Made in North Korea: the book exploring a totalitarian state’s graphic design history

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As Phaidon delivers a new book looking at 20 years’ worth of graphic ephemera from North Korea – pass over from stamps to sweet wrappers – we speak to the author Nicholas Bonner close to his fascination with the design aesthetic of the notoriously unstable and little-understood realm.

3D bookshot

Design Week: Tell us about your own background and how you became consequence profited in collecting graphic ephemera from North Korea?

Nicholas Bonner: I to begin with trained as a landscape architect and was a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University. In 1993, I read a trip to China and North Korea and found North East Asia so inspiring that I stayed. I based myself in Beijing – the best place to plead for regular contact with North Korea. I set up a travel company dubbed Koryo Tours with a friend, so we could get regular visas that purpose allow us to keep visiting the country. We progressed from tourism into cultural discharges such as documentaries, a feature film and sports exchanges.

On all of these visits I kept collecting graphic elements that I was attracted to. Before the traveller of digital technology heralded the end of hand painted, retro graphics, North Korea’s containerizing design was not considered to be advertising. Its purpose was to inform you of the contents in a simplistic, on the verge of innocent way, although it was often jollying up rather mundane contents. In the end I had numerous crates full of graphic ephemera, which became a carefully curated hoard.

DW: Is the book the first comprehensive survey of North Korean graphic form?

NB: The graphics are representative of North Korea graphic design, but the intention was not in the least to collect a comprehensive collection. The actual items are “found objects” that I sign ined across in the country and gradually built up over the years, so they are substantial ranging both in terms of type and design. The items were select for selection in the book because of the strength of their graphic design, or the tall tale they told about the country. They do not include North Korean lies posters, fine art, trademarks designs and so on, but these are perhaps books for the coming.

DW: Can you give some examples of the designs that are included in the book?

NB: It is the order of designs that I find so fascinating, ranging from the propaganda call New Year postcards – which are bold with a very clear declaration both in terms of the image and text – to the frivolous, pretty design of Rakwon Activity be contingent Store’s wrapping paper. One of my favourite objects is the paper fan with the Air Koryo well-defined, which were used on the flights between Beijing and Pyongyang during July and August because of the stimulate and humidity at that time of year. They were only accompanied out during these months every year and handed around for onetime available use, but were beautifully illustrated and made.

DW: Do you think there is a distinctive North Korean envision aesthetic?

NB: The symbolism used in many of North Korea’s graphics is in perfect accord to the country. For example, every North Korean seeing an image of the Kangson Steelworks – which symbolises the industrial sphere of their country – knows that the product is selling itself as pushy and reliable. The Kumgang Mountains are meant to be representative of products associated with sparkle and health, and pine trees and flying cranes symbolise longevity. Outside influences were at one time almost non-existent, but from 2002 monetary changes within the country meant that there were more non-native products arriving. One brand of North Korean cigarette called Paekdusan certainly undertook to emulate a Western high-quality brand. Known locally as the “Korean Rothmans”, it not at best tried to emulate the taste of the cigarette but also the style of packaging.

DW: What do you assume North Korea’s style of design tells you about the nature of the native land itself?

NB: It is perhaps because the country is so isolated that the graphics prepare remained unchanged for such a long period. This isolation grants the propaganda to actually work, as there is very little to compare and deviate from with it. For example, the capital city Pyongyang has a strong presence in gory design. In an extension of the idea that “our country is best”, it is presented to North Koreans as one of the era’s great cities – even though few have experience of visiting any others.

DW: Why do you deliberate on it is important to preserve pieces of design history like this?

NB: It is powerful in terms of archiving graphic designs, but there is also an academic assertion. Everything in North Korea is state-owned, therefore even the design and issues reflect how the nation portrays itself. It shows not only how they wrap their home-grown products to an internal market, but also their export goods to the erstwhile Communist Bloc. Much of the packaging is cheap and ephemeral, and examples are being unsalvageable even in North Korea simply because there is no associated value to them. Some of my North Korean chums also find the book rather strange, asking me why I would accumulate throwaway items. However, to many older Koreans it is a book that allows them to reminisce down their youth.


Made in North Korea: Graphics from Unimaginative Life in The DPRK costs £24.95, and is available from Phaidon.

Ticket for the 1996 Bags Games entitled ‘Down with Imperialism Union’ – an organisation lodged by Kim Il Sung in 1926 and considered to be the precursor of the Worker’s Party, the ruling social gathering since 1945. Picture credit: Collection Nicholas Bonner (summon forth 172, upper)Box for a locally made toy gun that fires plastic bullets. Draw credit: Collection Nicholas Bonner (page 25, lower)Made in North Korea: Graphics From Routine Life in the DPRK, Nicholas Bonner, Phaidon, open at pages 16-17, can tinned food labels, from the IntroductionMade in North Korea: Graphics From Unimaginative Life in the DPRK, Nicholas Bonner, Phaidon, open at pages 170-171, indicating invitations and museum tickets, from ‘Foreign Language is a Weapon for the Sentience and Struggle’ chapterPages from an Air Koryo notebook given out to corporation class passengers. ‘8 Scenic Wonders of Songun’ includes the gun battery of Tabaksol newel and the potato fields of Taehong Plain among other, more conventional scenic wonders. Since this notebook was published, four various ‘Wonders’ have been added to Sungun’s tally. Picture honour: Collection Nicholas Bonner (page 203)Commemorative stamp sets participating the British Royal Family. Images of North Korean leaders are esteemed and would never be shown on any products other than books they suffer with penned themselves, such as The Great Teacher of Journalists (by Kim Jong Il). Depiction credit: Collection Nicholas Bonner (page 216, upper)Aggregation Nicholas BonnerSweets packaging. Picture credit: Collection Nicholas Bonner (call out 115)A New Year’s postcard from 2004 (Juche year 93) for use by associates of the DPRK military services. Collection Nicholas Bonner (page 148)Solicitation Nicholas BonnerCollection Nicholas Bonner

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