Nick Bonner on North Korean pepper packets

A recent talk in the gallery saw Nick Bonner, the co-curator of Made In North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK, who is also a filmmaker and founder of Koryo Tours, in conversation with Rebecca Wright, Director of the Graphic Communication Design Programme at Central Saint Martins. They discussed our current exhibition and Rachael Kosinski, a UCL Masters student currently on work placement at House of Illustration, selects some highlights…

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  • Rachael Kosinski
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‘What makes a North Korean graphic? The colours: red, yellow, blue, white, and black with pink thrown in, and the motifs such as the white tiger and architectural motifs.  

‘Show these products [such as those pictured below] to a North Korean and they get nostalgic because these products are what they grew up with.

‘What I love about this [the pepper packet pictured top] is that it is, I think, the very first thing I picked up when I travelled in 1993. You would expect from North Korea just a practical white background with ‘PEPPER’ on it. But somewhere along the lines someone has been told, ‘No, we’ve got to illustrate this. We’re not selling it to anyone, we’re just informing you that inside there is pepper’. There’s decoration going on and the decoration then has to go through procedure to be accepted. I’ve seen that there are many products that don’t make the grade.

‘In North Korea, if it’s a tin of beef, the first thing you draw on it is a cow. That’s all you need. But then they start applying these blocks of colour that come from a traditional palette of their own. Because there is no ‘Buy now’ text or tagline, it is actually a very simple, informative object. It’s the same with the [transport] tickets: they’re very one dimensional with little information given, but what is created is a fantastic art piece, I think.

‘I’ve worked with these artists and have seen that there is a lot of trial and error and they do have experts, recognized experts, who produce this work. Products don’t evolve much: the same old style remains and change, when it happens, is slow.’

The UK’s first ever exhibition of graphic design from North Korea runs until 13 May 2018. Find our more about the exhibition and book tickets here