Seattle–based industrial designer Jay Sae Jung Oh transforms thrift-store finds into protean, organic furniture statements.
By Claire Butwinick
Photographed by Amanda Ringstad
At first glance, South Korea–born, Seattle-based designer Jay Sae Jung Oh’s Savage series looks like piles of junk covered in leather.
And that’s exactly what it is—but it’s also so much more. Made from discarded plastic doll houses, rocking horse heads, teapots, and broken bicycle parts wrapped in individual leather cords, Oh’s works are unwanted items transformed into design objects with a message: reduce and reuse. “I wish that my audience would consider what they have,” she says. “If I can make people think about what they throw away and be more conscious about what they have now, that’s a practical way of solving the problem” of excessive waste.
For the past eight years, Oh has designed upcycled chairs, benches, and side tables composed of plastic artifacts that she sources from recycling centers and thrown away objects from herself and friends. Each piece of furniture is formed gradually, over a months-long design process, as Oh glues trash and trinkets together around a wooden chair or table using four kinds of adhesive. Then, she meticulously wraps the whole thing in black cowhide threads or natural jute. The everyday items are almost unrecognizable in the finished product, identifiable only by their shapes.
One of her first pieces—her Savage chair (2011), which she designed while earning her master’s in 3D design from Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art—is in the Cranbrook Art Museum’s permanent collection, and her Savage sofa (2015) has a permanent place at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. Her work is represented by the New York gallery Salon 94 Design, whose other clients include designers Rick Owens and Thomas Barger.
This December, Oh will debut five one-of-a-kind additions to the Savage series, including a lounge chair, two stools, and two table lamps covered in raw or multi-colored leather, at Design Miami. They’ll be presented at Salon 94 Design’s booth alongside drawings by Italian architect and designer Gaetano Pesce, for whom she once worked. The new pieces, like her previous ones, compellingly juxtapose natural and mass-produced materials to evoke emotion in a way that most furniture does not. “My work reminds [people] of old memories,” she says. “[They see] toys they played with or things they threw away the other day. If I can change the way they look at wasting culture, that’s good enough for me.”