Opposites attract: Studio Bang-Gu take us behind the scenes of their San Francisco-based practice
When they first met at university, the creative duo Daisy (Dal Hae) Lee and Lucien Ng had not expected that they’d be working together, let alone running a studio together, many years later! We are so glad that they are, as San Francisco-based Studio Bang-Gu have delivered many wonderful, inspired and visually arresting works – from the majestically vibrant Dang to the childhood-influenced Play Play Laaaaah! Here, the pair dig into their creative partnership, the studio’s development, and the Eastern and Western cultural influences that imbue their work.
PT Hey Daisy and Lucien! Can you tell us how you first met? What were your first impressions of each other?
DL Hello! We first met in school at the School of Visual Arts, where we took a typography class together. Lucien stood out to me as he was active during critiques, and sometimes even more critical than our lecturer. He regularly shared good insights and a unique perspective to the discussion, making me initially think he was a TA. I remember feeling competitive but also inspired by his passion for design and was eager to be friends with him.
LN My first impression of Daisy was me thinking to myself “wow, this person is so hardworking and on top of things.” While we were in school, we had several classes together, but it was my first year in the US and everything was so hectic and new to me that I didn’t pay much attention to anyone. However, one day in our sophomore typography class, Daisy came in all excited with her portfolio and packaging mockups in hand. She went up to our lecturer, Gail Anderson, and was eagerly talking about her plans to attend a career fair after class to showcase her portfolio. This wasn’t even portfolio season, it was in the middle of the year and I didn’t even know there was a career fair going on!
Don’t take things too seriously and do not worry about what is possible or impossible.
PT What led you to reunite and form a practice?
LN The phrase ‘opposites attract’ couldn’t be more true. Everything about us was different, from our personalities, cultures, and interests to our upbringing. We came from different countries with pretty different cultures and family backgrounds. When we were in school, Daisy was a motion graphics major while I was in advertising. Our ways of thinking are different, but that’s also why we work well together. Our differing perspectives and approaches allow us to create something unexpected.
In 2016, we worked on our first project together, End Of Summer, a cross-cultural art programme in Portland, Oregon, for emerging Japanese artists. It nurtures creative exploration and connectivity between the community and the artists. It is also where we conceived of Studio Bang-Gu.
PT How did you decide on a studio name?
LN The name ‘Bang-Gu’ (방구) in Korean means ‘fart.’ We came up with this name for our studio because it symbolised the approach we want to take in our work. It also makes people laugh when we explain the meaning behind it. Our motto, ‘Just Bang-Gu,’ reflects the playful approach and defines what we strive to do in our studio.
Based on our motto, we have three key takeaways:
Don’t take things too seriously and do not worry about what is possible or impossible. Instead, just ‘Bang-Gu’ to see what can happen. When it comes to farting, overthinking is not an option.
Fart is the output of our digestion. Just like how our work is created through the interpretation of our experiences, culture and knowledge.
You become very vulnerable and critical when it comes to farts. You are fairly generous with your own fart – aka your own creations but you become very critical of others. It is a common tendency that we have observed in our experiences. We think it’s important to be mindful of it and not take things too seriously, but have a laugh about it instead.
PT Why did you choose to base your practice in San Francisco? What do you enjoy the most about the city?
DL It is close to Asia, LA and Portland, where we often visit to get inspired and connect with a diverse range of creatives. San Francisco, although sometimes can be seen as a ‘creative void’ due to its quiet and peaceful atmosphere, actually provides the perfect environment for us to focus on our personal and creative growth. When we were in NY, we used to feel obligated to attend creative events like shows, galleries and parties, but it left us no time or energy to listen to our inner voice. For us, SF has the right balance of activities and serene nature, which has given us the time and space to understand ourselves and what kind of future we hope to create.
PT Having both grown up in Asia and studied in New York, what lessons have inspired your design approach the most?
DL Growing up in Asia taught us many valuable lessons, and one of the most significant lessons we learned from the society and culture of Asia is the importance of fitting in and adapting with a group. This helped us to pick up new things quickly. In the 1990s and 2000s in Asia, we were wired to be ‘grey’ and to conform, wearing the same uniform and limiting hairstyles, valuing the community over the individual. We were told not to stand out or be different. Because of this, we developed a keen sense of awareness and perception. However, moving to New York was a culture shock for me. The US celebrates individuality and encourages people to embrace their uniqueness. It was disorienting at first, but eventually, this experience nudged us to unlearn outdated beliefs and relearn new ones. The process of unlearning and relearning is what keeps us ‘young.’
It is important to us that the projects we take on are meaningful to us.
PT What are your favourite and least favourite aspects of running your own design practice?
DL The best part of running our own design practice is having the freedom to decide on what we’d like to work on. It is important to us that the projects we take on are meaningful to us.
To be honest, PRing for our work has been one of our least favourite aspects of running our design practice. We share our work on social media, but it is a crowded place and we have to be constantly plugged in to stay noticed. It is important to us that our work looks good, but more importantly, we want to spark thoughts and discussions about our core questions and ideas. Hence, we’re super grateful for opportunities like this interview, where we can talk more about our thoughts, intentions and the creative process.
