New York City. Korean designer, Minjae Kim, on the physicality of making things.

Korean artist and designer, Minjae Kim, often describes his furniture works as one-liners, stemming from a character or a joke conjured during a private moment working alone in his Brooklyn studio. From wooden chairs with pointy ears to quirky fiberglass and resin light fixtures, there is a distinct sense of humor aglow in each piece. Despite this, Kim himself comes across quite serious, calm and even-tempered. Here, he discusses his daily routine, the benefits of being a foreigner everywhere you go, and his outlook on making art, which has largely been influenced by his parents, a Won-Buddhist priest and a painter.

Tell me about your creative process. Where do you draw inspiration for these ideas? Where do you begin a project?

When I am starting a project it usually stems from a detail or material, or a very specific idea. Sometimes it’s a joke. I’ve written on my website that a lot of my furniture works become one-liners. I usually have to find one thing I can kind of grab onto and align all the decisions on that one thing. Sometimes it also comes from a mechanical detail or an experiment. I come up with one detail or resolution and then I apply it everywhere in the piece. That usually happens on the days I am alone. Sometimes when you’re working with other people you can’t afford to have that moment. It’s a private thing, sometimes it’s goofy or comes out of nowhere so I try to reserve that moment for myself.

Is there a state of mind that you typically work in or that your work puts you in? 

More and more I have to multitask. I used to go into a meditative state when I would go hours working on one thing and then carry through, but unfortunately I can’t do that so much anymore as there are so many things happening at once now. I’m working with my assistant or a collaborator or responding to emails. Many days during the week I feel spread thin, but before I got busier with my own practice I used to have this conversation a lot with my dad who does meditate a lot and who is always talking to me about it. I tell him I always find tranquility when I’m working and get a lot of comfort from it. It makes me feel grounded. I still get pockets of it when I’m working and once you have that meditative experience I think you’re more able to dial back to it at your will and if your environment allows. I try to make space for that. Unfortunately it’s not every day anymore. 

What physical elements are involved in your work? In what ways does moving your body play into the creative process?

When I work on things I always have to consider the restrictions. Sometimes that even becomes a starting point. I look at the parameters and consider what is actually possible and not. Oftentimes I start from there rather than running into it later, which would be much more difficult. I always try to start from what I can do within my restrictions. My own physicality is a big part of it. How to work comfortably is a big thing. I guess when I was younger, I was aware of this too, but I would push it much more. When I was making things just in my backyard as a passion project, the physical restriction was almost elastic because I was able to get out of my mind and go extreme for the sake of it. But, now I have to do this everyday and hopefully for the years to come so I find myself being more and more conservative with it. But it’s an element that I am always aware of: how big is the piece and how is it assembled. Where do I draw a limit? If you ignore the rules you can do a lot of crazy things and make a lot of things work but I try to do less and less of that now and try to keep things manageable.

Tell me about your parents, what they do and how they have influenced your work and approach to making things?

My mom is a painter and my dad is a Won-Buddhist minister. They’re an unconventional couple, which I didn’t think about growing up but looking back it has a different weight to it. The main thing is, my dad was always very supportive of her career more than anything. For me, growing up, her career was always the most important thing. It wasn’t always the most successful, but he always put an emphasis on it so I always had that perception of the creative world. She’s always devoting her time to it and when my dad was home he was always talking about how important it is to support her. I tried to follow that path, but then it was my mom who tried to talk me out of it initially. She wanted me to do a more practical job, so I studied architecture. Then 10, 15 years later, it is kind of funny because they are in the next room working on my mom’s paintings in my studio and it feels like we went full circle and everything has found its right path. Retrospectively, I wouldn’t have known at the time, but if he was dismissive of her work it would have been very different for me.

In what ways has growing up in Korea and now living in NYC impacted your work?

It has been interesting. I feel I am in a third group, meaning I am from Korea but there is also a feeling of alienation when I am there because I spend so much time abroad, and then in New York, although I’m very well assimilated, I am still foreign. This has always been a big part of my personality and how I see the world. I think New York is a really good place for someone like that because you can really feel at home despite being in those feelings and having that specific sensation. I have so many friends who don’t belong to New York or wherever they’re from so I think that’s the biggest thing. When you’re working on creative projects it’s really helpful to have that perspective because you’re not really buying into anything. You have one foot in the door, you’re skeptical and you’re expressive of that. I think that really helps here. It may not help in a lot of places in the world but it does here. 

Can you tell me what a typical day looks like? How do you start your morning and do you have any rituals or routines?

For the past year I’ve been starting my day at the gym in my neighborhood. Within this one routine are all of these micro routines too, like what I eat before and after. It really occupies my morning. I started doing it because I was feeling very sluggish over the past few years and doing this gives me adrenaline that I can ride off of throughout the rest of the day. It’s a weird sensation of like, I am really tired but somehow I have this kind of butterfly feeling, tingling feeling that keeps me going. It’s a sense of bliss that lingers when I then go to work: the opposite of drowsiness. That is really the most important morning ritual and it affects the way I schedule the rest of my day and the things in my studio. I start around 8:30 and then I am usually at my studio by 10. I’m in the studio four days of the week with my assistants and then I try to have one and a half days where I am alone so I can process things and take things at my own speed, catch up or do something a bit more independent. The days I am alone are usually the days I come up with new ideas.

Is there a sensory experience you hope to provide through your work?

Yes, I try to give my work a lot of character so you’re not just identifying it through the material or the form, but collectively it’s identifiable as a character. Maybe that makes it more memorable. 

What are your favorite materials to work with and why?

Right now resin is my favorite. I spend a lot of time and effort trying to make a studio that works well with resin and I think it’s starting to do that. It’s very versatile. I use it to work with fiberglass and I feel like I can make a lot of different forms by brushing it on. Now I’m starting to do more casting in resin and there’s a lot of form-making I can do relatively quickly and I understand it better than before. 

What upcoming projects are you most excited about?

I’m putting ideas together for a group show in Korea, which will happen this fall. I haven’t shown my work in Korea formally yet, so I’m really excited about that. 


Writer: Jennifer Hartman
Photography: Rich Stapleton
Art Direction: Chloë Richards Rubenstein

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