A conversation with Corners

This past March, while Ji and I were in Seoul visiting family, I had the opportunity to sit down with Hyojoon, Daiwoong and Eunhye of Corners and talk about how book making fit into their design practice and why they were making books. They were incredibly generous with their time, and very patient with me as I felt my way through this first in a series of interviews. A big thank you to Jimin Han, a very talented artist I met through Sook Jin Jo, who acted as my translator during the interview and generally kept the interview moving along. Thank you also to Yoonsun Jung for her work transcribing and translating the audio.

Daiwoong Kim, Eunhye Kim and Hyojoon Jo of Corners.
l-r: Daiwoong Kim, Eunhye Kim and Hyojoon Jo of Corners.

Korean Photo Books: Could we start with quick biographical sketches? How did you get to where you are now?

Hyojoon Jo: We met each other at the end of 2011 and have been working together since. And now we’re doing three things: running a graphic design shop, running a small publishing house and running a print shop around risography.

Jimin Han (Translator): What kind of jobs have you done, basically..?.

Hyojoon: In my case, I graduated from Central Saint Martins in England, and met the others as an intern at a company called mmmg (Milimeter Miligram)…

Jimin: And at the end?

Hyojoon: Yes, I met Daiwoong and Eunhye there. I went to serve in the army after the internship while the other two were working as designers.

Jimin: And what does ‘mmmg’ do exactly?

Hyojoon: It mainly designs stationery products. It does that and imports and sells them.

Jimin: It also runs a coffee shop, right?

Hyojoon: Yes, there is a cafe there as well.

Daiwoong Kim: I graduated from Hong-ik University, majoring in Video Game Design and met the others at mmmg as Hyojoon said.

Hyojoon: Eunhye [who hadn’t joined the interview yet] majored in Fashion Design and Graphic Design at Kye-Myeong University in Daegu, and moved to Seoul for the internship.

KPB: Do you have a mission statement, some kind of guiding principle?

Hyojoon: Ah, yes. When we met as interns at the design house the work we had to do was not ours. We did the jobs the design company gave to us. When we first met each other, we tried to make books [for ourselves], to make one book.

Jimin: To make books?

Hyojoon: Yes, at first.

Hyojoon: This led us to develop the design studio. [The books] triggered the design studio.

Jimin: Are you aiming at something with Corners? Is there an objective?

KPB: Right, do you have a guiding principle? Or is there a certain kind of impact that you want to make?

Hyojoon: When we do the clients’ works, we can’t do what we want. The reason we do this kind of book making and printing is that it is work that we want to do. That is what I really want to do. So I am in accordance with the clients’ needs when I do their jobs. And…

Daiwoong: So, as we do commissioned works, we want to make opportunities to do our own, non-commissioned works, like making a small book or project.

Hyojoon: We work for [clients] doing graphic design and we cannot do what we want in that case. So… we do the small publishing and printing work for ourselves, I mean, self-initiated projects. We want to do the projects that we want to and that we like.

KPB: Could you tell me more about that; why the personal projects are important to you?

Hyojoon: [to the others] He wants to know why these self-initiated projects are important to us…

Daiwoong: Why don’t we each talk about that?

Eunhye Kim: I want to make good books: what I have thought in my daily life. Without any disturbance, separated from the client work–I want to do this for myself.

Jimin: And then after you make these, well, I don’t know much about the contents, what are they?

Hyojoon: Some of them are very personal; this was made when I served in the army..

Eunhye: And this is made up of photographs taken while I was traveling…

Jimin: And then, these are kinds of what you want to do, so, a kind of artwork, right? You do these not for making money but because you have something to say…

Hyojoon: Yes.

Jimin: These are not for sale, right?

Hyojoon: No, they are also for sale.

Eunhye: It differs among books. There are some for personal use like this one. In this case, there was an event at a small bookstore, and the bookstore suggested we make a book called (which became “the Palm Book”) without specifying a subjects. So we’ve made the book in a small quantity as our participation in the event.

