Every year, a biennale takes part in Gwangju. In the even years, it’s the Gwangju Art Biennale; in the odd, the Gwangju Design Biennale. 2013 is the year of the 5th Gwangju Design Biennale, whose theme these year is “Gusigi, Musigi (거시기, 머시기 / Anything, Something)” and basically deals with exactly what the title conveys. This year’s Design Biennale takes a look at the mundane in everyday life which in the end isn’t that mundane, finding value and meaning in the designs of the familiar and ordinary.
(I personally would have translated the title as “Thingamajig, Whatchamacallit” but perhaps they wanted the English title to sound more proper than its Korean counterpart. I think it’s is a pity because the nuance gets lost a bit, the feeling of closeness and familiarity is rather subdued in the matter-of-fact sounding “Anything, Something”.)
The title aside, there was plenty to see and experience at the exhibition, from product and interior design to more artistic endeavors, and also side exhibitions which were also worth seeing. Several sub-themes within the exhibition were especially notable for me – a collaboration installation project with K-pop idol Yunho of TVXQ, for example, and interior designs incorporating elements of Korean traditional architecture.
However, it was Dan Ahn (안동민)’s special exhibition titled “Evolution of Design” which really caught my eye. Two very familiar and ordinary everyday objects were the showcase of his work: the bicycle and the rice cooker. Ahn presents the representative models of the products in front of a timeline, making us contemplate how deeply design is integrated into our lives. The rice cooker, particularly, is truly an essential of Korean life; everyone, literally everyone, has had access to one at some point in their life so I paid a lot more attention to this, marveling at all the familiar designs which were being displayed.
So how did the rice cooker evolve in Korean society?
1950s – Iron pots
If you look at the kitchen of old hanoks or country houses, you’ll notice that the furnaces are huge; they also serve as the main heating portal for the ondol system. Several generations all lived together under the same roof and with rice being the base element, large quantities of cooked rice had to be prepared for every single meal. Although electric rice cookers were introduced in this era, cast iron pots were more durable, common, and practical, not to mention affordable.
1960s – Nickel silver pots
New and better materials for cooking utensils came with rapid urbanization in the 60s. Gas distribution throughout the city made for easier cooking. Nickel silver pots became most popular due to their heat suitability and stability. Easy to use, nickel silver was used not only for rice pots but also for tea kettles and ramyeon pots. Even today, some people maintain that both ramyeon and rice taste the best when cooked in nickel silver pots. In the 60s, it was what people used the most.
1970s – Pressure cookers
Korea’s economy had a big boost in the 1970s. Budding since the 1960s, the “Miracle of the Han River” was advancing full throttle. Many Koreans were taking advantages of the opportunities which came with this economic growth and some ventured overseas with hopeful prospects. Among these overseas workers there were miners and nurses who went to Germany following a international program set up between the two countries. The workers started to settle in Germany from the early 1960s and by the late 1970s, approximately 18,000 Koreans were living there.
With many Koreans venturing abroad, the introduction of new “foreign” products was inevitable. Koreans living overseas had to find alternatives for familiar cooking utensils and kitchenware, and for the Koreans living in Germany (and also France), they discovered the pressure cooker. Pressure cookers in European countries were mostly being used to cook meat, but Koreans found them very handy for cooking rice. In addition, the rice cooked in these pressure cookers had a very pleasant texture, so when German pressure rice cookers started being imported, their popularity soared.
1980s – Electric cookers
Then came the electric cookers. The biggest advantage of the electric cookers compared to the pressure cookers was the “warm” function. Once rice was cooked in a pressure cooker, it was done. If eaten right away it would be a warm bowl of rice but after a while the rice would cool down and unavoidably became cold rice, which would later be eaten dunked in hot soup or ramyeon or hot water. The electric cooker prevented that. It would actually keep the rice warm until you ate it all. What an evolution.
1990s – Advanced electric cookers
Taking the advantages of both the pressure cooker and the electric cooker, development of the electric pressure cooker took place in the 90s. By this time, the microwave oven had become a common household appliance so rice cookers had to offer something more than ample cooking quantity. The variety of size and design, manufacturers and brands took a big leap in this decade.
2000s until now – Total cooker
In the age of the smartphone, it isn’t surprising to have a smart rice cooker. Rice cookers these days do so much more than just get your rice cooked. There are many options and functions at a press of a button: rice type, rice texture, preset timing, bread option, cooking option, self-cleaning, voice alert, speed cooking, etc. It is much more than a rice cooker; it’s a multi-cooker, a total cooker. It’s not far too off when we’ll have total cookers which will truly be “network” cookers, all linked together with other smart electronic devices, such as the PC and mobile phone.
Rice cooker design
Function-wise, the aforementioned will be what we can expect from the rice cookers of the future. How about design? Several other artists and designers participated with their own visions. I found this one by Lee Sang-yong particularly amusing: a small-sized luxury brand rice cooker. Why in the heck not?
On a final note: what’s a rice cooker without rice? Although not directly linked to this exhibit, there is a separate exhibit in another hall which features product and package design, among which is a rice brand. They give out small bags of the rice for free, so don’t forget to get one. (One per guest until supplies last.)
Gwangju Design Biennale 2013 runs till November 3, 2013.
Catch it while you can.