portable urban shelter for the homeless, the cocoon is fantastically simple. Made from cut and folded card it has been distributed continuously since 2005 with over 500 being distributed across the country, most of them in Seoul. Kim said a few Korean manufacturers have donated cardboards and architecture students from universities around Seoul helped with the making and distribution of the cocoons. The cubist-style chrysalises can be seen around Seoul and with funding from the Seoul Design Foundation secured, Kim has high hopes for the project.


Hwang Kim's "cocoon," a portable urban shelter for the homeless (Photos courtesy of Hwang Kim)

Kim explains how and why the project evolved.

   "It was on a winter day in 2003, while I was in search of my motives for my exhibition based on my philosophy of universal design, when I noticed a number of homeless people shivering in the cold and some asleep on streets near the City Hall subway station," Kim said.

   "And that is when I decided to design (the) cocoon," he said. "The problem of homelessness is one of the biggest social dilemmas. Whether or not we help the homeless, we are subject to being criticized. It is a violation of human dignity to let them starve or freeze to death by not taking any action.

   "The cocoon aims to provide a little pleasure whilst (homeless people) face the harsh conditions of homeless life. I wish for the homeless to come back into communities as wonderfully as the larva's transformation into a butterfly."

   Costing around US$5 to produce, the cocoons are distributed every winter between December and March, with the last round of distributions in February this year. About 100 pieces were distributed that time, but it still isn't enough to deal with the homeless community estimated at over 4,000.

   Kim's most interesting, and newsworthy, story may be his "Pizzas for the People" project. In response to a series of reports over the last decade that North Korea's late leader Kim Jong-il wanted his people to be able to try all the world's great foods, stories of Italian chefs and pizza ovens being flown to North Korea and North Korean chefs going to Naples and Rome, Kim started thinking. And the opening of North Korea's first pizzeria a few years ago led him to develop his idea to completion.


Scenes from Hwang Kim's instructional video for North Koreans on how to make pizzas, one of the artist's major projects that soon will return in season 2.

Kim decided to try and enlighten the people of North Korea so they could be part of this latest culinary development in the hermit state. "With the aim of challenging current cultural obstacles in North Korea, I... contacted a number of Chinese smugglers in China to distribute illegal propaganda over the border to North Korea through the popular DVD format," Kim said.
The illegal propaganda in question is an instructional video that shows what is supposed to be a North Korean woman in her home showing the viewer how to make pizza. The unnamed woman even explains where to get some of the more difficult to obtain items and what to substitute them for if the items prove to be impossible to find, the most interesting substitution being tofu for cheese. Employing patriotic-style propaganda music and primitive graphics, the video is as sad as it is funny.
The video can be viewed, among other places, on the web site of Domus (, a bilingual Italian magazine that focuses on design and architecture.

   "The Pizza to N.K. is the first in a series of designed insertions that explores how design can playfully contribute and have an impact on a social and cultural level, subtly challenging an ideological status quo," Kim said. "Paradoxically, with the support of pizza loving leader Kim Jong-il the first-ever pizzeria was opened to provide an authentic Italian experience for the minority wealthy political elite."

   Kim said he has been receiving feedback since the DVDs were smuggled in.

   "I got photos, video clips and letters. Some pictures are taken in their kitchen while they were cooking their own pizza. Video clip letters include conversations and accordion playing. Letters are not only sent to me, but also to the actor and actress in my pizza film. I started sharing them in galleries last year," he said.

   Kim is currently in Europe where, among other projects, he is working with choreographers in Brussels on Pizzas for the People Season 2 that will be released at Festival Bom ( in Seoul in April 2013. He is taking the pizza project on tour to Tokyo in December and to California in February for the TED conference "The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered."

   Kim is still motivated heavily by the principles of improving the world.

   "Social activities on the basis of public design are the parts (of design) that I have been most passionate about and I am still very interested in," he said. "The ultimate goal of public design is transformation of the high-density city into a better place to live in for everyone. The process of public design which adds, subtracts and considers will bring us an attractive place worth living in."

   "Social systems are created to guarantee happiness for all, but at the same time, they can be a tool of oppressing people," he added. "Panopticon theory, which was invoked by Michel Foucault in his book 'Surveiller et punir,' had a lot of influence on me."

   As Sophocles said, "To be doing good deeds is man's most glorious task."