Tag Archives: design

Smelling the flowers or..

There is a pine tree lined walking trail behind our apartment. it’s not particularly scenic – just a 2.5 kms long and occasionally dusty stretch wedged between Gangnam’s high rise apartment blocks and a very busy thoroughfare, but it gets the job done. Whenever we feel like stretching our legs but don’t want to venture out far from home, this is where we head to.

Besides offering quick access to nature, this path provides fantastic people watching opportunities! You get to see all kinds of characters engaged in various workout routines. Five minutes into the trail you are greeted by a bunch of retirees bending and stretching every which way at the outdoor exercise facility, then there are the brisk walkers kitted out in gym clothes marching ahead with their nordic walking poles, the joggers zigzagging past ajummas ambling down the path in sun-visors perched on their signature permed hair, you have the dog walkers, the elderly tennis players, the moms energetically pushing kids on swings, the office workers in business suits with TUMI laptop bags rushing home from work, and the families of course, young and old, in groups of four or five, taking leisurely strolls.

One time I saw this guy with his dog kneeling down on the sidewalk looking for something in the bushes. I lingered around for a while to check what he was up to. Was he stopping to smell the flowers or was he searching for his dog’s poop? I couldn’t tell. The rest of my walk was spent pondering over his motive. I had to come home and sketch the scene. The mystery remains unsolved.

Rebeginning

It should be new year, new beginnings but this post feels more like a rebeginning after the 3-months break I took from blogging.

It so happened that the pain from my shoulder injury I was recovering from last year paid a little visit recently and overstayed its welcome. While I couldn’t draw much or use the computer or do anything that strained my shoulder, I read a lot during this time which is never a bad compromise! I also made quite a bit of progress in Spanish which I am learning on Duolingo. It’s coming in very handy. I can now say sentences like Mi esposo nunca quiere se ducha to my husband with a straight face and watch him go nuts because he doesn’t understand a word. To set the record straight, he does shower everyday.

The sketch above depicts how we spent our holidays leading up to the new year. It was freezing outside. Temperatures had plummeted to -17°C and the city got placed under stricter restrictions due to surge in covid cases. There was simply no where to go except be at home tucked under a blanket with a cup of hot tea and a book. After finishing two non-fiction books, a short story collection, a novel, here I was devouring a murder mystery by Keigo Higashino which is set in Tokyo, a city I love spending time in and cannot get enough of. Although following detective Kaga through the quaint neighbourhoods of Tokyo hot on the heels of the murderer made for some pretty decent armchair travel and was the next best thing!

Day out in Euljiro

After spending a sunny weekend afternoon exploring the dusty alleys of Bangsan Market – known for its incredible range of baking supplies – we decided to rest our feet at the nearby Horangii cafe located inside Sewoon Plaza, a timeworn shopping mall that used to be Korea’s first electronic market back in 1968.

Today the place is a maze of identical looking stores crammed with audio devices, security cameras, room heaters, TVs, air conditioners, electric fans, arcade games and a vast selection of light fixtures. Because everything looks alike it’s easy to get lost, which we did, several times before finally locating the staircase that led us to the third floor where the scene was noticeably different – one made of trendy cafes, eateries, shiny boutiques and a flock of hipsters posing outside Horangii, clicking selfies.

Once inside, the cafe reminded me of the poignant setting of my fav Wong Kar-wai film – In the mood for Love. The narrow and dimly lit space with pale yellow walls, dark wood furniture and vintage lamps evoked nostalgia.

In stark contrast to this plush setting, the stained wall exterior, exposed wires, and the air-conditioning units were a lot of fun to sketch. The shopping plaza overlooks old print shops and metal workshops with tin roofs. Loud banging noises interjected the hum of conversations from time to time which seemed like a part of the setting.

We found a table right outside the cafe from where we enjoyed our lattes and scones. Interestingly, each coffee cup comes with a sticker of a tiger (or Horangii in Korean) which you can peel off and take home as a keepsake!