Daiwoong: We do the art books for ourselves, but also sell them.

Jimin: Ah, you sell them as well.

Daiwoong: Yes.

KPB: I’ve actually purchased a couple, so yeah. [Laughter]

Jimin: They would like to talk about why the book is the medium they use.

Hyojoon: Yes, you can touch and you can feel the paper. I think designing a book well is choosing the right paper and right method of printing. We bought the Risograph printer; the process of printing has its unique texture and feeling, so we really like the aesthetic. We are trying to put our stories in the books and to make people read more.

KPB: So one of the things that I like about what you guys are doing, and this is based on the two or three of your books that I have, is what you guys are doing with the Risograph machine.

Hyojoon: Yeah, not all of them, but most of them.

KPB: Well the ones I’ve seen, these are London and Berlin which are both risograph..

Hyojoon: Yes.

KPB: … and 2011, 5, 24 Tuesday which is, I think Risograph. Could you talk about what the Risograph process is and what the difference between Risograph and, say, digital offset is?

Hyojoon: It’s a really old machine; there is a very recent version of the printer, but we use the old one. When you see offset, the DPI is very high and the quality is very good. Risograph is very low-tech. The ink is quite different between offset and Risograph. It’s more like silk screen and letter press. There’s a lot of limitation in the paper sizes; the maximum size is A3. And you can print just one color… and… what was the question?

Riso RP3700 Risograph Printer in the Corners Design Studio in Seoul, South Korea.

Jimin: What made you use Risograph?

Hyojoon: The Risograph… well, there were some students who used it when I was at school. So I saw that and I got to use it. I really liked the texture. And not many people are using it these days in South Korea. When we first decided to make books, while discussing how to print the books… well if we used offset printing, it costs a lot…

Eunhye: And we would have to print a lot.

Hyojoon: So we thought it would be nice to have this kind of machine and we bought it. There are spot colors like floral pink. You can print the pink with the offset printer, but it’s very expensive. In Korea, the printer doesn’t want to do spot color print because there are many steps to set the inks. So I think the benefit of using Risograph is that you can print spot colors and you can print a small amount of paper; especially for the small graphic design house. There are many opportunities to print small quantities, so… that’s why we use the Risograph.

KPB: Most printers are always trying to improve print quality, you know sharper, better fidelity in terms of color reproduction, and yet you’ve gone back to this older process. So you hinted at this, at a difference between technical quality and aesthetic quality. Could you maybe speak about that a little more?

Daiwoong: Actually, we didn’t think of the kind of technique or quality at the beginning. This way of printing gives a different impression, so… rather than making something with the high quality of printing, we found that we like this kind of color and texture. And it is very convenient to use. We keep using it as the process itself is not very complicated… The color selection is wide and it is easy to change colors.

Eunhye: It is easier to change spot color compared to offset printing. And we have a variety of colors we can use.

Daiwoong: The colors we now have are those pinned up on the walk behind you. There are many more colors, but we have these right now…

Printed Risograph Ink samples in the Corners Design Studio in Seoul, South Korea.

KPB: I’m going to shift gears now. You guys are a small press. Do you have a sense of where you fit in… my interest is photography, but where do you see yourself fitting into the book scene or the art scene or very broadly within Korean culture?

Daiwoong: We wonder that. [laughter]

Hyojoon: We don’t really know how people see us, but I think… I don’t know, the culture of small publishing in Korea is getting bigger. There are a few book shops which sell this kind of publication. We don’t want to be a major mass publisher. That’s why we do these kinds of books: because we want to express ourselves and communicate with other artists. For instance this one [picks up a book]; we asked an illustrator in London to draw some drawings and we made the books. [The book is the Imp of the Perverse.]

Hyojoon: And, this one [Being a Ghost is Cool] is a part of our collaboration with another artist. We do this because we like to. I think that’s the main reason to do small publishing.

KPB: About collaboration… How does that come about. Are you reaching out? Are others reaching out to you?

