View of “Korea Now!,” 2015–16. Photo: Luc Boegly.

View of “Korea Now!,” 2015–16. Photo: Luc Boegly.

“Korea Now!”

Musée des Arts Décoratifs

View of “Korea Now!,” 2015–16. Photo: Luc Boegly.

“Those women in Seoul were like the girls I grew up with. They just wanted a lipstick that could make them feel they might belong in a bigger town,” writes Andrew O’Hagan, in a recent profile of Karl Lagerfeld for T: The New York Times Style Magazine. O’Hagan followed Lagerfeld to South Korea’s capital last spring, for the presentation of Chanel’s 2016 resort collection. The designer, in the writer’s eyes, figures as a sort of fashion messiah, descending upon a land of aesthetic poverty. The Han River “was blue in all the wrong ways,” the sky “unsmiling,” and then there were the fanatical apostles: “These people were logocentric, dressed top to toe in Chanel and nothing but Chanel.”

Like the girls I grew up with. But where did O’Hagan grow up? Google answers: Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, Scotland, population approximately sixteen thousand. Is Seoul now akin to Kilwinning then? I couldn’t say. But after seeing some of those resort pieces in Paris in “Korea Now! Craft, Design, Fashion and Graphic Design in Korea,” I think I can say why Lagerfeld brought the collection to Seoul—neither charity nor commerce, but the vision of Korea that inspired and imbues it: the blues, in all the right ways, alongside the reds, greens, pinks, and yellows of Korean patchwork; the chest-skimming “waistline” that results from combining the billowing long skirt (chima) and fitted jacket (jeoguri) of the women’s traditional costume, the hanbok, which produces a perplexingly suggestive and secretive eroticism; and the remarkable ease and humor with which Lagerfeld’s Korean peers seem to cast off the aesthetic binaries that we so often take as givens: traditional and futuristic, organic and synthetic, Oriental and occidental.

Lagerfeld was the exceptional non-Korean star included in this assortment of fashion, furniture, and graphic design, but many of the designers spent years practicing in Europe before bringing their work back to Korea. The influences seen here are as much those of European modernism as from Korean folk and artisanal methods. For example, Park Won-min’s “Haze” furniture series, 2014–, most immediately recalls the work of Gerrit Rietveld but is constructed from a translucent, lightly colored synthetic resin. Park, it turns out, studied at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Several artists, such as Kim Hyo-joong, Chang Yeon-soon, and Lee Sung-soon, have produced wall-size, monochromatic textiles employing traditional Korean weaving and patch-working methods; but they also display a forthright interrogation of materiality and serial practice that could rest comfortably next to Sol LeWitt or Agnes Martin. A haejuban table from Kamkam Design Studio is modeled after old-fashioned, lacquered tea tables used while sitting on the floor. Most Koreans, however, have traded their mats for chairs and sofas—and so Kamkam’s pink acrylic table, which abstracts the haejuban’s standard decorative motifs (of waves, vines, clouds) into straight lines and clear angles, extends a conceptual challenge, asking the viewer to imagine a life that accommodates the style of this slick, modern-looking object while once again sitting upright on the floor, reengaging the traditional practices of Korean bodies.

Such montages of modernist and traditional forms often appeared seamless, most notably in the graphic design of Ahn Sang-Soo, who derives inspiration from both Dada typography and its Korean contemporary, the poet Yi Sang. The Korean script, hangul, is elegantly geometric, and Ahn is ingenious in drawing out its plastic qualities. I’ll admit to cringing in front of certain would-be cutting-edge garments that not even G-Dragon himself could pull off, such as Juun.J’s neoprene sweatshirt, featuring what I can only describe as Jean Fouquet–meets–Princess Leia–meets your toddler’s bin of plastic toys. Jin Tae-ok’s multilayered, crosscut garments, however, swept me to the edge of the sublime. In her hands, a simple beige fabric can be seduced into any number of textures and colors, and may recall either the delicately flipped pages of a book or a porcelain moon jar. Here is a master.

Is South Korean design finally catching up to American and European aesthetics? It might be the other way around. The exhibition title reads to me less as an exclamation than as an imperative: “Korea now!” And now those women in Paris might feel their town just got a little bit bigger.

Mia You