Advertisement and propaganda are a given constant of modern society. They’re everywhere: From the huge popularisation of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ merchandise all the way to the iconic Coca-Cola red, we have been conditioned to recognise certain references, and have begrudgingly accepted that the way a message is told is almost as important as the message itself. But what stories do these kinds of labels tell if you take away capitalism?
Several, apparently. Nicholas Bonner lives in Beijing, running Koryo Tours – a travel agency specialising in bringing tourists to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He has been visiting the secretive country since 1993. During these travels, Nicholas has amassed an impressive collection of thousands of graphic design items pertaining to the secretive state – ranging from train tickets, all the way through to postcards and cutlery packages offered in planes.
And while these pieces separately may not seem to amount to much besides the visual and touristic, when placed together they form an intricate picture of over twenty years of North Korean society, going much further than propaganda and the news. The design choices present in these items capture many things. There’s the shift in the country’s relationship with the West, the modernisation of art, as well as the hurdles faced by North Korean citizens over the years.
Now, this history has been condensed in Made in North Korea. Published by Phaidon, the book features a selection of a few hundred items from Nicholas’ collection, amassed through years of dedicated hoarding, now methodically organised and accompanied by eight short essays, each one of them dissecting the social context in which these pieces were created.
Picked up along the tourist route, all of these are classified by Richard as common objects that any visitor would come in touch with. The collection is beautiful in itself, showing the strong influences of Soviet design in the colourful North Korean artwork, but it also offers a unique insight into the secretive state’s history, and places a question of how much stylistic freedom there is for artwork that is state-controlled.
Made in North Korea by Nicholas Bonner is out on October 2nd and available for pre-order now via Phaidon.