Hyojoon: Mostly we reach out to people and ask them to send some artworks. We don’t want to re-print what they did already. We want to publish new projects and to introduce their works to Korea.

KPB: Looking at small presses, many are working with a more or less “zine” format and yet they’re of such high quality that they’re very much book-like. And a lot of the books are made like zines, even if they’re clearly made by major artists and come from major publishers. There’s a lot of overlap. Is that a fair observation?

Eunhye: In my personal opinion… the people who publish independently put their own personal thoughts in books, so I think the books come out in much more various forms. They can be very personal. It can be nicer.

Hyojoon: That’s why we do that. That’s what a book is all about, to tell stories. These days books do not just refer to a kind of novel or something, but can be a kind of photography book, for example. So, there isn’t clean classifications.

Daiwoong: And there are many writers who are not very popular generally for big publishers, like those who draw pictures or make cartoons. They can hardly have access to big publishers or it may be burdensome to make books that way. But they may do whatever they want from making their projects to completing them with small publishers. They can have access to whatever they want to do. There are fewer limitations.

Eunhye: I mean, to big publishers… it may be a bit burdensome… [laughter]

KPB: Would it be fair to say that you as a small press have a greater ability to experiment, that you’re more willing to fail? That might not be the right word, but if a larger publisher prints 2000 books and sells 10 they’re going to be upset. They have to consider that commercial side. Whereas at your scale you can be a little more free.

Hyojoon: Yes, absolutely.

KPB: The answer has to be longer than that! [laughter]

Hyojoon: We do care about the selling, and we want to make more books with the income from the previous book. I think… what should I say? It’s not easy to make another book with the income, but compared with the big publishers, we’re more free to choose the contents not just for the money issue. First, we do this because we want to do it. We do at least have to think about the selling and…

KPB: Right, you can’t lose money on everything. But you do seem willing to experiment and play with the form. One of your books is a guide to using the Risograph that combines the process with the technical guide to its own creation. That seems very cool. Most people would just make a PDF of that.

Hyojoon: We use Risograph and there are two more places that do Risograph printing in Korea: one in Busan and the other in Kukmin University. People want to know what the Risograph is and they want to know how it works. They want to print Risograph but they don’t know what it is. That’s why we made the guide into a book. You know, Risograph is a process and if you make pdf it’s not real…

KPB: You’re not seeing the ink on paper, you’re not seeing the actual…

Hyojoon: Yes, so that’s why we make a real book.

KPB: But it could have just been a stapled print out. You made a real book. It’s as if you said, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to make it fun. We’re going to make it interesting not just informative.” It seems like you wanted the book to be more than just the technical facts of how to use the printer.

Hyojoon: Yes, and there is individual experience you know. The Risograph has lots of errors. While using the Risograph, we’ve found some weird system errors and we’ve found how to fix them. So we put that into the book. We would like others who are really interested in the Risograph to have this book rather than just a pdf file.

Jimin: Others can’t read it with the pdf form?

Hyojoon: Of course they can read it in pdf form, but one can’t see the quirks of the actual printing.

Eunhye: The book makes it interesting to read.

Daiwoong: The illustration is more understandable when one sees the actual Risograph printing as one reads it.

Hyojoon: Yes, and we’ve written about these mistakes we have experienced to share those experiences. When we use Risograph, it is more than just pressing the print button. We tried to include our know-how gained from our experiences into the book.

KPB: How closely are you tied to the Risograph? I assume that for a client job you’ll use offset when its the right tool; you mentioned earlier that you use lithography. For your personal projects are you sticking with the Risograph primarily or are you using other forms, too?

Hyojoon: No, it’s not that. In this case [showing It’s Cool to Be a Ghost], parts were printed by offset. This aspect of the layout can be blurred when it is printed entirely with the Risograph, so the black is printed via offset, and the color via the Risograph.

KPB: Can you run multiple colors with the Risograph or is it one color at a time?

Hyojoon: There is one printer, not ours, that is a two color machine. We use a one color machine, so…

KPB: So you are running this sheet through three times?