Before leaving we walked over to the skywalk and soaked in the sweeping views of the ever-changing Euljiro skyline with its old buildings – some still standing while others already demolished with rapid construction underway. Below, the streets were packed with cars and Cheonggyecheon stream flowing right through the middle of this urban jungle, reflected the cloudy sky.

Content that the day couldn’t get any better, we took the bus home, which is where I spotted this lady wearing the neatest pair of frilly white socks with little hearts on them! The edgy black loafers complemented her delicate side-slit pastel dress. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see her face but remember seeking refuge from time to time in the visual delight of those little red hearts on that boring 40 mins bus ride.

The Elevator story

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A few months back the most adorable incident happened in the elevator of our apartment building. It was Children’s day in Korea, a public holiday, so a lot of kids were out enjoying the day. We saw a few at the bus stop licking ice creams. Some were walking into restaurants with their parents. Parks were teeming with toddlers chasing each another as their slightly older siblings threw frisbees and rode bicycles and scooters. Evening saw these frisky moppets return home in their mom’s arms or on their dad’s shoulders, happy but tired faced, tightly hugging giant soft toys and balloons.

It was nice seeing the neighbourhood peppered with little humans in place of adults in suits and ties marching in and out of offices.

We spent the day outside too on a long walk by a lake. Later, we got some food packed for dinner and headed home. As we were going up to our apartment, we saw this boy, about 4 or 5 years old enter the elevator with his family.

He may not have seen many foreigners in his life, because as soon as he laid eyes on us, he was transfixed. There was no stealing furtive glances out of the corner of the eye for this little guy; he caught us in the most innocent, full-on face to face, mouth agape, utterly bewitched kind of stare! The look of wonderment lasted from level 1 until level 12 which made his mom very uncomfortable. Just before leaving, she bent down and asked him to say hello to us. Once out of his trance our starer became very shy. He did wish us eventually, spurred on by his dad, mom and sister who chimed in with a nice long – Annyeonghaseyo.

I sketched the scene as soon as I got home.

Draw your mess

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Am I the only person who hasn’t put away their warm clothes yet? We’re halfway through August and now I am thinking how far can fall/winter be anyway? I may need that trench coat or the down jacket sooner than later. All that effort put in sorting, folding, stacking, and arranging would go to waste. This here is the train of thought that got my wardrobe looking like above.

I have been meaning to organize it for a while now but every month I end up carrying forward this task to the following month. Spending longer hours at home during this ongoing pandemic hasn’t exactly increased my productivity at housework. If at all, I’ve been slacking off.

It ain’t a pretty sight, I admit. Finding a somewhat coordinated outfit in this closet requires equal amounts of luck and patience. Meanwhile, belts have gone missing. Socks are hiding themselves in corners and crevices. Scarves have never become more elusive.  A wardrobe as cluttered and disheveled as this should stick in one’s craw but if you’re an artist, this scene can also get you all excited! And you find yourself picking up a sketchbook, some colour pencils, and drawing the mess instead of tidying it up. Well, there’s always tomorrow.

 

Longest monsoon

South Korea has been pummelled by torrential rains since late June and from what I’m reading – it isn’t over yet! Today marks the 53rd day of the monsoon season. The skies have been ominously grey forever. Humidity is so high that everything feels sticky all the time, even the apartment floor.

Compared to the inland regions that are experiencing floods and landslides, I’d say we’re lucky to be getting on with our lives with the least amount of disruption in this part of Seoul. If the pandemic has us wearing masks on a daily basis, the incessant rains that don’t seem to have an expiration date have us carrying umbrellas wherever we go, so much so that it feels like a part of our attire. Or an extended limb.

coffee bean in rain

I sketched this cafe scene on my way back from an appointment. We were a few days into the monsoon, a time when one could still trust the weather app and if it said no rains for a few hours, you believed it and didn’t carry the umbrella. It rained a lot and I had to take shelter here for a while. Luckily I had my sketchbook and a hot cup of tea on the side.

smoker with Umbrella

In the following weeks when the rains ceased to stop, we became inured to the wet weather and acted like this tattoed guy, probably a chef or a kitchen staff who I saw coming out from the back of a restaurant into the alley for a quick smoke. Even for a break as short as this, he couldn’t risk leaving without his most trusted accessory dangling from his arm!

