Kenny Yong-Soo Son

Words by Ashley Gladwish
Photography by Youmee Jeon
Life is work and work is life; I have difficulty separating the two because I see them as connected, each of them influencing and reflecting the other.

Currently based in Shanghai as the Studio Director of San W, object designer Kenny Yong-Soo Son wants his work to illustrate how objects can give value and purpose to the circadian motion of day to day life. With an intention to create objects that are “a bit more special” than those that can be readily found, Kenny wants his work to be used, not stored for irregular and reserved occasions. Inspired by the ordinary, Kenny credits the completion of his master’s degree in Design focusing on objects and the 7 months he spent in Korea learning traditional metal craft skills as what helped him bridge his initial focus on jewellery to establishing his current practice and 2013 launch of Studiokyss.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kenny and his family immigrated to Sydney, New South Wales, where Kenny spent most of his formative years. With a mother who studied fashion and his father’s completion of a degree in architecture, Kenny tells me about his parent’s enjoyment for social gatherings and the role of coffee, wine and whisky in their life. Being creative themselves, Kenny’s parents had an impact on how he interpreted the things around him and what he took interest in from a young age. “They allowed me to do everything and anything, albeit a few things, and showed me that I could make a living from working in a creative industry even though it was harder for them to pursue in the 1970’s and 80’s due to the hardship Korea was facing at that time.” Witnessing the objects his parents used was a focal point to the craft he wanted to pursue and the objects he maintained a curiosity for. “How they lived when I was a kid and how they continue to live now has played a big role in what I like to create.”

Inspired by shapes, colours, textiles and quality materials, Kenny tells me about the process he goes through in determining his designs. “I find it fake to create work that doesn’t reflect my everyday life. My professional practice and life go hand in hand, my life plays a big part in what I do and how I design.” The things I make are often things I need and use everyday. I like to create objects that make daily life easier or better for people, whether that be through structure or by using a particular material. I like simple and geometric shapes and both of those things are prevalent in my work. Metal is the material I know best and often the reason I choose it.”

Kenny describes a critical shift in his practice between the time he finished his degree in visual arts to his completion of his master’s degree in objects. With the former solidifying his understanding of how to structure and build, it was the later and the mentors he had during this time that helped him conceptualise his previous learnings in determining the approach he wanted to take in his professional practice. “Earlier on I was gaining skills in making small objects but I was always interested in 3D items in a larger scale. Closer to my graduation I started creating things that belonged on a table or desk. I wanted to better understand how I could make things survive through a lifecycle instead of staying in a cabinet, shelf or exhibition.” At this time Kenny’s thoughts juggled between what it would be like to create one piece of art that would take months to make, hoping it would sell, and compared this thought to what he would want to pursue as his focal point, independent of his previous concentration.

Citing his master’s supervisor and industrial designer Berto Pendolfo, and undergraduate supervisor, Oliver Smith, as two of the prominent people who helped conceptualise what he wanted out of his practice, Kenny’s time with master craftsman Cho Sung joon in South Korea is what he claims shifted his approach to his work. As a recipient of a grant through the Australia-Korea Foundation, Kenny’s work progressed from solely a design and usability focus to a practice that was much more labour intensive through its incorporation of traditional Korean metal craft skills. After 7 months under the mentorship and guidance of Cho Sung joon, Kenny’s practice is hand made. “I conduct small batch productions where I spend 2 or 3 days making an order. The process is intimate as it’s often created for one person. I like knowing that an object has been ordered to be used, to be taken out everyday and incorporated into the ceremonies people carry out.”

The notion of ceremony and culture is fundamental to Kenny’s work. As a observer of the ways in which his parent’s and friends relate to the tools and utensils around them, Kenny tells me that being in Shanghai is no different. “People have a connection to tea and this connection differs depending on the area of China you are in. To design objects you first need to understand how a culture interacts with an object or how they carry out routine.” Travel, Kenny tells me, plays a big part in what he finds inspiration in. “Not travel in a direct sense but more so in an immersive, abstract way. I like witnessing what’s around me and learn about how people in different cultures interact with the things they encounter on a daily basis. In Shanghai tea involves much more than simply a tea pot and strainer, it’s fascinating to build and design objects that work for one culture and not another.”

When I ask Kenny about San W and how he got his semi-permanent role in Shanghai he tells me about Guild House, a craft institution in Adelaide, South Australia, and their role in the foundation of San W. “San W is a studio that focuses on contemporary designers, makers and artists. “Right now my practice is based in Shanghai and will be for the next 3 months. I’m fortunate to be able to incorporate travel into my work while continuing to progress Studiokyss. Living in Yugiao in the Pudung District has allowed me to explore the art and cultural scenes in Shanghai. There’s a small street food place run by an older couple that I frequently visit near my apartment, not to mention Cafe Volcan and Liquid Laundry in the South Shanxi District.

With a plan to settle back into Sydney in the not so distant future, Kenny tells me about his upcoming proposal to build a new studio in Sandy Point, a short distance from Sutherland Beach and Wollongong, New South Wales. “Before I left for Shanghai I was living in Balmain. I really enjoyed how close it was to the city and but felt like I needed more room to make noise. I wanted to relocate to an area that was a bit more remote and understated.” After holding two residency positions Kenny can envision what’s important to him in a studio of his own. “Structure has an unconscious influence on the work I do. I want a space that can accommodate other artists and makers, where people can collaborate or work alongside each other. I like spaces that utilise natural light and warm timbers, and of course, it would have to consist of a couple of machineries, a communal workbench, coffee makers and whisky tumblers. I want a space that feels like I should stay longer.”

When I ask Kenny about the future he tells me that when people envision what he does they often already have a preconceived notion in their mind. He wants his work to ensure the vision that people hold of contemporary art and design is a positive one. He wishes to continue to be a part of the community that improves and develops the industry that surrounds craftsmanship and to ensure his practice continues to invoke an interaction with it’s users, one that is much greater than what is simply a physical interaction. Thank you Kenny, for the insights into your work. It was a pleasure to speak with you.