Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Courtesy of Phaidon


In pictures: rare show of North Korean graphic design to open in London

Exhibition revealing notoriously closed-off society comes to House of Illustration in February

Sweet assortment box showing the Red Flag train on the east coast of Korea - North Korea is a notoriously closed society, but visitors to London’s House of Illustration will be able to see the country in a whole new light. At a time when the country is a regular fixture of world news, Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK (23 February-13 May) will give an insight into the life of North Koreans through their art and design. The exhibition will focus on everyday objects, including posters, postcards and programmes, stamps, cigarette packets and sweet wrappers.

Tinned food label for pork - Olivia Ahmad, a curator of the exhibition, says: “Graphic design in North Korea is state-approved, but this hasn’t resulted in a singular or uniform approach to design. Visitors to the exhibition will see a huge range of material—from minimal iconography to elaborate hand-drawn images in vivid colour.”

Sweet packet (early 1990s) - The exhibition includes work from 1979 to 2005, from graphic and typographic design to photography and illustration. However, the producers of the works are not always clear. “It’s likely that the pieces in the exhibition represent the work of a significant number of illustrators and designers, but we don’t know who these individuals are—the work is unsigned and anonymously produced.” She adds that the country has many state-owned studios, including the Industrial Art Studio in Pyongyang, where many of the exhibition pieces would have been produced.

Tinned food label for apples - The opening night will feature a Q&A with the exhibition co-curator and collection owner Nicholas Bonner. He is an expert on the graphic culture, tourism and film of North Korea who has produced three films about the country. Bonner, who describes the style of North Korean art as “minimalistic simplicity creating beautifully rhythmic artwork”, published a book on the subject with Phaidon last year, from which the exhibition takes its name. He first visited the country in 1993 and set up a travel company based in his home city of Beijing for people wishing to travel to North Korea.

Invitation to the 55th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK (2003) - The exhibition will also include a talk on North and South Korean comics, more than 100 of which are displayed, from the comic specialist Paul Gravett (19 April), and the UK premiere of Bonner’s North Korean film Comrade Kim Goes Flying (28 March at the Barbican Cinema).

Tinned food label for flatfish - The House of Illustration, founded by Quentin Blake in 2014, is the only public gallery in the UK dedicated to illustration and graphic art. Based in King’s Cross, it displays contemporary and historic works by established and upcoming artists.  Colin McKenzie, the director of House of Illustration, says: “House of Illustration was created to celebrate illustration in all its forms so we are particularly excited to be putting on an exhibition that showcases this unexpectedly brilliant ephemera from North Korea.”