Furniture designer Minjae Kim turns paintings into chairs
Photo: Sean Davidson/seandavidson
When furniture designer Minjae Kim was in elementary school, his mother, Myong Ae Lee, was pursuing her master’s degree in painting at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea. “I was this kid that someone brought in and ran around when everyone was working,” Kim recalled. Seeing Lee create his paintings – abstract pieces that ponder themes such as the relationship between individuality and coexistence – and living among them in his childhood home, where Lee also worked, “helped me understand the process of working towards something,” Kim says. “What are the highest aspirations you aim for? It’s the quality of the work, not just a financial issue. It has always been ingrained in me. That influence can now be seen at “Minjae Kim and Myoung Ae Lee – Mother and Son,” a new exhibition at Matter Projects, which features Kim’s latest collection alongside Lee’s paintings, which are on view for the first time in the States. -United.
Kim always wanted to be an artist like her mother, but her family steered her towards a financially stable job. He ended up attending graduate school for architecture and until recently worked for Studio Giancarlo Valle, the interior design firm behind Marilyn Minter’s Cold Spring weekend home and Upper East Side showroom. from Altazurra. He started making furniture in college – small, intuitively designed pieces that were the opposite of the rational, restrictive work he was doing in architecture – as a side project. “Whenever construction work is frustrating, I make furniture,” reads its Korean language website. This feeling of freedom and playfulness comes through in his chairs, which appear to have one arm raised or resemble a seated person. His approach to materials also defies expectations; the carved wood sometimes appears supple, like a chair carved with a handprint, or is contoured to appear to have been slowly worn away over time. Besides wood, he works with rolls of quilted fiberglass, which he soaks in resin and molds into organic shapes for chairs and lamps. “They kind of became like stand-alone things,” Kim says of her furniture. “They embody these characters, and then they start engaging with each other.”
During the pandemic, Kim decided to quit architecture and pursue her full-time art practice in New York. Since then, his work is apparently everywhere. His first solo exhibition took place in July at the Marta Gallery in Los Angeles, which earned him praise in PIN-UP, Sight Unseen, T: The New York Times Style Magazineand Architectural Summary. His work has since appeared in a multitude of exhibitions – Head-Hi’s Lamp show, NADA House 2021 on Governors Island, a TIWA Select presentation for SIZED – and in collectors’ homes.
As he started his own practice, Kim thought more about his mother’s work. After 14 personal exhibitions in Korea and Germany, she enters a later phase of her career. “Would it be possible for me to nurture her work the same way she nurtured my life? Kim wondered. Whenever he had an exhibition or editorial photo shoot, Kim added one of Lee’s paintings in the background. The chance to do something bigger came when Jamie Gray, the founder of Matter, came to Kim’s studio for a visit. Kim had just moved into a new space in Ridgewood, and Gray initially confused Lee’s paintings on the wall with Kim’s. The designer remembers: “While we were talking about doing a show with the gallery, I was like, ‘What if we did it with her?'”
In “Minjae Kim and Myoung Ae Lee – Mother and Son”, their work indeed seems to have parallel, albeit distinct, sensibilities that rely on material experimentation, texture and form. Kim’s wood and fiberglass chairs, slender mushroom-shaped floor lamps and large upholstered wardrobe seem to come from the same aesthetic universe as Lee’s thickly textured, irregularly shaped canvases – they look a bit like Tangrams – and its thick impasto grids, reminiscent of the paintings of Agnès Martin. Exhibiting in the United States was not something Lee had intended to do, but curating the exhibit with her son and seeing how her pieces and paintings work together in the gallery is an experience she describes as a “unimaginable opportunity”. “Through this exposure, I see Minjae being able to further expand her palette and diversify from her previous work,” says Lee. “The momentum of an artist is so important. By collaborating with him, I wonder how what I see and experience here can enter into my own work. I may want to work with different materials.
