The Korean-born woodworker once had childhood aspirations of soccer stardom, but then faced a particularly American brand of ennui after a career-ending injury. That bout of coming-of-age existentialism led him westward. Hunting for a new career path—and a subsequent goal—Chun traveled down a road of exploration that landed him deep in the world of industrial design.
Through Joseph C. Furniture, Chun is now turning out wares imbued with sentimentality, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail, resulting in gorgeous woodworking that’s every bit modern as it is versatile. Chun spoke with Surface about his upbringing, creative influences, and how his compulsory military service let him to furniture-making.
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I’d love to hear about how you got your start in the industry.
I came to the U.S. as a freshmen in high school, when I was 13 years old. And I was just a normal kid, playing soccer and stuff. I went to college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and everything felt like I was just doing it because I was told to. And by that time, I had joined the army back in Korea, because it’s mandatory. So, as I was in the army, I thought a lot about myself: What I like to do, what am I good for? And I came up with the idea that I like making stuff and designing; I feel most fulfilled when I create something that came out of my mind as a finished product.
I decided to study industrial design first at LaGuardia Community College as soon as I finished with the army. And as I was studying industrial design, I wanted to focus on the furniture, and I really like hardwood, so I decided to go to RIT as a furniture design major. I graduated last year and I’ve been working full-time at Pickett Furniture, as well as working on my own brand [since].
I’m wondering if your upbringing influenced the way you think about or experience design?
As a kid growing up in Korea, I was really into soccer. I wanted to become a professional player. I was in a really hardcore training school for about three years. And I got an injury in both knees and needed surgery. I had to change my entire dream, my goal for life. That’s when I decided to come to the U.S., get a better education, and find out what I wanted to do other than playing soccer.
I went to school in Wisconsin, had a great time, met a lot of people. As I was going to high school, I was one of the best soccer players because I was trained in Korea. I got the entire team to championship and became a state champion by the time I was a senior. Those things affected me a lot. I felt like a stranger in the beginning, but as I was showing what I can do, people were respecting me, wanted to talk to me, wanted to be friends with me; it made me feel accepted.
When I went to college, I was completely lost because… you have to do everything by yourself. So, I took a time off as a to be a soldier in Korea. I was assigned to special forces. Do you know the demilitarized zone in between South Korea and North Korea?
I was at the border. I had to watch for the enemy’s activities. And that line had not been touched by a human for over 60 years. It’s a completely free zone, where nobody can build or anything. So, I spent two years of my time in places where all I could see is nature and all I could experience was very raw. That changed my life entirely.
[So, in retrospect,] I first went to University of North Carolina in Charlotte right after high school, but I didn’t want to go back there because I was so lost during the time I was there. So, I decided to come to New York City and signed up for LaGuardia Community College’s industrial design program. I had a great time there and found a more focused goal for myself, which was making furniture with wood.
That’s so fascinating. So you’re saying the DMZ’s emptiness inspired you?
Usually, I’m a very outgoing person. I have a lot of friends around all the time, but during those times, I was really disconnected from society. All I could do was make a phone call once a day to my parents, maybe my friends, if I had the time. So, I felt really disconnected—but that really helped me think about myself, focus in on myself, and really think about what I wanted to do. That time was really precious for me.
So, you lived in America for a little while. Did you elect to serve in the military? Or was that always a thing that you were going to have to go back and serve?
I had to do it. While you’re studying, you can push it back as much as possible until you hit 30 years old. But because I was struggling over what I wanted to do in college, I wanted to use that… I don’t want to call it chance, because I didn’t choose to go… but I wanted to use that time in my early 20s for [personal] development.
And you said your brother worked at Pentagram for a while?
I actually have to talk about him. I have two older brothers. They were both born in the U.S. because my parents used to study in Detroit. My dad is an engineer, and my brothers were both born here, so they are both citizens. And we all grew up in Korea. My brothers came back when they were three- and one-years-old, and I was born in Korea. And when we all hit 13, my parents decided to send us to the U.S. to see the bigger world and get a better education. We all came one-by-one.
