Through her work as an illustrator, animator and Virtual Reality artist, Nakyeng Hwang explores and tells stories which connect to our daily lives and imaginations. Hers is a visual language often punctuated with figurative elements, creatures, nature and abstracted shapes, all of which gently cuts across continents and creeds, generously encouraging viewers to form their own narratives and interpretations.
The 32-year-old super-talent initially studied Fashion Design in Seoul, before switching direction to instead focus on a career as a successful freelance illustrator. Her clients at the time included Seoul City Hall’s annual winter ice rink, Amore Pacific cosmetics, LG Household and Health, as well as various book publishers.
At the age of 28, Hwang packed up her paints and boldly headed for London—despite knowing no one in the city—having applied to and been offered a place on the MA Visual Communication course at the prestigious Royal College of Art. Here, she further developed her love of visual storytelling, adding a growing command of Virtual Reality techniques to her multi-media palette, while soaking up and being endlessly inspired by the Capital’s abundance of galleries, museums and libraries. At the RCA’s class of 2018 graduate exhibition, her innovative VR ‘spatial book’—an interactive, walk-through installation which brought together voices, sound effects and images—stood out from the rest, confirming her as a Name to Watch.
Shortly after completing her studies at the RCA, she was invited to collaborate on the visual identity and menu for The Standard, London’s in-house, open-all-day Isla restaurant, headed by the hotel’s executive chef Adam Rawson. Repeat visits to the restaurant, while it was still being constructed, as well as thorough research into the Isla ethos (not to mention enviable opportunities to sample Rawson’s finest fare courtesy of the chef himself), ensured Hwang could fully immerse herself within the project, which turned out to be a particularly upbeat, creative and sociable commission for her.
The foliage-filled interior of this exquisite eatery—which extends to the similarly-green outdoor terrace—and Rawson’s quest to focus on British coastal cuisine and natural wines, is now complimented by Hwang’s uniquely folksy-yet-modern aesthetic. Nothing is perfunctory, here. Every single detail has been fully considered. And diners’ appetites will, no doubt, be further whetted by a menu that looks like no other.
"Nakyeng was a perfect fit for the concept of Isla. We thought of English florals on a coast, natural and delicate forms and we were so magnetized by Nakyeng’s use of form and color in her world that is playful and imaginative—similar to shapes of florals on a grassy sand dune or maybe more abstractly what blood platelets in happy bodies would look like if illustrated—full of life," said Angela Dimayuga, Creative Director of food and culture at The Standard International.
"Once I made a look using all rainbow colors for an imagined character who was born in the rainbow—red dress, orange shoes, yellow crown, green pants, blue vest and purple jacket. I now realize that it was a perfect outfit for when you go to Pride!"
Where do you come from originally, Nakyeng?
I was born and raised in South Korea. My hometown is a southern and coastal city, Busan. To study at university, 18-year-old-me moved alone to Seoul and lived there for ten years, and when I was 28, I moved to London to study at the RCA.
What prompted your first childhood interests in art and story-telling?
My grandpa was my first best friend. We spent much time together. When he read books, I drew a lot. We used to go to the stationery shop to buy a sketchbook which would run out every two days. He was an amateur poet, and he published his first book of collected poems when he was 72. My family on my mom's side are all Catholic. Now I don't, but I used to go to church every weekend. Naturally, I read and heard the Bible—stories of allegory, history and all about human experiences, which were written in various genres, like letters, poems, dialogue, and so on. We need stories which can explain our decisions, emotions, relationships, life, afterlife: ourselves It's about shaping and it's about connecting our past, present, and future. We've been living in stories. Without stories, we get lost in reality. And I need stories to make my works of art with the same reason; to not get lost [in reality].
originally studied Fashion Design at university in Seoul—what kind of clothes
were you designing at that time?
At the time, I liked fashion designers like Bernhard Willhelm, Henrik Vibskov, and Cosmic Wonder. So, I think, I tried to make something like their clothes. It was not about style, but about characters. Once I made a look using all rainbow colors for an imagined character who was born in the rainbow—red dress, orange shoes, yellow crown, green pants, blue vest and purple jacket. I now realize that it was a perfect outfit for when you go to Pride!
It sounds amazing! So, what motivated you to move from Fashion Design to Illustration?