Grandma in EBT

A few days back I was eating churros at Express Bus Terminal when I spotted this interesting character approach the table opposite me. She may have been in her late 60s and was wearing a bright green chequered shirt over a white tee paired with grey tights and classic slip-ons. Placed at a slightly jaunty angle on her head was a straw hat with a flower attached to it. The thing that caught my eye though was her yellow umbrella which gave this ensemble a cheery look!

Before settling down she got herself a cup of coffee. Then she kicked off her shoes, plonked the rest of her stuff on the floor, and put her feet up on the chair. An electric hand fan appeared out of one pocket and a piece of paper from the other which she held in her hand and studied for a long time.

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This year’s protracted rainy season has elevated the humble umbrella from a functional object to a fashion accessory. Instead of moping about the miserable weather, people are having fun carrying umbrellas in varying designs, colors, and fabric, sometimes matching them with their outfits! I saw some interesting ones on subway line 9. As you can see, everyone was keeping up with the times with their masks, color-coordinated umbrellas, and mindless phone-scrolling.

 

Happy Birthday Singapore

On the occasion of Singapore’s 55th birthday, which is today, I am fondly remembering the trip I took early this year to the tropical city-state and the sketches I made in the few days I was there.

To give you a bit of background, before moving to Korea in 2017, I and my husband spent seven years in Singapore and have some lasting memories of that place. Needless to stay I still have a hankering for my old home once in a while. So when the opportunity arrived for a short visit, I couldn’t refuse. I called all my friends to check their availability, applied for visa and dug out my old city transit card that I had kept as a souvenir.

This was one trip that wasn’t going to need any planning!

Starbucks at Raffles City Mall

One of the best places to meet someone in the city is at the Starbucks inside Raffles City Mall. It’s the first thing you see as you climb up the escalator from City Hall subway station. The mall air-conditioning shields you from the heat and humidity and the constant stream of people makes it an unparalleled people-watching spot.

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While waiting for a dear friend,  I made a quick sketch of some coffee drinkers, including this woman with a beige scarf draped around her body with pictures of bugs on it!

Singapore National Library

After lunch at Sin Swee Kee chicken rice restaurant on Seah Street opposite Raffles Hotel, we popped into Straits Commercial, like old times to peruse art supplies. Not only does the place have a superb collection of art materials, it is also the most likely place to bump into local artist friends, which I did! After swapped stories and checking out each others’ sketchbooks we crossed the street and walked over to the Singapore National Library.

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The library’s handsome collection of books on literary and creative arts had drawn me to its shelves more times than I can remember. Getting myself a library card was the first thing I did after settling in Singapore. While sketching this scene of people reading and snoozing on the library sofa, a little schoolgirl came over to watch me draw. Soon her friends joined me on the sofa. They seemed amused at the sight of an adult playing with colour pencils and crayons!

Tiong Bahru Bakery

For tea and cakes, I hopped into a cab with my husband and headed to our favourite cafe in Singapore- Tiong Bahru Bakery. I have sketched here so many times over the years that the bakery’s manager, Christine knows me well and was over the moon to see me walk through the doors once again with a sketchbook in hand! She got us a seat with good light, just like before. We ordered tea, coffee and a Kouign-Amann, just like before. I started sketching. There were moments when it felt like we hadn’t left Singapore at all.

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TBB

Before leaving Christine brought us a complimentary pineapple tart that had been newly introduced to the menu. I drew it for her as a way to say thank you and the sketch went up on the community board.

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TBB community board

After leaving the cafe we walked around the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood, past our favourite Art Deco buildings. Some new cafes and boutiques had sprouted while some old ones had bitten the dust. Tiong Bahru Market was still there, abuzz with activity.

