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Interview: Jay Sae Jung Oh

The designer discusses her jute-wrapped sculptural "Savage" series, environmental sustainability and her next step

by Perrin Drumm in Design on 11 June 2013

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The sculptural furnishings by Korea-born designer Jay Sae Jung Oh are stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful—a complicated, show-stopping mix of materials that references centuries-old weaving techniques and yet feels entirely unexpected. Made from discarded plastic objects woven and wrapped around broken-down patio chairs, Oh’s "Savage" series of functional seating and side tables are the perfect marriage of her degree in sculpture from Kookmin University in South Korea and an MFA in 3D Design from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Before the New York-based industrial designer takes a break from her work with Italian architect Gaetano Pesce (you may have seen his work for B&B Italia, Vitra, and Cassina) to teach as a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, we spoke with Oh about the inspiration behind the "Savage" series, her sleek new leather version, and just how long it takes to create a single chair.

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Jute and plastic is an odd combination of materials. How did you end up putting those two together?

The "Savage" series was born from the idea of communicating a message rather than a materials experiment. The idea lead me to choose the materials. Since my background is sculpture, I have a lot of experience and knowledge in diverse materials, which helps me translate and visualize the idea to a physical design.

Did you have experience as a weaver before you started?

Not at all. The "Savage" series was my first time weaving, but I practiced a lot before producing the actual piece and now I’m getting to be an expert. And actually, it’s more accurate to call this wrapping rather than weaving.

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You’ve mentioned before how contrasting materials like natural jute and the plastic objects underneath highlight "critical social issues of sustainability." As an artisan and designer, what role does sustainable manufacturing play in your work?

Unlike fine art, design comes with more responsibility to provide better solutions. Most of my design inspirations are derived from the awareness of social issues like sustainability and abundant waste. Our disposable culture makes me interested in objects that people waste and treat as invaluable.

I wanted to send a message that changes people’s perspective of sustainability. In the "Savage" series, discarded objects are reborn as a handcrafted, functional object with high value. It might not be a practical solution for our disposable culture, but I want to suggest another way to solve this issue is by simply changing our attitude and finding beauty in the things that we tend to disregard. I believe that this can be another strong, practical solution.

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How do you start each new piece? Do you gather up all the objects and sketch out a rough idea of what the finished product will look like?

I usually start my design process with sketches and modeling, but with the "Savage" chair it was different. The form emerges spontaneously. I cannot predict what the final product will look like, and that’s what makes me so excited to work on it. It’s a rewarding surprise to see what it turns out to be in the end.

Walk us through the process of making one chair. How long does it take?

First, I collect mundane, discarded objects and assemble them in a sculpturally cohesive arrangement. For this process I need four different kinds of adhesives. Since every plastic object has a different top-coat finish, I have to use a specific epoxy for each material. After that, I begin to wrap the entire surface. Then I build the basic structure for the chair with wood to make it strong and stable. It’s a long process that typically takes me about four months to complete. savage-chair-sae-jung-oh-8.jpg

Where do you get the items you use in your furniture?

I collect discarded objects instead of throwing them away. Also, people have started bringing me recycled objects whenever they want to get rid of them.

Do you use any "Savage" pieces in your home as functional objects, or do you view them more as sculpture or art objects?

I use the pieces occasionally, but with care. Function is one of the most important aspects of design, but the only thing that makes me handle them with more care is the value that they’ve come to accumulate as a whole, and also because I know, more than anyone, how much time and craft it requires to complete a single piece.

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What’s next for the "Savage" series? Are you experimenting with other kinds of objects or materials?

I’m actually producing a new "Savage" series made of leather. It’s very exciting to challenge the design with a new material. Although the process may seem similar, it requires a lot of experimentation in technique, and it’s interesting to see how a particular material gives the work a different feeling.

The "Savage" series is available for purchase and commission. See more of Oh’s work at her website.

Images courtesy of Jay Sae Jung Oh

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