Natural Affection

A night table talk with Ji Rook Kim, founder of Unspace. A Japanese-influenced Korean-American architect, he takes apart german cars, designs top-notch restaurants and retail stores in Manhattan and keeps close to nature and sound

I get up quite early, but only start getting into designer’s mood by 3 pm, spending 2–3 hours a day on pure creativity.

I love coffee, but I drink tea.

At Columbia University we knew what was hot and trendy. I knew what to do. I was very proud of my projects. Then I went to Japan, and my confidence went to zero.

At some point I found an architect in Japan, and I just decided to fly over to his office. He had no publicity at that time, and I fell in love with his work.

When I arrived, I spent nights, working on a design, and the master would look at it and suddenly put it upside down, or cut it in half, and say ‘What do you think?’

I ended up making tea for the meetings. Every time I made the tea, he wouldn’t drink it. My designs were broken apart, and now my tea! It took me 2 months to realize what was wrong about my tea.

One day, I saw a bubble in the kettle and I realized that I could feel the temperature of the water. The kettle was talking to me: “Now you can make tea.” That day the master drank it, and said, “Now you may design a tea house.” That turned out to be my first project.

Yes, I do have a Porsche that I took a part to see what’s inside. I’m just interested in things.

We were hoping that New York City had a strong program for energy-efficient building, but they don’t. It all starts with the owner of the building and there it ends.

If I didn’t go to Japan, I’d be probably fifty percent the designer I am today.

How do I deal with noise here in Midtown? I make my own.

I’m into sound. Sound is emotion.

Your eye can be tricked. Your taste can be tricked. But your ear cannot be tricked. Once you hear a good sound, your ear is done.

I try to build on the work with the detail that I will barely notice myself.

Before Japan, I was very bound to perfect work, but then I saw a pottery maker working. He makes three hundred vases, and then he breaks most of them. One might think he is looking for the perfect shape, but in fact he is looking for something else. He’s looking for the most natural shape. That’s what he is looking for. Best pieces aren’t designed by a pottery maker. They just happen and then one has to notice.

My design process is all about reduction and subtraction of myself.

I don’t believe in trying to design. It’s like a hesitating chef who gets to try mix everything he brought from the market. In the end, it just tastes bad. Fish? Boom! One slice, done! That’s how I design, bit in order for me to get there, I have to understand where this fish came from, what it was doing before, how it was caught by the fisherman… Once I have that, I am ready to start slicing.

Once I told a client right away, if you just need to paint this wall white, you’ve found the wrong guy.

I reject more projects than I take. I’ve had so many chances to grow my company, but that’s one thing I’m not going to do, because that takes away the soul of the design.

Sometimes I go to the mountains.

I’ve been making my own speakers since I was fifteen.

When collecting one learns to understand what’s authentic and what’s not. It’s very hard to see the core.

Recently I went to London, trying to see why, all of a sudden, their food scene is exploding. I think they just got tired of fish and chips.

Once I get on the plane, I’m gone! I’m sleeping.

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