on the objects we own, and the ways in which they bind us. A conversation with Ahran Won, by Andrea Foffa
Part of the contemporary product design industry is strictly linked to the commercial market, and is dependent on constant output of new product. New chairs, clothes, tiles, jewelry, phones, and so on are released multiple times a year, for users to acquire, possess and consume. As design historians, we spend an awful lot of time thinking about how objects define us, and how history is written also through material culture. But when thinking about boundaries, can we reframe our relationship with objects as one of confinement? Designed objects have undoubtedly allowed us to shorten distances and facilitate movement across borders; and yet collecting, amassing and owning objects creates a material link between us and the place where they are stored or located. For instance, having rented for most of my life, I personally often think about how acquiring a home would bind me to the place where it is built.
It was with this kind of thoughts in mind that I stumbled upon the work of US based Korean designer Ahran Won, who is also currently studying landscape architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Ahran had been recently shortlisted as finalist in a prized design competition which allowed her to work on a prototype under the mentorship of designers Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, and to show her work in Milan during ‘Design Week’ last April. 
Ahran’s project is titled ‘having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ – and her live-with-less addition to the famed Milan’s five-days furniture extravaganza is as interesting as it is ironic. The prototype she has designed is ‘a capsule for mobile living’, made of six boxes and a folding sheet for a total of 30×24 inches. When closed, the capsule has the shape of a compact luggage, complete with retractable handle and small wheels. When open, capsule and boxes can be assembled to become a makeshift bed, a workstation, a table. Each box is meant to contain a different category of essential belongings, and accordingly made of an appropriate material for the envisioned use (i.e. the ‘bathroom’ box is made of rubber, the ‘shoe box’ is wooden, the one to keep phones and chargers is made in aluminum).
In her design process, Ahran has obviously thought of a number of different people that could benefit from this design, including fleeing refugees. But fundamentally, the idea originated from her relationship with objects she owns, and the way they intersected her life and often forced her to negotiate and come to term with what she deems necessary.
‘I never really realised how many things I owned before I started moving around. I’m originally from South Korea, so obviously I took my first trips for work and holiday there. Then, I moved to Vancouver for a summer job…after that, to San Francisco, for another summer job…then I moved to Chicago for my study in Architecture, to Boston for another grad school, to Shanghai for the mentorship phase of this project…I was constantly moving – living in a place for a few months, then off to the next one. The truth is that at some point my life had become very mobile, and my objects… weren’t.’
Was there a point when you consciously thought about your relationship with your belongings? Even before entering this design competition.
‘Well, I suppose I have always been curious about my existence and the things I surround myself with…but a lot had to do with the places I went to study and work, and the people I know. For example, the very initial idea for this project –this concept that maybe I could fit everything one person needs in one suitcase– came from my relationship with one of my dear friends, who is a christian missionary, and has to pack and relocate constantly for long periods of time. This one time it was her moving day and she came into my apartment with her suitcase, and I stood up and said “you need help carrying your stuff? I’ll help you carry everything” and she just looked at her one suitcase: “nope, this is all”. I was shocked! I had, yet once again, recently moved apartment and just painfully recounted that I had thirty boxes of stuff with me.’
How did you develop this idea into this project? Its potential uses for communities at risk are quite clear now that it is a finished prototype, but what prompted the idea at the core of the project, even before you thought about another user -as in, someone that is not you?
‘Yes, it was interesting as I developed the design to see how this capsule could be implemented for a lot of people: refugees, people experiencing a natural catastrophe, homeless people and rough sleepers…but in truth the design came from me, and from my self identity, which does not come from what I have. I’d say the project really came along as I was questioning who I am, my self identity and confidence. The truth is, it doesn’t come from what I achieve or what I have, it’s simply who I am. It came from a lifestyle of me moving and being away, yet being very rooted in my anxiety for boundless information and material possessions. As I was minimising my possessions through this lifestyle I eventually realised I can detach from things at any time. And it’s not just about having less which makes my life simple, it’s more about the realisation that I am happy if I’m happy with me, and the things I own…are just the things I use.’
And what was your process in selecting the objects that you have designed boxes for? How did you negotiate with your possession?
‘It happened organically, as my mentors pushed me in thinking strictly about the content. I had to make clear however that my intention was not really introducing another beautiful new thing in this week, and as I moved to a new apartment in Cambridge without furniture I sort of took it from there, performing an organic curation of what I have, eliminating items one by one. My mentors gave me a lot of support, as I came to them with a design idea that was mostly a luggage, and it really evolved through discussions and working with them. Also, they were extremely helpful on the technical side, providing me with much needed knowledge on how to mount the boxes together and make sure that everything works.’
You are training as a landscape designer. Did that help you move comfortably in product design for this challenge, and if so, how? Or was it a completely different experience?
‘Well, I think it’s a natural and good thing to move across disciplines. I have always been interested in blurring the space between personal space and communal spaces, and that interest guides my work in landscape design as much as it guided this project. Speaking of boundaries, I’m a very big fan of Marshall McLuhan and his ideas that with technology the speed of things really has changed, and as consequence boundaries are becoming looser. And that applies to the spaces that you inhabit as well as in the person you become, personally or professionally, because it all comes to a whole in the end.’
Ahran discovered her passion for design after getting her bachelor degree in International Law, which she undertook to follow her interest in humanitarian law. After a dispiriting time in which she realised that ‘law doesn’t unite people’ and that international law ‘is all about negotiation’, Ahran embraced the feeling of powerlessness she had felt for some time, and used it to find the courage to transition in the world of design: ‘I realised that design is much more powerful, and moves minds so strongly. This is how I decided to move from law to architecture. Design has become an outlet for me to explore my belief: I think that beauty, truth and love are three dots of the same line, and through design I am able to research these connections and show them in my work.’