Since I was a kid, I had wanted to be a fashion designer until I found I had no talent for it! To be a fashion designer is not only about designing and making clothes but also organizing and managing people, money, production and so on. I still loved fashion, but it was not enough. Then one of my friends, who was a bag designer, suggested a collaboration. I embroidered on fabric, and he made bags using this fabric. I started my own small handmade bag brand called 'This is Nice, Nice is Good', which was getting some recognition. Sometimes I collaborated with other brands. One day, I had a meeting with people from LG Fashion, to talk about stocking my bags in their new concept store, but they loved the graphics on the bag and the brochure that I made. They asked me to draw something for their store identity, interior, character and merchandise. They opened five more branches in Seoul and other cities in Korea and I worked with them for almost four years as a freelancer. My career as an illustrator began like this.
How did it feel when you moved to London to study at the RCA?
At the time, I didn’t have the right words to describe my experiences. I knew no one in London. Every single thing was new to me. I was fascinated and overwhelmed!
What was the most important lesson you learnt there?
To be honest with yourself. Know what you really want to do. And when you do it, do your best.
You work in various different mediums, including Virtual Reality. Can you tell us more about how you have used VR within your work so far?
When I found VR, it felt like I found one last piece of the puzzle. I wanted to show a more delicate reality. Innerscape VR was my first VR work, presented at the RCA Work in Progress show. Viewers walk into the drawn world among the objects. The viewers' trajectory makes new associations between the objects. This investigated how walking can be a catalyst for memory and how these memories can be mapped and depicted. Five Pages VR is a spatial book which was my graduate work—a labyrinth constructed of voices and images. In this work, there are five rooms and each object [in the room] has a voice. When the viewer comes close to the object, they can hear the voice or sound effect. The viewer of VR accepts the story as a physical experience. 'Readers' bodily enter the story, and they link the scenes bodily. They become part of the story, and the story becomes part of the viewer. With We Are Here VR I wanted to try another form of VR installation. At the time I was preparing an exhibition with Mina Song, an RCA fellowship student from the Design Curation department. She suggested I make a tent for my VR work. We thought seeing VR inside the tent could make a more intimate relationship between the viewer and my work, and It really did. Then Score VR was a VR performance piece combining dance, notation and my visual language. The idea was simple—you need to move your body to see a specific thing in VR, then, in reality, your movement looks like you are dancing.
"I was told about the categories of the menu; soil, sea and land. I researched every ingredient and the recipes, the uniform designs, its nature as a hidden garden, and so on."
What was your project brief?
They told me about the Isla restaurant at The Standard London, about the meaning of the name and they showed me the interior plan. And I was told about the categories of the menu; soil, sea and land. I researched every ingredient and the recipes, the uniform designs, its nature as a hidden garden, and so on. And they wanted me to interpret Isla in my way. I remember that keeping the delicacy was the point.
Did this particular project feel different from other freelance work you have undertaken?
I love trying new formats and what I learnt from this project is that meeting people in person, through work, could be so much fun! When you are a freelancer illustrator, sometimes you only work by email, and you never know the person you work with, even if you have worked for them for years! On the Isla project, I met the people who were involved with the project and visited the at-the-time unfinished site three times. After the first visit, I made the project proposal. The second visit gave me more of a sense of the site and what I could do at the site. At the third visit, I made drawings at the site—I drew all day what I saw, felt and heard. And, luckily, the chef Adam Rawson invited me to his test kitchen and cooked fantastic Isla dishes for me. The tasting was so inspired and impressive. And so was talking about his thoughts and ideas about food, his travels, ingredients, fermented food and enzymes! So, it was all about physical experiences, and I think the quality of the outcome is so much improved because of that.
In which ways did you use your in-depth research and references to create your own unique response?
My initial idea was making a map of physical and sensorial Isla which could guide the customers to their Isla experience. So, I wanted to visualize each element of Isla and then combine them. I started by researching the Isla site—my impression was of a space that is not flat. Every element has its own characteristics. Steps, doors, the terrace, bumps and lumps, open spaces and hidden corners. It is a landscape. I collected the shapes and colors so I could use them as my visual language. Then, I visualized the sensorial factors of Isla. I call it sensory-scape. There are invisible things: smell, sound, taste, mood, memory, emotion, touch, conversation. I imagined what it would be like if I were in Isla. From the research, in the final piece, you see animated sensorial actors are floating above the surface of physical Isla. Each element was a visualized and abstracted Isla experience.
How do you feel about your work now being seen by people from all over the world, within this amazing restaurant, within this amazing hotel?
When you are sitting in a hotel lobby, that is already traveling. You are just sitting there, but people from all around the world share the same space and time with you. Also, you can find various ingredients and recipes from all over the world in the Isla menu. The nature of this project is also a kind of traveling. The Standard is an American company and they started their journey to the world. Traveling is a discovery. You can find new things about yourself and the world. I love all kind of experiences. Knowing about something I have never known is just a fantastic thing and if it can be done through your work, that is even more than fantastic!
See the full Isla menu HERE.