Sublime beauty is what comes to mind when viewing the Ottchil artefacts of Eunhee Lee. Cups, boxes, small
bowls with a lid, trays, plates, candlesticks and chopsticks designs, which are produced by traditional techniques , traversing
30 to 40 steps, are elegant and modern. The Seum series, which is a set of cups and coasters, sold out all items at the 2013
Maison & Objet in Paris, the world's largest interior fair for home décor, interior design, architecture and lifestyle culture.
Eunhee Lee, who has since been introduced through world-renowned exhibitions, is an Ottchil craft artist, loved by designers and
design enthusiasts transcending nationality. Eunhee Lee states that "Because of the difficulty associated with handling Ottchil,
not everyone is allowed to enjoy the sublime tune of the Ottchil process." With dedication and perseverance Eunhee transitioned
from an industrial/furniture designer to a lacquer painting craftsperson, creating her own unique design language. The persistence
and sincerity of her process includes that she paints, dries and grinds over 30 times, exemplifying a singular aesthetics of
patience, of waiting, that transforms her work from the ordinary to the extraordinary. As such she sets a beautiful example for
young designers to emulate, to maintain a sense of balance between tradition and modernity.
Eunhee Lee majored in Industrial Design and graduated with a B.A. from Hong-Ik University in 1980. In 1982, she secured an M.A, in Furniture Design from Hong-Ik University Graduate School of Industrial Art. She has taught industrial design at several Art Universities for more than 20 years. Since 2003, she has been fascinated by traditional work of Ottchil and Najeonchilgi which led to her learning about and mastering these techniques.
In 2007, Eunhee established ‘gallery [o:n]’ and received a UNESCO’s Award for Excellence for Handcrafts in 2008. Her Seum series was registered on the Korean intellectual property list the following year. Her career as an educator and artist flourished and expanded globally. She has been invited to various lectures and workshop held at venues such as LA County Museum and USC Pacific Asia Museum in CA, The National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh and more. She has also been involved in world-renowned exhibitions and fairs including Maison & Objet in Paris, Museum fűr Lackkunst in Műnster and National Intangible Cultural Heritage Center in Korea.
Recently, her works have been designated as a “K-ribbon Selection” by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2019 and in 2020, which is a national recognition for excellent cultural works.
Q How did you become an Ottchil craft artist?
I majored in industrial design at Hong-Ik University College of Art and did my Master’s degree on furniture design.
After graduating, I worked as an industrial designer and a lecturer for 20 years focusing on digital processes in industrial design and
information technology. Researching and teaching digital environments and cyberspace, which was an unfamiliar concept to the public at
the time, naturally became the core of my work. One day, I suddenly found myself in a digital environment and losing a sense of analogue
touch. This was the moment that I realized what I truly wanted to practice as an artist.
Q What year was that? I wonder how you came to pursue an analog life?
It was one day in early 2003. My thesis stuck in the corner of the bookshelf caught my eyes, and when
I read it again, I remembered the times was preparing my master's thesis in 1981. Since the thesis topic was 'A Study on
Cosmetic Furniture in Joseon Dynasty Era', I had to go through museums and antique stores to collect materials. After reading
it, the memories of being fascinated and thrilled by the traces of wisdom and beauty of ancestors began to occur one by one.
I asked myself if I was living the life that I dreamed of, and if I really wanted to pursue a digital life. I figured that I should start
too apply considerations of tradition and subjective reinterpretation into the design and expand that to modern lifestyle. That year,
I began to learn about Ottchil. Since then, I have been conducting research and traditional production with a focus on Ottchil
and Najeon (mother of pearl).
Q The beginning of ‘gallery [o:n]’?
As an industrial designer, lifestyle design research applying traditional materials and techniques naturally expanded
to a comprehensive design brand called ‘gallery [o:n]’. In 2007, I established ‘gallery [o:n]’ to run an Ottchil crafts-specialized gallery
for research, experiment, production and promotion. In parallel, I also have on/offline brands ‘SEUM’ and ‘VIUM’. Cups and plates are part
of 'SEUM', boxes and Ham> are part of 'VIUM'.
Q The value of ‘gallery [o:n]’?