Newton Hawker Center

I wanted to spend the evening at Newton which used to be our old neighbourhood and later have dinner at Newton Hawker Center. It is a food haven for Southeast Asian cuisines. Seated on these very wooden benches surrounded by food stalls, we had gorged on Bak Chor Mee, Thai pepper chicken, Aloo parathas, Curry laksa, and Nasi Goreng on countless occasions.

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Upon returning, my first impulse was to get a taste of everything! But I didn’t act on that. Perhaps the heat was taking a toll on my good senses. I let a glass of sweet refreshing lime juice help me settle down. The evening crowd was arriving and the tables around us were getting snapped up.

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The heat was also melting my crayons and they became soft and mushy, really pliable which helped me work faster than usual. By the time I finished sketching, I had worked up an appetite. I got myself a steaming bowl of handmade meatball noodles, rejoiced every bite of it and left the place completely satiated.

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Throughout this trip I realized how much I wanted to remember everything I was doing before I left Singapore again for good. So I did them well, however small or insignificant, something was, I paid attention. I really engaged. There was this excitement of revisiting the familiar – friends, food, sights, sounds and smells – but then there was also this new, unfamiliar urge of holding on to them as long as I could.

Before going back to the hotel, we walked past our old apartment building. It looked exactly the same. Apartment 03-02 was brightly lit and someone was watching TV in the living room. The building caretaker recognized us and said that incidentally, a Korean family had moved in right after we move out and left for Korea!

The Arrival of Melons

There are two fruits that announce the arrival of summer in Korea – Watermelons and Korean melons.

Now, watermelons I am familiar with. Back in India, in the little industrial town I grew up in, summers were terribly hot and dry. After we came back from school looking like two boiled lobsters our mom put out chilled watermelon slices before me and my sister to eat and cool down with. We’d put our feet up on the couch and gorge on fresh, crunchy slices until streams of pink juices ran across our hands and dripped from the elbow into our bowls.

emart watermelon

On a recent trip to E-mart I was greeted by these melon cousins piled up next to the entrance

While plump ripe watermelons harken back to fond childhood memories, I am yet to make an acquaintance of the bright yellow, slightly oblong Chamoe, also known as Korean Melon. It is eaten fresh and I am told that it tastes like a less sweet cantaloupe with a sight cucumber flavour. When pickled it can be enjoyed as a savoury side dish which I would love to try as well!

 

 

 

 

Back alleys of Gangnam

In my neighborhood in Gangnam, the back alleys are lined with outdoor BBQ joints, izakayas, cafes, small bakeries, basement game parlors, nail salons, copy and print stores, night clubs, food trucks, and convenience stores. As evening approaches the neon lights come alive. People pour in from all directions and the smell of food and the sound of thumping music and clinking beer bottles spill out from shops and pavements and fill the air.

During the day it’s much quieter though. With most people in offices, the alleys are empty save for the continuous flow of delivery trucks unloading beer kegs and cartons of food and supplies for cafes and restaurants. This is also the time when minor repair works and maintenance happen, so you hear hammers banging or drill machines making holes into walls or watch a crane hoist a window-cleaner up an office building.

In the sketches below I have captured the minutiae of everyday life over several months on random walks around my neighbourhood. The viral K-pop song ‘Gangnam style” that catapulted Seoul’s Gangnam district into international recognition synonymized this area with wealth, affluence, and a certain trendy lifestyle. True, the gleaming high rises, luxury cars gliding along Gangnam-daero and the swanky Gangnam cafes all attest to that image but as a 3-year-old resident of this district, I have loved exploring a different side of it – a slightly scruffy, often grungy and pedestrian side with loud wet markets, ugly utility poles, and dusty construction sites that live in the back alleys, away from the main thoroughfares.

Afternoon Tea with a view

Chloris Tea room

One summer afternoon I parked myself in the balcony of Chloris Tea Room facing a narrow back alley, ordered myself a cup of Rooibos tea, and looked out into this jumble of brick houses, utility poles, potted plants, hurried passersby, and a bunch of pigeons hopping about.

