Design Rewind: Hallyu, The Unstoppable Rise Of The Korean Wave

If the question “what do you want for dinner?” sends you into a tailspin, consider visiting your local Korean BBQ shop.

No matter where in the world you’re located, you’re bound to find one closeby—look out for a modern loft-lounge/bar space with high vibes, ample low tables, Hangul character decor, and a deliciously suffocating smell of bulgogi wafting from the inside. 

South Korea’s cultural exports aren’t limited to its delicious cuisine. In fact, the most popular design trends today respond to the contemporary hybridity in Korean pop culture.

Embodying the Korean sentiment, is traditional folk-art hand painting or minhwa adorning the walls of this Korean BBQ shop. K-Duck Korean restaurant by Design Plus, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 2018.
K-food and Hangul go well together. Koreapalace Korean BBQ Shop by Cheng Hui Hsin, Taiwan. 2016.

All of this is part of Hallyu, a collective term that translates to Korean wave

For the uninitiated, Hallyu’s international spread and rising interest have led to new aesthetic standards within and outside Korea, first in China and Japan, then in Southeast Asia and other countries where it continues to have a significant impact.

Inside ‘Hallyu!, The Korean Wave’ The V&A’s latest exhibition celebrating Korean culture. Designed by Studio Mutt. 2022.

We’ve long been surfing the K-Wave on screen and on our smartphones, so much so that we’ve even adopted it in what we wear and what we listen to. Any creative export prefixed with a ‘K’ has probably already struck gold: K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty… the list goes on.

Hanji. Kim Seokjoon, 2020.

There’s so much more to learn about the K-wave and its meteoric rise. 

The latest edition of Design Rewind will take you back to 1999, when Hallyu made its debut, and explore how it transformed the country’s image to a leading cultural powerhouse in cinema, drama, music, fandom, beauty and fashion in the era of social media and digital culture of the 21st century. 

Origins of Hallyu

The term Hallyu is derived from two Chinese root words: ‘han’ meaning “Korean” and ‘ryu’ meaning “flow”, “wave”, or “trend.” First coined by Chinese journalists in 1999, Hallyu gained popularity in Asian countries outside of South Korea with the release of popular TV dramas and movies.

Dynamic Seoul by Design Silverfish. 2021.

Hallyu is used to describe Korean pop culture’s international diffusion after the end of military rule in the late 1980s: a period of modernization and the liberation of the culture industry from state-controlled media.

The 1997 broadcasts of K-drama in China are generally considered the start of the Korean Wave. In the digital culture of the 21st century, the whole world can enjoy it from the comfort of their sofa.

The main products driving the Korean wave include television, pop music, film, fashion, animation, video games, technology, literature, cosmetics, food, mass entertainment, comic books, and cartoons. 

In 2000, a Korean web portal managed by Ch’ŏllian created a new site for internet comics named Webtoon. Webtoon soon became the standard term for comics that are created for and consumed on the internet in Korea.

The Rise of Korean Cool

A phenomenon like Hallyu doesn’t happen by accident. It flourished largely due to strategic allocation of resources by the Korean government to cultural industries and high-tech digital infrastructures.

Billboards of the seventh presidential election in 1971 when Republican Party candidate and military dictator Park Chung-hee clashed with New Democratic Party candidate and later President Kim Dae-jung.

As South Korea’s economy recovered from the Asian financial crisis in 1997, then president Kim Dae Jung turned to marketing popular culture to boost export income in a bid to turn the country’s situation around.

Poster featuring ‘Hodori’ the official emblem of the Seoul 1988 Olympics designed by Kim Hyun. At the time of the Seoul Games, South Korea had recently emerged from military dictatorship. The Olympics in 1988 ended up being a turning point. South Korea rapidly industrialized, shedding its military dictatorship and opening up to the world.

The country’s cultural takeover was triggered by the early days of Korean chaebols such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and other conglomerates who worked closely with the government to build modern South Korea.

We Want Soul, 2012. East Village NY, 2018. Sera Yong.

In today’s Korea, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism concentrates on nurturing and exporting popular culture. Through its Popular Culture Industry Division, it invests millions of dollars in developing South Korea’s cultural and creative sectors.

Mad Pride Seoul. Eunjoo Hong and Hyungjae Kim, 2019.

In 2012, for example, government funds constituted between 20 to 30% of all venture capital money disbursed in Korea, with one-third of it being spent on its entertainment industry.

Parasite made Oscars history as the first foreign language winner of best picture at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020.
K-pop boy band BTS in concert.

Fast forward to 2021, Korea had 2.6% of the global market share in cultural content—the seventh-largest in the world—generating about $114 billion dollars in sales, $10.3 billion dollars in exports, and 680,000 jobs.

