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Clever With Leather

Junsu Kim holding his shortlisted Loewe Foundation Craft Prize 2022 entry, a piece from Sense of Forest, 2021Junsu Kim holding his shortlisted Loewe Foundation Craft Prize 2022 entry, a piece from Sense of Forest, 2021

Junsu Kim’s work is illusory. His artisan “vessels” look, to the naked eye, like carved wood. It is only after interacting with his creations, feeling the leathery texture, and breathing in the rich, smoky scent, that one realizes their true nature.

His pieces are made by stacking thin strips of treated leather on top of each other and applying ottchil (a Korean lacquer derived from the sap of trees native to some East Asian countries) to the finished product. One of his pieces—a toffee-colored ovoid structure, which, like all of Kim’s leather work, evokes the pattern of tree rings—was shortlisted for the 2022 Loewe Craft Prize.

Kim uses layered strips of vegetable-tanned leather to evoke tree bark; Sense of Forest, 2021 (detail); Kim at work in his studio in Goyang-si, near Seoul

Kim uses layered strips of vegetable-tanned leather to evoke tree bark; Sense of Forest, 2021 (detail); Kim at work in his studio in Goyang-si, near Seoul

Vegetable-tanned leather, wood, and the ottchil used to color his material are “intricately connected,” says Kim. First, during the tanning process, hides are treated with tannins derived from tree barks, which results in colors reminiscent of wood. “Due to the variations in different types of wood and production methods employed by each tannery, even the same type of animal leather can exhibit a wide range of colors,” Kim says. “Through my intervention, these variously colored leathers are transformed into new patterns that evoke the essence of wood. In other words, the technique of layering leather strips one by one mirrors the growth pattern of wood, where each layer expands as the tree endures the passage of time.”

Kim was born in Seongnam, South Korea and graduated from Kookmin University in Seoul with an MFA in Metalwork and Jewelry. He was introduced to leather work during a week-long course in Tuscany he attended as part of his studies.

“This broadened my understanding of leather craftsmanship and left a profound impression on me,” says Kim. “Previously, I had dabbled in leather crafts as a hobby, but I had merely treated leather as a fabric. After attending the workshop, I developed a mindset of respecting and using the material itself correctly.”

“When creating something with leather, it is common to create a pattern and cut the leather accordingly. The remaining scraps are discarded. After experiencing the leather workshop in Tuscany, my perception of what is important and what is deemed useless has become blurred. Even scars can also serve as important records of the leather.”

Albo, 2022Albo, 2022

Kim’s creations have been shown around the world, most recently at the 2023 Collect Art Fair in London’s Somerset House and at The Future Perfect gallery in New York. During the fair, a piece from his Sense of Forest series was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Since being shortlisted for the Loewe Craft Prize, career highlights have come thick and fast, Kim tells me. Looking forward, he is preparing for a solo exhibition at Phaeton— a cultural venue located near Kanazawa in western Japan—and a major project for “a brand with a rich history in leather,” which has commissioned work for its new retail space in Seoul. While his work remains enigmatic, one thing is clear: the only way is up for Junsu Kim.

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