My oldest brother was my role model ever since I can remember, even though we couldn’t grow up together because we all went to different high schools and timezones were different. By the time I came to U.S., my brother had started school at Parsons as a graphic designer, so that really inspired me. And he still works as a graphic designer, and he helps me out time-to-time. He’s my biggest sponsor.
With your brothers, since they were born here, they don’t have to do compulsory military service, right?
No, that’s the thing: they both didn’t [have to] go to the army [since they were born in the U.S.] I was the only kid who had to go. So, yeah, my family worried about me.
Interestingly, you have artistic influences in your family, otherwise.
My mom’s a pianist, so I grew up with a lot of classical music. And my mom always did a lot of going out to galleries, visiting museums, and going out to musicals and stuff. And I didn’t really like following her around [at the time], but she brought me everywhere as a kid. And now, I think that my mom really was a… I don’t know if I should say pioneer, but she was… I think she was just trying to enjoy her hobby. But now I look back and really think, “Oh, I do have roots in myself in art field.” I thought it was just everything that my mom just does. And now, I think that it really helped me as a kid.
Is there an aspect of the brand that you’re most proud of?
I’m really proud of my actual skill and the quality of my work. And I’m very proud of myself for putting a lot of attention to details and attention to small things because I want my work to be somewhat of a masterpiece, you know? I know I just barely started and I’m not there, but that’s what I’m pushing myself toward.
And I don’t want to make furniture that’s going to get worn out or get boring once you use it. I really care about the feeling of the wood, because I believe that furniture is something that you interact with your body. And it’s not only that, you’re almost supposed to use it every single day in your life. So, I think details are very important. Like touching, feeling, and aesthetics, it should last long. Strength, functionality, and longevity are all important to me.
Back to the Motivation Pack. That’s one of my favorite pieces of yours. Take me behind the inspiration and design of that piece.
A lot of details in Motivational Pack are symbolic, presenting something about my soldier life. So, it’s a pointy shape as it goes up and I served in the very top of the mountain. All we had to do was watch out for what North Korea is doing. We could look around four sides. Back in Korea, toward the South, there was one room that faced back to Korea. But if you look to the North, you didn’t see anything at all. It’s very depressing. There’s no trees. They cut down everything, and all they have is a little bit of grass. So, every time I was looking back to Korea, I got really emotional. I almost feel that’s a symbol of myself. That picture is really vivid to me. Every time, when I think about it, it reminds me of how responsible I was as a soldier, you know?
Totally. And I feel like what we’re coming back to is discipline and how ingrained that is in Korean society.
Do you feel that way?
Yes, kind of. Because that’s such an important memory to me. I felt most attachment to the dog tags out of any other object that you use in the army, because that’s something that you carry right next to your heart all the time. They get really annoying when you take a shower or go to sleep, and people usually take them off when you’re not supposed to. But I kept mine on all the time because I actually felt like was a member of the army, and I’m actually doing something good for other people. I felt responsible for it. And because of that, I wanted to show off how I felt about my entire service period.
I wanted to keep it quiet because that memory, to me, wasn’t really something crazy or… It’s not like I was in the war. I was serving the military. But I was meditating on myself and focusing with myself more. Now when I think about it, it was very sophisticated moment for me. So, I wanted to hide everything else and not make it loud. And also, in those dog tag pieces, too, those handle you see? The bronze handle represents the fences. I was surrounded by fences everywhere, like 360 degrees, because we’re in the minefield. DMZ is basically a huge mine field. You’re not supposed to walk out or go to some other road other than the road that we exactly know. Every view that I was looking at was covered up by fences; I felt like I was in a jail, but everything else outside of this fence was so beautiful and inspiring to me. So, that’s what that’s symbolizing.
What advice would you give to younger people starting out in the field?
Don’t be afraid. I wasted so much time just worrying about stuff, thinking about my future. What am I going to do? But as a maker, as a designer, what’s most important for me, I think, is just keep making work and focus. Just keep moving forward, because we all have a lot of work to do. Personally, I get inspiration from my experience, my life, my living. So, if you keep working your idea into a product and just work and move forward, I feel like people will notice you and respect you and contact you. As I was wasting time, I was moving slowly forward because of that, but now I look back, I really should have not worried much, because that was something that I could’ve never sold.