Hyojoon: Yes. If it will be too blurred then we use offset printing. If not we use the Risograph.

Eunhye: In this case the file was sent [rustling from moving books obscures the audio] if this is printed with thin colors [rustling from moving books obscures the audio] it is impossible, so we use offset printing. [We were talking about design elements like thin lines or large blocks of solid color coming out better via offset printing.]

KPB: Are you guys committed to the Risograph for the long haul? Do you see it as part of the core of what you do?

Daiwoong: The Risograph and the publishing support each other and act as a supporting element for the graphic design studio.

Eunhye: It helps us a lot to run the graphic design studio.

Hyojoon: I know there are lots of graphic design studios in Europe or the US which use Risograph in their studios. In Korea, not many people know about the process. People are very curious about the process, and it was quite helpful because, you know, there are not many studios which have their own printers.

KPB: It distinguished you. …..

Hyojoon: Yes.

KPB: So the Risograph helped to build the studio. Did it get you noticed more than if you were just trying to sell the design studio’s services?

Daiwoong: That is the biggest point. [laughter]

Hyojoon: Many students come to our studio, and…

Eunhye: People who want to publish their works in small quantity but don’t know where to publish them…

Jimin: Are the main customers mostly students or less established designers?

Eunhye: Ah, there are also a lot of designers. Many designers come to our studio.

Daiwoong: And in designers’ cases, when they look up foreign websites they see the credit: “printed with Risograph”. They know it is Risograph but they can’t find it elsewhere in Korea, so they come to our place to try it. That is how we have come to be known among designers. They knew it but there aren’t many places using Risograph. So they seem to be interested in this kind of printing. If we just ran the graphic design studio, we wouldn’t have any chance to meet other designers, illustrators, photographers, or others who do such various jobs. So the printer gives us the opportunity to meet other designers and artists.

KPB: That covers most of my questions. Do you have any projects upcoming, exhibits or new books? Anything you want to get out into the world?

Hyojoon: We are having [laughter] an exhibition at the end of April. So we are preparing for it. It will be with new works. And we are re-publishing a series of old novels which the copyrights are expired on. We are redesigning the covers and interior layouts.

KPB: So these are books of text?

Hyojoon: Yes, short novels.

KPB: These are the exhibit?

Hyojoon: No, they are different.

KPB: Oh, separate.

Hyojoon: Separate. We talk a lot about new books and new ideas, but the two things right now are the exhibition and the redesign of the old books. They are the main projects we are doing. And what else do we have?

Daiwoong: There are some magazines, and the calendar.

KPB: Is the exhibition personal project or for clients?

Hyojoon: It is a personal project.

KPB: Could you talk about some of the books, some of the things you like in them, some of the decisions you made that really work for you. I know when I make work, there’s always these little details that stand out. Even two, five, ten years later, even though I don’t want to see that work anymore, there is always some detail that still just works for you. Is there anything in the books that you look at and go, “yeah, we really nailed that”?

Eunhye: I went on a short trip personally and planned to make a really short and small book with the photographs from this short trip. So this book doesn’t contain any writings just the photos I took. When I made these books as a series, I included on the last page children or a warm family feeling. I wanted to wrap up each with a heartwarming image.

Jimin: Eunhye you’re speaking of your work. Right?

Eunhye: Yes, I planned and made this book.

KPB: I want to quickly describe these pictures so that readers will know what we’re talking about. So this is Berlin and Boracay. In Berlin the last image is a father and a son walking walking away from the camera beneath a series of arches. And in Boracay you have three kids playing in the water in the foreground and a few more kids further off in the distance with the horizon at the top of the frame. Hyojoon, is there anything in 2011 Tuesday–I’m abbreviating the title–that stands out?

Hyojoon: This is the book I made when I served in the army. There were a lot of soldiers who kept diaries each day.

KPB: Did anything exciting happen that day?

Hyojoon: Not really. [laughter] I was driving a tank. I mean… it was about the tank, fixing the tank. That day we fixed the treads. Everyone talked about how it was very hard and it was very tiring. And it was hot and they wanted to be elsewhere.

