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Nami Island CEO finds inspiration in quirky ideas

2011/01/14 | 421 views | Permalink | Source

Visitors enjoy the wintry landscape in Nami Island. A two-hour drive from Seoul, the small islet in Gangwon Province attracts 2 million visitors every year. / Korea Times photos by Lee Hyo-won

By Lee Hyo-won

The very first thing you notice when you step off the ferry onto Nami Island isn't a billboard featuring hallyu TV drama stars that made venue all the more famous, but a warning sign about, of all things, wild ostriches.

It's no joke ― it's a curious sight indeed to see the long-legged birds weaving through snow-topped metasequoias. Adopting these creatures from Canada is only one of many zany ideas conceived by the island's CEO Kang Woo-hyon.

I'm an eccentric',' Kang told The Korea Times in an interview last week in his office on Nami. "I've done a lot of things others think might reject as being crazy'.'

Yet his uncanny projects aren't without consequence. It was exceptionally warm in the winter of 2001 and Kang became concerned as visitors complained about the muddy ground. And so, he pitched the idea of bringing in ostriches as a means of providing pleasant "distractions'.'

"Everything was looking so terribly ugly, without the pretty snowfall like this season. A publishing company graciously donated nine ostriches and visitors don't bother to look at their feet or the uninspiring landscape when they see the birds prowling around ― they're busy taking pictures'.'

The birds have since become one of the symbols of the small islet in Gyeonggi Province, along with other wondrous flora and fauna _ peacocks, ducks, squirrels, roosters and even deer greet the 2 million visitors every year. Kang's secret to turning a barren islet into one of the country's top tourist attractions lies quite simply in dreaming up such fun ideas and acting upon them.

Turning fun ideas into action

"Ideas are something fluid that you need to catch. It's not so much about sitting still and brainstorming all day as it is about finding inspiration in everyday life. Necessity is the mother of innovation, and you cannot miss a single fleeting thought',' explained the 58-year-old.

In order to truly embrace the spirit of freedom and imagination, Nami Island declared its "cultural independence'' in 2006 and was reborn as Naminara Republic ― with its national flag, anthem, currency, passport, stamps and even citizenship. "One of the things you notice here is the Taiwanese flag, which is difficult to see in Korea because of its diplomatic relations with China. This is something we can only do in Naminara'.'

Kang made a name as a children's storybook artist and designer for such projects as the posters for the Cannes Film Festival, and now Nami Island serves as a "canvas'' for his visions.

"People sometimes ask if I miss drawing or designing things the way I used to, but when you have such an exciting canvas like this you can have so much fun as an `island designer'.''

The island's original founder Minn Byeong-do received the Mecena Award (given to a business that contributes to the culture sector) and Kang upholds Minn's vision in the island's landscape design by planting ginkgo, cheery, maple and zelcova trees in an artful way. It's for this reason that many films and TV dramas chose to shoot there; the metasequoia lane, lined with 40-meter-high trees, famously set the backdrop for "Winter Sonata'.'

Kang continues to pen colorful picture books, which are becoming increasingly available in other languages. "Point Story',' featuring simple and modern, Asian art-inspired black ink work, will be coming out in Iran in March. It is already available in China and India.

True to the CEO's roots in publication, the island hosts an international children's book festival each year, NAMBOOK. More than 70 countries are now participating in the event since its inception in 2005 to honor the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. Colorful books can be found all over the island all throughout the year. For this reason, the island has been named a child-friendly venue by UNICEF.

But Nami isn't only welcoming to children ― prides in having employees for life with the retirement age among its employees being 80. Some 35 percent of workers are aged 55 and older. "A man in his 70s crafted the very stool you're sitting on',' pointed out Kang.

Craftwork and various artful installations dot the entire island, making the place feel like a large exhibition park. The works were created all on Nami's arts and craft studio. The studio began as a humble place housing a few furnaces during the Asian financial crisis, but has since attracted ceramic artists, carpenters and glass blowers from all over the country.

Another interesting decor that stands out is green soju bottle installations. "Right after the financial crisis, we opted to use recycled goods to save money. But it has become an environmentally friendly and, moreover, creative endeavor. Even that pavilion outside was constructed from recycled wood, from an old building that burnt down in Suwon',' he said, pointing to a traditional-style structure outside the window of his studio.

'Change the way you think'

"It's all a matter of changing the way you think'' ― one of the island's popular souvenir items is a squashed clay pot featuring unique motifs. "These were typical jars and didn't sell very well. So I thought why not try squishing it? Now it's one of our signature items. It stems from a very simple idea',' he said.

"Just as needs give birth to inventions, failure is the mother of success. But success is also the father of failure ― I tell myself I should be too proud of myself because Nami Island is doing well. I'm always concerned about looking for new things and new ideas',' he said, pointing to a wooden "dokkebi'' (traditional mythical beast) bat hanging from the ceiling ― "It's a self-reminder to keep humble'.'

Nami continues to expand. In February Nami Island, as a "republic',' will establish bilateral ties with Iran's Kish Island. It also plans to open up Chinese and Japanese cultural centers, where visitors can taste the Asian dishes.

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Who is Kang Woo-hyon?

Born in 1953, Kang graduated from Hongik University with a degree in industry design. He has worked as a graphic designer, illustrator, planning director, environmentalist before assuming the executive position of Nami Island.

In 1986 he won the grand prize at the UNESCO-sponsored Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations, among other awards in Korea and the Czech Republic. He also designed the poster for the 50th Cannes Film Festival.

He continues to pen storybooks as well as host international workshops and other collaborative projects with renowned artists including "Gaudi's Ocean'' authors A. Ramachandran and Tajima Shinji.

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