American Design Stories: Nina Cho
The Detroit-based talent offers her take on the American design scene today
In the American Design Stories series, we ask designers from across the Americas to share their insights on American design today, along with three images that represent their vision of American design.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Seoul, Nina Cho is a Detroit-based artist and designer who approaches her work as a means to “tell my own story.” That story, she says, is grounded in her multicultural background, her education—Cho studied woodworking and furniture design at Hongik University in Seoul before earning an MFA in 3D Design at Cranbrook in Michigan—as well as “the artistic ethic of my Korean heritage, a reductive aesthetic that merges Eastern philosophy with experimental forms.”
Cho points to a particular Korean adage as a consistent guide, a phrase that translates as: “It is modest but not humble; impressive but not extravagant.” She aims for this ideal not only in her work but also in her life. As Cho says, “It is all of a singular meaning and expression.”
What makes your American story unique?
I was born in America, grew up in South Korea, and then moved back to America. I’m an Asian American designer with a multicultural background. I hope to contribute something unique to American design, which can’t be defined by a single characteristic. It’s rather diverse.
When thinking about America, the first thing that comes to my mind is that diversity. I am always excited by the diversity of American design. What strikes me is that there is no conservative criteria or limitation in the discussion that surrounds design; this gives me the freedom to explore new ideas, and my work reflects a whole American experience without losing my own cultural identity.
What are the most urgent topics that designers can and should address today?
Sustainability and long-lasting value. Both elements can be considered in so many different ways. In my practice, I do what I can to make good designs that’ll last long. I also try to simplify not only form but process as well to minimize waste. I try to avoid trendy, eye candy work and prefer to focus on leaving my signature with long-lasting durability. I think good design is something that you don’t throw away or get bored of but pass along to your following generations.
How have current crises figured into or impacted your studio’s experience and approach?
Obviously, it had a substantial impact. At the beginning of the pandemic, exhibitions and projects were suspended or cancelled. The fabrications and suppliers I work with were closed during lockdown. However, I appreciated all the action we were taking to help each other. Having restricted, limited access to the facilities that I usually use has led me to think about new ways of conveying my ideas. I do not want to feel limited to making objects but aim to be more open to other creative outcomes and methods. While my education and experiences are heavily based on creating three-dimensional objects, I want to expand beyond this boundary and extend my creative practice in new ways.
Where do you look for strength?
Cooperation with friends and colleagues. As a small, independent design studio, you always need help. I think I’m quite a lucky person to know so many talented and nice people. Our relationships are not based on profit; rather, it’s about believing in one other and supporting one another’s vision. Everyone has their strengths and talents to offer, and I believe in cooperation all the more after going through the current situation.
Do you have a personal mantra?
I’m not sure this can be a mantra, but I like the Korean word Aek Ttaem. It means to avoid a worst possible outcome by experiencing a relatively small and bearable misfortune beforehand. The word is commonly used among Koreans as an expression of consolation.
When something bad happens, I hope that that misfortune will be the worst incident of the year, leaving all that remains to happen as good things. I know it’s impossible to avoid unfortunate events in our lives, but it’s important not to lose hope.
What gives you the most joy in your work?
Words of appreciation. It’s not an easy field. Being an independent designer or artist is more than just a job. Sometimes I question if what I’m trying to do makes sense or has even a small impact. The value of this work is not simply proven through a particular job or getting paid more. Creating work is constantly challenging myself. When my work is appreciated and understood by people, I find the excitement to move forward.
What are you most proud of in your work to date?
I’m excited about a new project called Recess Table. This new coffee table will be manufactured by a local company in Michigan called Object and Space. I believe, especially in these challenging times, collaboration and cooperation have never been more important to support each other. There's a synergy when creativity and expertise support each other.
In designing this table, my aim was to create a sense of unity among its varying forms. The circular recesses within the table top and the hollow of the tubular leg are gestures; these negative spaces give users the freedom to personalize the table. They may be filled creatively, as storage or left empty. To assemble, one simply places the tabletop upon the cylindrical legs, joining their complimenting geometries. With no further implementation, the table’s structure is secured.
Thanks, Nina! ⬥
Nina Cho was born in San Francisco and raised in Seoul, where she attended Hong-Ik University and studied Woodworking and Furniture Design. She moved to Michigan to attend Cranbrook Academy of Art, earning an MFA in 3D Design. She was recognized as an Honoree of Sight Unseen’s 2015 American Design Hot List, presented in partnership with Herman Miller, and featured as one of Five Breakout Designers of 2015 in Artsy. She was nominated for the Pure Talents Contest at Imm Cologne in 2016. She held a residency in 2016 in Tuscany, Italy, sponsored by the London gallery MOS. In 2018, the Toledo Museum of Art invited her to participate in the Guest Artist Pavilion Project. In 2019, she was recognized as one of 13 Extraordinary Women in Design and Architecture by Dwell. In 2020, she received the 6th Annual American Design Honors by Wanted Design presented with Bernhardt Design.
Inspired by the 2020 Design Miami/ Podium theme America(s)—and all the complexities that go along with it, especially in this moment—Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Anava Projects connected with a selection of outstanding designers with personal ties to the Americas to get their take on “American” design today. Their responses were insightful, inspiring, and diverse: From thoughts on the most pressing issues and challenges facing designers now, to hopes and suggestions for a more equitable future, and reflections on their own American design journeys to date. Each story is accompanied by images provided by the designer that embody what America(s) or American design means to them.