For Kim, the show also helped bring her relationship closer with her mother, who had been strained by the distance between them. (Lee lives in Daejeon, while Kim is based in New York.) “Each short visit was a massive effort to bridge that gap,” Kim says. “It was always a bit emotionally unpleasant or turbulent. This exhibition was a way to go beyond that. It also helped Kim show his mother that he would be fine after leaving the stability of an office job. Lee seems to understand his son’s choice. “I don’t see Minjae’s path as he moves from architecture to furniture,” she says. “I see it as him widening his path. It goes where its path takes it. Pursuing what makes sense yields the best work and makes the happiest, and that’s the healthiest way to be an artist.
Minjae’s Shaped Canvas chairs are carved from wood and have molded fiberglass backs.
Photo: Sean Davidson
Minjae Kim: For my Shaped Canvas chair, I directly ripped off one of my favorite paintings from my mother, Work 0005_3 Coexistence. I was like, I’m just gonna turn this into a chair come back and see what happens. I had tried to play a little more with color and this idea of trompe l’oeil in the furniture. I started making furniture in architecture school, which taught us that everything should be honest. It’s this very modernist idea. I tried to deviate from that a bit, and this exercise helped me. I didn’t even tell my mom I was going to do this. I sent him a photo of the chair and asked him, “What do you think? She was like, “Oh, this is my painting.” I think she felt a little surprised but also overwhelmed, like I had just taken her job.
Myoung Ae Lee: Even when I saw the chair in the photos, I was shocked. I was wondering, How did he make a chair out of it? I was impressed by his talent and his risk-taking. I was impressed with how he prepared the fiberglass and completed the chair with it. It’s not like he changed the material to fit the chair; he took the material as it is, and I was surprised how well it translated into a chair. And the way it happens with the wood feels so natural and appropriate.
Kim: I have an obsession with cabinets and love playing with doors. The main thing I wanted to create was a composition that doesn’t necessarily work like a cabinet. The materials were a reaction to that. The aluminum door is attached to the green fabric door. It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve done so far, and I don’t think I could have done it a year ago.
Li: Coming here, I see Minjae’s work more in terms of artist to artist. Before coming, I might have had more conventional concerns about this – Will people like it? Is it sturdy enough to sit on? Now I have much more confidence. I can go beyond this conventional curiosity. Working together on this project has deepened my trust and our mutual esteem as artists. We always show each other our work; I show my son my new paintings, he shows me his new work. During the pandemic, it was by phone and photos, however. But seeing it in person, and putting on this show with my son, my heart is full.
Photo: Sean Davidson
Kim: This is a prototype cast aluminum dining chair that I developed with Mattermade, Matter’s in-house design and production team. I had thought about working with cast aluminum for a while, but I couldn’t have done it myself. I like the smoothness of aluminum. I had worked with steel before. Aluminum is not too valuable and unique. And for a very long time in my studio, I had this piece of aluminum boat propeller that I found on a beach. It’s dull and I loved the quality of the materials. I also started painting chairs and cabinets with aluminum roofing paint. MyoungAe always described mountain paintings as more casual work, and something about it felt more domestic to me. We transformed the small gallery room into a dining room with a few chairs and a collection of tables.
Li: The mountain piece is a more recent painting. In Korea, the natural world is incredibly charming. It is a landscape of mountains and streams, where mountains and water coexist. I made a landscape painting from the mountain in my mind – it’s an idealized, fictional scene. I make these pieces because I’m interested in capturing the characteristics of a mountain. The unique quality of a mountain is all these peaks, a shape made up of small hills that come together. I used bright colors because the landscape is so bright in Korea. My main work is abstract, but I turn to painting mountains whenever I feel like it.
Photo: Sean Davidson
Kim: This chair goes with the desk, and it’s the same size I’ve used for most of the carved wood chairs I’ve made. It is more of a sculptural piece, with two figures sculpted on the back. I worked there about a month ago, when there were swarms of photos of corpses from Ukraine. It was a time when I couldn’t get into other things. I didn’t know what to do after seeing all these pictures. I thought I could at least do something. It’s a slightly different story to the rest of the series, but here it is. We donate all proceeds from the sale – if we sell it – to Ukraine Relief.