In a small studio under Queensway I find Eunmi Kim. With rain drumming against the rattling windowpanes of the communal workspace she sits holding a cup of tea and a notebook ordering pottery supplies. Today she wears black jeans and a pristine denim shirt which fits closely to her already tiny frame, a marked contrast to the vibrant surroundings with art and sculpture on display alongside old copies of The World of Interiors whose glossy pages have been thumbed with grubby fingers and speckled with paint and clay. Bearded ceramicists work to folk music in the background as artists carry materials between studios. As she turns to see me her kind and ageless face – she is 32 but you wouldn’t guess it – breaks into a beaming smile, her dark eyes warming as if greeting a long lost friend. A subsequent squeak of excitement makes her heartfelt greeting all the more genuine.
Keen to turn her childhood passion and talents for using her hands and making things into a business, Eunmi left her tiny hometown on the volcanic South Korean island of Jeju for Newcastle where she studied for a Masters in Design Management at Northumbria University. Her time in the north equipped her with the skills that now form the foundations of her eponymous brand as well as a hilarious Geordie impression that is guaranteed to reduce all those captivated by her easy company into fits of hysteria, herself included.
On graduating in 2010, Eunmi moved to Notting Hill where she lives within striking distance of Golborne Road and the paint-box hued homes of Portobello. “London inspires me a lot. People who are based in London create something new from nothing. Notting Hill has so many brightly coloured houses that are different and most pure. My hometown was dark, natural, black, brown, green.” As we talk, Eunmi speaks with considered and measured answers, each one peppered with glimmers of nostalgia; her English is broken and cautious but words are chosen carefully. Will this new colour palette influence her future projects? She grins and the answer is a resounding yes, her porcelain-like face appearing cheeky and illuminated with a sparky and youthful playfulness.
In spite of her obvious fondness for South Korea and the place that forged her love for texture, nature and pottery – it is a craft which originated in East Asia – an air of disappointment resonates, one which her furrowed brow fails to disguise. As she observes big Korean corporations give in to the westernisation and mass-production of art and design, she becomes even more resolute in wanting to show Koreans the importance of modernising their traditional culture, “I want to deliver something more meaningful and more unique”.
The hand-glazed charcoal mug she clutches is one of her “babies”; straight from the kiln, it is proof of her burgeoning success, its constant turning in her hands indicating a nervousness that I haven’t perceived in her before. When describing her work and the loyal Instagram followers who commission her graphite grey dishes, tarnished gold vases and immensely popular espresso cups, there is an air of modesty and humility rather than self-assurance that would usually come with achieving this level of accomplishment. Showing me the production line and delicately picking up pieces she is particularly proud of, there is a real sense of triumph at defying the odds and making a career from her passion – something that is forever sought but rarely achieved. Yet, ever the perfectionist, Eunmi passes comment that “it is good to try and fail” when running her fingers over coffee drippers which are yet to meet her meticulously high standards. My compliments are received with surprise and doubtful, modest astonishment.
With her visa’s renewal dependent upon the company’s economic success there is a lot at stake, not least the desire to justify the sacrifices that she has made in moving to London. In spite of the welcoming community she has found in the Notting Hill art scene and at HTB, the church near Harrods where we first met, she confesses to a feeling of being stuck in limbo – comfortable in both London and South Korea, but equally never quite settled in either. Discovering the value of family having moved away from home, she reflects upon her choices to put her business ambitions first – “I realised now my family is really important and that is the first thing I need to look at. It took me a long time to get it. Since I was young I lived by myself so it’s fine, but now I realise family gathering is really beautiful.”
The draw of family or the expiry of a visa may ultimately tear the defiant and witty Eunmi Kim from London, but fear of failure most certainly won’t.