Although North Korea's frequent appearance in the headlines of late has brought the country to the forefront of our minds, the particulars of everyday life within the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remain, to many of us, an enigma. Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK, a timely new book just published by Phaidon, offers a fascinating insight into what life is like for the country's people through the examination of an extensive range of graphic ephemera, drawn from the personal collection of Nicholas Bonner.
Bonner has amassed a thousand-strong selection of North Korean printed objects over the past twenty-five years, through his extensive travel within the country—from his base in Beijing, he runs frequent tours of North Korea with his company Koryo Tours, and he's also involved with a range of other cultural projects related to the DPRK, including filmmaking. Made in North Korea uses the ephemeral items within Bonner's collection as a lens through which to view the country's people, their habits and customs, and the realities of life within the socialist state. Beautifully produced and printed on toothy uncoated paper, with an appealing use of colour throughout, the book contextualises its content through essays and extended captions, encouraging readers to consider not only the images' visual appeal but also what they can tell us—through their appearance, style, origin and means of production—about North Korea itself.
In this interview, Bonner tells us more about his collection, how the book came into being, and what he learned during the process...
When did you begin collecting North Korean graphic ephemera, and how did the book come about?
Nicholas Bonner: I started collecting from my very first visit in 1993. For someone interested in the graphics, design and architecture of North Korea at that time, it was like walking into a textbook example of the socialist model city—with all of its accoutrements. As well as the fantastical architecture, statues and monuments galore to the revolution and the Korean War—The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War as it is called in North Korea—there were shops packed with objects, wrapped with graphics from the 1970s, but still for sale, and alongside contemporary material that was also adorned with graphic elements in the same style. I started buying and picking up these objects from my first trip and, after visiting most months of every year since then, well, by the time 2016 came around I had numerous boxes full of various odds and sods—or ‘found objects’ as a more professional collector might call them! In 2016 I decided to send images from my collection to Virginia McLeod at Phaidon and she saw the beauty of the graphics as a publication.