Back street architecture

Gangnam backstreet

As I turned this street corner a visual explosion of incongruous colours, shapes, and sizes of random urban objects compelled me to stop and make sense of my surroundings. The brick building seemed to be heavily ‘ornamented’ with all kinds of shop signages, AC condenser units, and pipes. There were trash cans leaning against it and a utility pole with car parking instructions stood guard. So much was going on in such a small space!

End of a workday

view from Paul Basset

I sketched this scene from a tiny Paul Bassett cafe inside an office building overlooking a busy alley. It was the end of a workday and out of the cafe’s large glass windows, I saw people spilling out of nearby offices and rushing towards bus stops and subway stations. If you’re curious about the ‘No Brand’ sign on that building like I was, well, it’s a brand by Emart (one of South Korea’s biggest supermarket chains) that sells products at super affordable prices. Their purple sweet potato chips and cheddar cheese balls are very popular!

Queen of hearts

Gangnam backst

There’s a small Korean dumplings shop around the corner from this Copy and Printshop where I often go to buy a prepacked set of 10 delicious steamed Kimchi dumplings for $4. One day on my way there, I saw this tourist in a baggy red sweater full of hearts leaving the shop with a bag of dumplings and her heavy suitcase, perhaps heading to a nearby hotel. She was looking at a map on her phone to find the way.

The Window Shopper

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Gangnam back alleys are rife with independent boutiques selling fashionable clothes and accessories. One day while I was out with my sketchbook looking for subjects, I saw this woman eyeing a red coat at the shop window of this boutique on her way to Gangnam Station. She seemed very interested and paused for few minutes in front of the store but eventually walked away. She probably wanted to give it some more thought.

Fall chores

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A common sight towards the end of fall is dead leaves getting swept off the roads and sidewalks.

Scary Hoodie

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Since I can’t read Korean, when I am out on the road my eyes naturally wander towards anything written in English. One day while waiting to cross the road, I happened to stand behind a person wearing this very amusing hoodie which was totally worth documenting!

Sighting of the Pig Head

Nonhyeon Market

I love visiting traditional markets in Seoul but didn’t know there was one, south of Han River, close to where I live! There’s so much to explore at Yeong-dong Market and as I walked slowly past shops selling beans, rice, tea, kimchi, bean paste, meat, condiments, sauces and a variety of fried snacks, I came upon this scene – a dog owner and his dog in matching outfits. The dog was clearly excited by a severed pig head displayed at one of the stalls and was pulling at its leash really hard and barking while the embarrassed owner did everything to calm his pet.

Boiled pig heads are used at a Korean ceremony called Gosa intended to bring good luck to someone starting a new business or buying a new car or moving into a new home. The head is placed on a table along with different kinds of foods. Those who visit the ceremony stuff cash into its mouth and ears. When the ceremony is over, everybody eats and drinks together. These days, however, people have even started replacing the real thing with a sugar-coated cake resembling a pig head.

The Sign Walker

EDM signage

The guy with the ed:m sign (an education consulting firm) is a permanent fixture on the busy stretch between Sinnonhyeon Station and Gangnam Station. Come rain or shine, he’s always there. What I find unique and also heartening about this guy is how intensely absorbed he always is in his books and therefore oblivious of his surroundings and the passage of time. For me, this sign-walker stands out more than the sign.

Follow the leaves

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Only a few meters up this alley lies the famous Kukkiwon, also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters. On weekends, I often see parents heading there with their kids dressed in white Taekwondo uniforms. My interest, however, lies in visiting a small park on the side of this alley which I accidentally discovered one fall afternoon by following this line of Gingko trees and their fallen leaves. When I crave nature, this is where I go for a quick fix.