K-Culture In Design

From 1999 until the mid-2000s, K-dramas and K-cinema dominated Asia’s first generation Hallyu, but K-pop was the main driver of Hallyu 2.0’s online distribution through platforms such as YouTube.

Album cover art of rapper Psy’s single ‘Gangnam Style’.

In particular, Gangnam Style ignited the Korean wave in the English-speaking world. The 2012 track by Seoul-based rapper Psy became the first video on YouTube to reach one billion views.

Since then, South Korea’s has continued its consumer-focused content promotion over the past decade.

Blackpink made global headlines in 2019 after becoming the first all-female K-pop group to perform at Coachella. The group’s members are so well-renowned as ambassadors for many luxury brands: Lisa for Celine and Bulgari, Jennie for Chanel, Rosé for Yves Saint Laurent and Tiffany and Co., and Jisoo for Dior and Cartier. 

Fashion too has bolstered Korea’s cultural dominance. The fashion world is now flooded with young fans cheering outside fashion shows to see members of their favorite K-pop bands like Blackpink, BTS, and NewJeans, who also serve as brand ambassadors.

All throughout history, Koreans have adapted and found meaning in nature, geometry, and scripture. The symbols are designed based on Korea’s traditional clothing called hanbok.
Chanel Cruise 2016 by Karl Lagerfeld shown in Seoul. | Lagerfeld reimagined staples of Korean culture—garments, textiles, pop culture, and decorative arts—into a contemporary high fashion wardrobe. A black dress with mother of pearl embellishment was a nod to ornamentation on traditional wedding chests; Korean letters (spelling camellia, Chanel, and Chambon) were woven into the classic Chanel tweed suit. The silk organza hanbok, worn by model Ji Hye Park (right), was the finale look of the runway show.
L-R: Poster by Dokho Shin; Poster for film We Will Be Ok. Park Dong-Woo / Propaganda, 2014; The Korean Film Festival Branding by Il-Ho.

Despite the decadent image of today’s second generation K-wave, Hallyu is deeply rooted in South Korean traditions. 

Traditional Korean aesthetic characteristics were categorized into four areas: pure formality, naturalistic simplicity, symbolic decoration, and playful spontaneity. Widely known for its simplicity, elegance and functionality, Korean style is founded on the principle that less is more. 

Six-panel Chaekgeori from the late 1800s. Chaekgeori, translated as “books and things”, is a genre of still-life painting from the Joseon period of Korea that features books as the dominant subject.
Digital Book Project: The Luminous Poem. Airan Kang. 2011.

Among Hallyu’s most iconic visuals is the contrast between urban and hypermodernism. Korea’s cultural past shapes its most contemporary products, such as chaekgeori in contemporary art, hanbok in branding, or hanok in visual merchandising and store design.

A traditional Korean Hanok house. Marcel Lam, 2012.
A Massimo Dutti store in Hyundai Department Store’s Pangyo designed to resemble the inner courtyard of a hanok, a Korean traditional house.
Four Seasons Seoul.
Gucci Gaok’s paper bags have traditional Korean norigae hanging from the handle. A norigae is a traditional Korean accessory in which a tassel is attached to a small ornament, worn on a woman’s hanbok.
Beauty Adorning Herself. Kim Hong-Do from the Joseon period in the 18th and 19th centuries
K-pop girl group Blackpink dressed in modernized hanbok in the music video for the 2020 single ‘How You Like That.
Celebrating a new wave of Korean Fashion. Sohee Park is the designer behind Miss Sohee, a couture brand known for its range of eye-catching eveningwear, iridescent party frocks, and separates made of opulent fabrics embellished with beadwork and intricate embroideries.

With undertones of tradition and rural simplicity, there are two settings familiar to Korean life: the public square and the private room. Social activities linked to public spaces are most represented through unique bangs, or Korean for rooms

Neon signs of bang establishments in downtown Seoul.

Smack dabbed in the multi-storey chaos of neon, chrome and color of South Korean streetscape, are small business establishments providing a limited number of rooms for a specific function, often related to entertainment: norae-bang (singing rooms similar to Japanese karaoke, but now quite), PC-bang (internet cafés),  PS-bang (used for multiplayer computer games), and many more.

Neon signs of bang establishments in downtown Seoul.

South Korea is a hub for innovation. A big reason Hallyu has become so popular in recent years is because it has pushed against Korea’s old rigid norms by using modern concepts in an enticing polished packaging. 

Rise or fall, there’s no doubt Hallyu has the world’s attention, and the future looks bright from here.