Jimin: So all of the people talked about the same thing. Same tank; same tracks; same task?

Hyojoon: Yes, sometimes some of them were thinking about other things like “Oh, the weather is quite nice.”

KPB: Some of them are very short, five or six sentences. And some of them are longer, like a page and a half. So…?

Hyojoon: I think it’s different among people. Some have more feelings about the day, and some just skip over things. And that’s the interesting point that I wanted to make. What do people think on the same day doing the same work in the same place? People think differently. So… yup.

KPB: I really like the book.

Jimin: Why is that?

KPB: I always liked the plain cover with the text on the front. And the design is very clean. I love the blue ink and the way it sits on top of the paper when it hits max density. When I reviewed it I talked about the last image, or the next to last image, and how there are clear limitations of the printing but even those limitations suggest other things. For instance the ink in this dark ridgeline–you can start reading leaves and branches in the image because of the way the ink is sitting. And the portraits are nice: very familiar and “unaffected.”

Hyojoon: For Korean males, it’s quite familiar. Everyone knows the life of a soldier.

KPB: Everything comes together for me.

Hyojoon: Umm… Thanks. [laughter] I like your thoughts on the cover. There’s some play with it.

KPB: You know when I first saw the cover I thought that it was kind of sloppy or a bit of a mistake; but after going through the whole book and seeing the consistency of the design I thought “Oh, no, this is intentional. There’s no way a mistake would have been left.” And then I like how all of the books are so direct in their design. And Eunhye’s books are super consistent and fit so well together as a series.

Hyojoon: This book [바나나-나무-무당벌레-레몬-몬스터-터키인-인도카레-레미콘-콘트라베이스-스키-키위박스-스쿠터-터프가이-이탈리아] was made by all three of us. This is “tagging the last word”…

KPB: Is this a game like Dada’s exquisite corpse?

Hyojoon: Eunhye did the orange part, I did the blue one, and Daiwoong did the yellow one, and we put these one by one in this way. Now this…

Jimin: Ah, you didn’t write a banana and a tree down in a row?

Hyojoon: No. One by one… one by one…

Jimin: You made these one by one each?

Daiwoong: Yes. We used the rules of the game to make both the writings and drawings.

Hyojoon: So in this case, as one person draws this, and another one draws that…

Jimin: They make each word one letter by one letter. Then word by word make a sentence.

Hyojoon: We drew pictures with one sentence or some words using “tagging the last word” game, and followed the rule of the game while drawing… And with these contents, we made the “palm books” and sell them.

Mike: Do you sell out most of your books? I know the ones I have wanted have sold out, just so you know. [laughter] It seems like many do–how many in each edition? 500?

Hyojoon: Less than 500. We made 100 copies of this photo books, and 50 of this, and this one is 200, and…

KPB: Oh, they’re much smaller runs than I thought.

Hyojoon: Yeah, and these are 300 each. And we made 600 copies, and half copies are sent to the artists so they can sell the books in their own countries.

KPB: So, where do you sell your books in Seoul?

Hyojoon: There’s a shop, “Your mind,” near Hongik University,

KPB: I went there a couple of days ago. I like that shop.

Hyojoon: “The Book Society”

KPB: Which moved; I tried to go there yesterday but it wasn’t there.

Hyojoon: Yes, it moved. And there is “Gagarin.”

KPB: Is that near the new Book Society location?

Hyojoon: Yes, that’s right. And then there is 29cm.

KPB: I don’t know that one.

Hyojoon: It’s an online shop. “1984” is in Dongyo-dong, near Hongdae. And a few more small design shops.

KPB: Well, I want to thank you for giving us so much of your time, I appreciate it. I very much enjoy your books and have enjoyed speaking with you.

Hyojoon: Have you done any interviews with others?

KPB: You are the first! Thank you!

Poster in the stairwell outside of the Corners Design Studio in Seoul, South Korea.