Slice of Gangnam

Gangnam scene

This sketch isn’t of a back alley but of a view from the back alley of Teheran-ro – one of the busiest roads in Seoul, choc-a-bloc with cars and lined with tall gleaming skyscrapers and lampposts that have the Korean flag fluttering from them. Sometime last year for a certain period of time, all the Korean flags were replaced with flags from different countries of the world. Everytime I walked along Teheran-ro with my husband, we had a ‘guess the flag’ contest.

Tulip Lady 

CB in gangnam

One of our favourite things to do in spring is to walk around the neighbourhood in search of cherry blossom trees. Since they are around only for a week or two, we try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. On one such excursion, I saw this woman walk past a hardware store under a row of cherry blossom trees with a tulip plant in hand that had a single blooming red tulip. Everybody else had sandwiches or coffee in their hands. It was lunch hour. I wondered if the plant was for her own work desk or bought as a gift for a friend she was going to meet later in the day.

The Bargain-hunter

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Right before the onset of winter, I found this guy perusing winter coats at Vin Prime, a thrift shop in one of the back alleys of Gangnam. He didn’t buy anything but he browsed for a long time and let me finish my sketch from across the road. My hands were freezing.

 

 

 

 

Sale at Olive Young

Olive Young is a popular beauty and health store based in South Korea that I had never heard of until I started living here.

There are at least five decent-sized Olive Young stores ( in addition to countless cosmetics shops) within walking distance from my apartment in Gangnam and at any time I visit one of them to buy a tube of suncream or some moisturizer I need to jostle for space because they are always crowded.

Also, the diverse range of cosmetics and skincare products displayed on the shelves can be mindboggling but not for the Korean customer who I see flitting from shelf to shelf confidently scooping up rejuvenating snail masks, eye creams loaded with collagen extracts and acne patches. I envy how well informed Koreans are about skincare products!

In recent years, K-beauty products, especially skincare has risen in popularity. Articles and blog posts waxing lyrical about the ’10-step Korean skincare routine’ or the ’13 best Korean Face masks’ keep popping up on my newsfeed. When my overseas friends visit Seoul, trips to Olive Young stores are imperative. I wanted to know why. If something exciting is brewing in my own backyard shouldn’t I be curious?

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People loading up on beauty products during a sale at a Olive Young outlet in Gangnam

So I dug a little deep and found that the global cosmetic industry makes a ton of money. In the next 3 to 4 years, it is expected to grow to 379 billion dollars! If you break down this number into product categories (cosmetics, perfumes & colognes, skincare, hair care, , and others), you find that it is skincare that’s driving most of the growth. By 2024, the global skincare products market size alone is expected to reach 196 billion dollars!

What makes skincare so popular? Industry analysts point towards increased awareness in wellness which in today’s day and age translates to clean eating, fitness and the natural, no make-up look. The wellness trend is driving consumers to take better care of their skin. And this ‘skin first, make-up second’ philosophy that has been gaining momentum across the world is believed to have originated in South Korea where skincare is part of the culture.

Not just that, the sizeable skincare and cosmetic industry of South Korea is highly competitive. In order to stand out brands constantly invest in research and development to create new, better quality, and competitively priced products which earn them an edge in the global market.

In a CNBC interview, I heard Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam – a site that curates and sells Korean beauty products – explain how K-beauty created a skincare wave. “They opened the door to innovations, allowed indie brands to come to the forefront of a lot of these skin care trends, they also widened the appetite for new products and categories and they’ve been a big part of the education around skincare.

She also believes that “influencers and social media were key for K-beauty to takeoff”. The skincare boom owes a lot to social media. Skincare gurus and make up artists have huge fan followings on Youtube and Instagram where they share their daily skincare routines and explain why they prefer certain products and how those products impact their skin. As a result, consumers are discovering new products and learning about ingredients that go into these products.

Today South Korea is not just an exporter of beauty products but also a huge manufacturing base for American and European brands. As the country continues to grow as the latest beauty innovation and creation hub, I certainly have a better understanding of why my neighbourhood Olive Young stores are always buzzing with activity. I visited one recently during a big promotion and managed to buy four items I didn’t need! The sketch is from that time.