PT How do you divide work between you? Are there certain tasks one of you enjoys doing more than the other?
LN There are no distinct boundaries between us. Our different interests and expertise add to the excitement of collaboration and result in dynamic and unexpected outcomes. It wasn’t always like that in the beginning but over the years we have learned how to embrace the push-and-pull process, using it to infuse our projects with both of our unique perspectives and creative processes.
PT What do you think are the most helpful things you’ve learned from each other?
LN I am always amazed by how Daisy builds worlds from scratch. Her ability to take the smallest seed and grow a whole forest is incredible. She has so much creative energy! The way I think and articulate ideas are all over the place, whereas Daisy is much more structured and organised. She’s really good at connecting the dots and often helps me see a clearer picture. Also, just as a person, Daisy has taught me how to be more expressive. Over the years, we have learned how to complement each other and cover for each other’s blind spots.
DL Lucien is very strategic and sharp. He knows the best time to ask questions. This skill probably comes from his habit of seeing the bigger picture and enjoying observation. I often become short-sighted due to my obsession with details and functionality, but Lucien always asks the sharpest, and at times the most painful, questions at the right moment when I become too focused on the process. His questions sometimes flip the whole idea and direction upside down, but his ability to see the bigger picture makes the project more conceptual, and fresh. Over the past eight years, I have become a more open-minded creative due to witnessing Lucien’s perspective. Additionally, he has taught me the power of kindness and genuineness. He is not expressive, but he always tries to help others and be kind, honest, and genuine in his own quiet way. As a result, he attracts nice people like himself and has taught me about good karma.
PT We love your zine PlayPlay Laaaaah! How did this project first start?
LN We were invited by our friends, Social Species, to contribute a zine on ‘play’ in our culture at the Printed Matter Art Book Fair. As you already know, Daisy is from Korea and I am from Singapore, and while each country has its own distinct culture, we drew inspiration from Singapore. It is a small island country known for being a global hub for Asia, the world sees it as this super rich, glamorous and clean English-speaking Asian country – which the movie Crazy Rich Asians helped to further strengthen the stereotype. However, what is often overlooked is the rich multicultural and ethnic heritage that is woven into Singapore’s society. And the dragon playground is a place for how people from different races, religions and social statuses can come together to play, is the best representation of the culture of Singapore. This is something we felt was worth sharing with others through our zine.
PT As a native of Singapore, what was it like for you Lucien to work on such a nostalgic project?
LN The dragon playground is really close to where I used to live. Growing up I often visited the playground or passed by it on my way somewhere else. I don’t usually get nostalgic but working on this project brought back so many memories of playing at the playground after school with my friends. It was such a serendipitous and effortless space to hang out – we didn’t have to make plans, we’d just show up and play. This project gave me the opportunity to relive my memories and also share with Daisy what my childhood was like growing up in Singapore. During our research phase of the project, every other day I would remember something that I had forgotten, and would get so excited telling her about it and how we could include it in the zine.
PT Dang is such a beautiful project too! What does ‘dang’ mean and where did the idea for it come from?
DL Dang (당;’當) represents our perspective of the Asian identity in society through clothing. The shirt is a form of critique, designed to initiate a dialogue about the concepts of identity and self-expression.
In the winter of 2019, we visited each other's home countries of Korea and Singapore for the first time. The cultural exchange inspired us to create abstract posters that capture our experiences and interpretations of each country.
The letter ‘Dang’ in the middle of the poster is the name of the project and symbolises our cultural exchange. The name ‘Dang’ means ‘pawn’ in English, representing the idea of two different cultures coming together.
Growing up in Asia, we were both exposed to strict societal rules and expectations that placed pressure on individuals to conform and suppress their individuality. The prevalence of uniforms, from schools to the military to the workplace, further perpetuated this idea of uniformity. This societal pressure often leads to repressed identities and unrealised dreams.
To challenge these societal norms, we designed a uniform that represents the general Asian society from our perspective. The shirt appears like a plain office worker’s shirt but has a hidden inner layer which features our poster printed on shiny satin fabric, highlighting the brilliance of our individual identity. This inner layer is visually bright and uplifting, yet it poses deeper questions and invites conversation about society’s attempts to repress individual uniqueness. The shirt serves as a symbol of our desire to break free from the constraints of conformity and embrace our own unique identities.
PT Are there any side projects or personal projects that you’d like to dedicate more time to in the future?
DL After creating this shirt for ‘Dang,’ we realised that one piece was too limited to express and convey all the nuances of identity and self-expression. Hence, we are expanding the project into a full collection and are aiming to release it by the end of 2023.
Additionally, following our studio motto of ‘just Bang-Gu,’ we’d like to experiment with new mediums to bring our ideas to life.
PT What are your hopes and goals for this year?
DL Recently, we went back to Asia and visited Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. We feel that Asia has changed a lot from what it was when we were growing up. And lately, it has been a huge source of inspiration and fueling our creativity in many different ways. We hope to strengthen our connection to our roots this year by connecting with more creative individuals in Asia, incorporating the past, present and future of our cultural background into our practice, and initiating dialogues on subjects relevant to Asia.