Traditional and contemporary crafts have a special quality that is evaluated by the degree of proficiency in
materials processing and techniques in the production of works. Generally, the immersion of production and the duration for proficiency
determine the value of the craft. Therefore, ‘gallery [o:n]’ seeks to be recognized as a brand that reflects its creative design
capabilities. In addition, it aims to be a luxury lifestyle brand with an artisan-level completeness through the highly skilled production
process of each piece.
Q ‘gallery [o:n]’s art works are a brand and a useful tableware themselves. What is the secret to interworking design
As a designer, planner, and an operator, I make and produce concepts based on BI and PI. So, when I work,
I naturally build the identity of what I do first and produce it in parallel with the process.
Q. How do you recreate Korean traditional crafts by interpreting them in a modern way?
The Ottchil design of ‘gallery [o:n]’ is made through 30 to 40 steps of purely handmade effort; repetition of
grinding, refining, painting, and waiting. Eco-friendly lacquer that is resistant to humidity or acidity and has natural conservation,
in addition to its beauty and practical value, may age over a thousand years. The subtle light and beauty created only by the nature of
Ottchil-art deepens its color over time, expressing Korea's unique beauty. Although the design is modern, the manufacturing process
complies with traditional techniques and is purely handmade. In addition to this identity of master crafts, I pay utmost attention and
apply strict quality examination to parts and areas that are not revealed on the surface. Most of the buyers say that they keep the mina
display case but I actually recommend them to use in their daily lives for a completion of elegant and beautiful lifestyle.
Q. What's the most difficult part of your artwork?
As many people know, handling Ottchil materials are delicate and difficult as it can cause skin reactions such as
rash. Although it brings itchy and sleepless nights for a week or two, the characteristic of a genuine natural Ottchil is that it never
harms the body. Now that I am used to it, I can handle it with care, but I am still always exposed to getting hives from the poisonous
Ottchil. Ottchil also varies by concentration, its origin, and age. Along with humidity, temperature, thickness, drying time, an ageing period after
painting, these variations make the raw materials distinctive. The more you know, the more complicated and difficult Ottchil becomes.
Q. What is the challenge in release/sales process?
People are not familiar with the process of making Ottchil craft. Sometimes I get massive orders of 50 to 100 pieces
with only a month to produce them. Ottchil is purely handmade and not for mass production so it is very unfortunate that I have to reject
Q. What motivates you to continue such hard yet noble work?
The sense of pride in continuing a beautiful tradition. Being able to contribute in creating a value that
will be retained and unchanged me joy. This is what keeps me going.
Q. What is your source of inspiration?
As a designer by nature, I try to borrow my inspiration from beautiful things that are in use, rather than
from specific phenomena or motifs. In that process, I think that my experiments and efforts that I make to ensure qualitative
value beyond the limitations of special materials create my world of modeling.
Q. Future plan?
Responding to delayed orders. I also wish to collaborate with artists in other genre, across borders and
Ottchil processes take a long time and the final product slowly blooms only after an extended period of time. But the soft light that emanates from these products last for more than a thousand years.
The time taken for Ottchil work - to paint, dry, sandpaper and mature is always accompanied by a period of waiting. Only by accepting slow progress and continuing this process do the products slowly reveal their true essence. Through this period of patience, I continue my reflection.
When this whole process of Ottchil proceeds with time, each product reaches completion, one by one. Over time, there is perfect completion.
Ottchil is Nature’s great gift which becomes more mysterious with time. For me, Ottchil work is a process of respecting and realizing God’s order and his design of the world. Through reflection and patience, I come to understand the providence of nature through my Ottchil work.
Therefore, my design can be seen as an experiment that determines its function in pure form through natural elements and natural materials. These experiments are premised on the use of the products in contemporary times while the production is carried out with respect to Korea's unique traditional Ottchil craft processes.
I hope the excellence of Ottchil crafts can cross borders and be shown beyond its original function, history, and tradition. I aspire for it to be explored and re-examined through contemporary art, craft, and design. I think of the harmony between modern design and traditional crafts through a new perspective.
I am immersed in transforming ordinary objects into personal treasures, to apply precious value that lasts beyond time, through traditional Ottchil processes. I aim to transform objects from simple functionality to something treasurable. Ottchil has its own special beauty that creates a new future layered over my past. My clock never stops for this noble job which I whole heartedly embrace and it will hopefully continue for as long as I can endure.