Behind the scenes with Alice Kim of Grape Lab; sustainable design studio.
by Fatima Khan·
TreeTy speaks to Alice Kim, Founder of Grape Lab, the South Korean Sustainable Design Lab combining cutting edge design with purpose
Tell us a bit about yourself and your entrepreneurial journey
I am Alice Kim, a sustainable designer and the founder of grape lab, a sustainable design lab. My major was visual communication design & art science. After graduating university, I worked as a UX designer in the broadcasting and IT industry for over ten years, and I had been passively contemplating the social value of design. Then I started to wonder “Is there a way to make design help someone other than just being a pretty, well-selling material?” This had been bugging in my mind for a while but there were actually few chances for me to directly do any experiments while keeping with my busy office worker life. That's when I decided to quit, to follow what I believed, and to help to build the world I wanted to see. After leaving my job, I studied in the UK, researching sustainable design at Kingston University in London, and now I have taken a new step into creating environmentally friendly and social responsible design products. I pursue not only a eco-design items, but also a symbiotic economic platforms, sharing benefits with vulnerable people unable to participate in the economic mainstream.
Tell us about the Grape Lab and why you chose this name for your business
Grape Lab is a design studio which is exploring environmental and social issues to find sustainable solutions from designers' point of view. While doing my Master’s Degree in Sustainable Design in the UK, I wrote a thesis called “The Bunch of Grapes”. You see, grapes do not grow alone, but they always grow with another cluster next to them. Our society is getting more and more competitive, and as a result, we’re creating wider gaps and worse problems of inequality. We need a growing-together structure in which small organizations or individuals connect without harming each other, just like a bunch of grapes. This ideal formation inspired me, so I wish for a circular economy system based on local small businesses in marginal areas following this theory. That's how the Grape Lab came to life. Using analogue and green technologies, we are going against the flow of the high-tech era, taking a different approach to solving the world’s urgent issues. We focus mainly on wasted resources and vulnerable people in marginal areas of our society.
How do you choose the sustainable materials you work with?
We carefully think about every step of our product’s lifecycle and its connection to the environment-from production to its disposal. So we think not only about materials, but also the entire manufacturing process when we design something. First off, we are keen to use recycled materials such as recycled paper or wasted plastics. About 30% to 40% of trees all over the world are cut down to make paper. If we use recycled paper, it will significantly reduce these numbers and save many trees. In terms of plastic waste, we throw away tons of plastic everyday, but if we reuse them, we can turn “rubbish” into resources. Secondly, the materials which we use for our design should be able to be recyclable or compostable in order to contribute to a closed loop ecological system. Thus we are searching for and carefully collect sustainable materials with this criteria, as well as environmentally certified marks such as FSC, Green Seal, Blue Angel, and so on. Furthermore, we aim to use minimum resources and minimum technology. Eliminating all unnecessary elements is our design goal.
What has been your biggest challenge and how have you overcome it?
The biggest challenge has been to come up with original and unique designs with limited sustainable resources and technologies. Making an original product does not only involve designing the actual product, but it also involves designing new systems. For example, we have to find factories that are willing to adapt their production systems to properly support the design of recycled materials. We find this challenging as many factories have a standard way of producing items and have to be open to taking a risk in producing something new. Another example, is that many factories want to create products in the quickest way possible and often it takes much encouragement from our team to persuade them to take the longer route of designing products in sustainable ways. The exciting result of this entire process is the unexpected creative solutions like g.flow, which highlights our sustainable origami technique.
What does sustainable design mean to you and what does the future hold for this field?
To me, sustainable design means to design a way to keep surviving on the planet from generation to generation. In terms of environment, we should protect it in order to live here safely and continuously. At grape lab we are also concerned with the intersection of sustainable design and diversity. We believe that we need to find more ways to bring diverse people together and overcome discrimination in our society. One way we are doing this at grape lab is by partnering with, learning from, employing, and finding inspiration from groups that have often been marginalized including people with disabilities, women, and foreigners. In the future we hope that the field of sustainable design becomes a must-do, not as an better option.
What is your vision for the Grape Lab?
Our goal with grape lab is to contribute to designing sustainable lifestyles. Our world is flooded with plastics which are not compostable and remain on the planet for hundreds of years after we die. We want to help remove plastics from our lives and create products that are innovative and present people with options for a minimal, sustainable lifestyle.
Which field/area do you think sustainable design is most in need of ? (DELETE THIS question?)
Definitely disposable items and package design. After COVID, it is getting worse.
What is your dream project?
Building a sustainable design museum with a sustainable material library that also provides studios for artists who are from marginalized communities, prioritizing artists with disabilities.
Your top three recommendations for anyone looking to venture into or learn more about sustainable design.
Book 1: Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart & William McDonough
Book 2: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Book 3: Emotionally Durable Design by Jonathan Chapman
What message do you have for us on this International Women’s day?
One half of the world’s population are women. Women often struggle with discrimination such as sexual inequality in many systems including workplace, families and so on. To me, International Women’s Day is the symbol of the achievements of women as well as the resistance against gender discrimination. International Women’s Day also helped me to realize that there are many other discriminations against marginalized people in our society such as people with disabilities, immigrants, and so on. As a woman who owns a business, I have the opportunity to highlight the incredible creativity and skills of women and people with disabilities. My hope is that this will inspire and advance the rights and experiences of vulnerable people groups in my country and around the globe.