The First Penguin
Interview by Teresa Hong
Momentum Seoul had the great fortune of meeting with Seoul’s esoteric, yet highly acclaimed design studio, the artisans behind Seoul’s hidden gem cafés and commercial spaces, The First Penguin.
In recent years, South Korea has gotten incredibly creative with their composed, homey cafés, located across the country. Within each themed café, you could grab a handmade cup of coffee along with an unforgettable experience. You can order a latte in a space capsule, travel back time through the Asian 20th century, or douse yourself with the sound of cerulean waves hitting against the sand and the scent of the brisk grove of mountain trees… all in a café. The First Penguin mastermind behind many independently owned spaces scattered in different parts of Seoul: Parched Seoul in Itaewon, OiOi in Mapo-gu, BOOTH GALLERY in Jongno-gu… the list goes on.
The First Penguin’s focal point is to design the spaces and to create the branding. They polish the final touches of their clients’ visions and construct images into everyday reality.
As we entered the large openly shared office, the entire team rose from their seats to greet us in the most kind and professional manner. After speaking with the CEO and Creative Director of the company, we soon learned that their approach to greetings mirrored their approach to their business and the design process.
The First Penguin was founded in April 2012, by Jae Young Choi. The quirky, yet sophisticated, name of the design studio was inspired from a page of the book, The Birth of Youth, by critically acclaimed and novelist Lee O Young.
“I was drawn to an idiomatic expression in one of the passages that introduced the idea of ‘being the first penguin’,” Choi explains. “They say that when penguins jump into the water to catch food, they tend to follow the one who dives in first, hence that brave penguin becomes the leader of the troop.”
Their team consists of 14 members in total, including an interior space designer, a graphic designer, and a team director who leads the projects. Amongst the group are those who’ve studied architecture, space design and other related fields. Day in and day out, the team comes into the office to work on ongoing projects, work in the field, or meet and consult with clients for new projects. Some days, they might even take clients to art exhibitions for inspiration.
For Choi and his team, it is important that they work very closely with their clients. “There are three aspects to my work theory. First is the design process of the project, second is the responsibility of our company, and last but not least is the communication with the clients.”
It is a company rule to have the entire team work on the same projects. The reason being is to balance everyone’s varying ideas and keep the project client-centered. Choi believes that what matters most is what their clients are envisioning because each project can be greatly influenced by the client’s individual personalities. For example, an extrovert might create an easily accessible environment and an introvert might create an environment that encourages less verbal conversation, or perhaps cover the windows with curtains for tranquility.
“Of course there are times where we want work under our own direction, but if we do, those projects don’t tend to last long.”
When asked about some of the challenges they face, Choi explained that each project presents its own unique challenges. Issues could range from communication difficulties to having to alter the graphic designs and branding for a space even if it was well planned. However, a strong emphasis on teamwork is what allows them to tackle any potential problems.
“Even if it’s not my project, I get a lot of help from those around me.” Says Choi. “If there is work to do out in the field, and there are lack of people, other team members offer a hand. Cooperation is what characterizes our company.”
The designers take into account the number of customers, so the user experience (UX) is felt more with repeated visits. The UX will not only be targeted at the customers but at the owners as well. One can imagine how overwhelming it may be serving a hundred or more customers a day. The needs of both the shop owners and the customers is important to consider to make sure the UX works well in both directions.
Everything in UX design is laid out in the space. Choi describes how UX includes the colors chosen to paint or the sensation a customer would feel. It goes beyond the physical environment of the space and deep into how you enter the space, what you perceive, what music you would hear, or the way you order at the counter.
“Everything is designed. I design the experience, feelings, and mood in a more appropriate sense. When implementing a concept, there would be times where the UX is to be used boldly. It’s great to see when it’s being used well.”
Choi gave us a concise explanation on how the café culture in South Korea has become what it is today. South Korea had its very first Starbucks franchise open in 1999. That was the initial introduction of western-style cafés. Since then, major coffee franchises became the center of attention in the brand market.
”It was around 2009 when independent coffee shops started appearing,” Said Choi. “I actually used to own two coffee shops around that time. The café industry was already saturated and there was a lot talk about whether to continue or to even start the business.”
To Choi’s great surprise, it was the beginning of a new chapter in the coffee market; when the market exploded and individual shops and brands expanded. The flow of this trend has continued until today. As a result, the number of entrepreneurs has increased.
From a sociocultural perspective, Korea has a very high proportion of self-employed people; Much higher than the percentage of self-employed people in other developed countries. Choi pointed out that many of these business owners are in the food industry and coffee has perhaps become a relatively easy choice to pursue. Another advantage of Korean society is the fluidity of the market and its ability to accept goods at great speed. One of these goods is coffee. Young people who worked as café employees or baristas during the 2000s, later grew a desire to set up their own cafés, thus leading to the expansion of the independent café market.
In Choi’s opinion, although cafés are mainly commercial businesses, they play the role of alternative spaces in society. If we look back at the mass production in South Korea’s coffee industry, out of all countries South Korea’s coffee has never tasted so good. The choice and taste of coffee is improving and evolving, but in the beginning stages, Korean coffee brewers heavily relied on the traditional blending techniques and roasting companies from other countries. Now, the Korean coffee industry has become exceedingly rich. There are even world champion baristas from South Korea and those who have their own coffee farms. The coffee industry has developed tremendously because of the demand for coffee beans which in turn caused the café industry to flourish. There was also the sudden rise in demand for coffee roasting machines. It is clear that cafés are doing well because of the boom in the coffee market.
“There is a saying that Koreans like to use, “소확행 (sohwakhaeng)”: “작지만 확실한 행복 (a small but definite happiness),” explained Choi. “Not everyone can live luxuriously all the time but a cup of coffee is something we can all afford. A single cup is more than just a liquid; you can buy the feeling, the mood and the atmosphere of that specific time. That is the context of what a cup of coffee can offer for us. Society can be quite rough. In the midst of all the exhaustion, people want to find a space to relax and enjoy simple comforts. Therefore, I think we are playing a positive role.”
As The First Penguin’s enters their seventh year, Choi stands in a state of reflection. As a design studio, he feels like the team will be focusing on increasing the quality of the projects rather than the quantitative scale of the studio. Potentially, they could start to focus on the overseas market. Choi plans will continue to develop ways to go deeper, think about the shape of the company, and consider the need for quantitative growth.
“Personally, living without retiring is my ultimate dream,” Choi claimed. “Even if I’m not around, to keep this team going and create amazing brands and spaces is what I would very much want. Honestly, I don’t know yet, but once I make my final decision, I’ll be running towards that aim.”