Eun Kyung Park moves with a grace of a bird and the shyness of a first-time flower girl bashfully wincing her way up the aisle. She doesn’t seem to understand why so much attention is focused on her, and playfully swats away the idea that’s she’s among the top in the nail game. But that shyness is left all on the interview couch. It’s a different type of artist altogether seated behind her manicurist’s table in Unistella salon’s catbird seat (the one near the window, facing an ensconced, sylvan drive in Seoul’s ritzy Cheongdam district). At her command center, with little dental-looking drills, a neat stack of sticker appliques (current and future offerings from her own line), and a few carefully selected pots of gel, she gets down to what we really came for—the art.
She grips a client’s finger firmly with her own and precisely draws on impossibly straight lines with a hair’s breadth brush. Her sanding and shaping skills are honed and keen—she has this ability to make your nails shorter while making your hand look longer. It’s that sense of dimension that sets her apart, the same thing the best hair stylists do with cuts and stylists do with clothes. It’s all about the edit.
Park rose to industry prominence the old-fashioned way, working her way up manicuring models backstage at Seoul fashion week and celebrities for shoots in Grazia, Elle Korea and W Korea. But her claim to fame happened the modern way—the internet. Her glass nail manicure caught the trend-hungry eyes of Korean women after Irene Kim flashed them around Instagram. It’s still a house specialty, one of the most-requested designs at the salon. It’s actually one of the most requested at most salons, Korean or otherwise. The trend took global root, with artists all over the world adapting it and OPI offering an at-home DIY kit. Where others might feel robbed of intellectual property, Park feels warmed by the universal demand. “I am really happy to see that success,” she says. But that success is also a year old, and the trend life cycle is practically tapping its foot. “There is a burden to come up with the next big design.”
Her work suggests no artist’s block. Her Instagram page is full of nail ideas both wild and refined, extreme and restrained, oddball and almost obvious. She pays special attention the the hand as a whole, using the nails as canvases in a series, not sites of copy-and-pasting. She escalates color blocks, inverts sticker placement, even paints outside the canvas and onto the skin. There’s an easy, organic feeling to her designs. It’s that feeling that sets her apart on the world stage, but especially in Korea, where nail art is coming out of a cutesy phase and switching into a sleeker, more minimal vibe.
Simplicity is trending, according to Park. “About sixty or seventy percent of clients ask for negative space—it’s still very popular.” But a negative space design hasn’t always been a subtle one; it’s often been just one element in a elaborate configuration. “It’s more simple these days, not as complicated. Just one or two graphics on each finger. That’s it.”
That goes for applique too. “The reason why glass nails got popular is because people don’t want the large jewels on their hands,” says Park. “They wanted flat accents.” Park already has made a line of stickers, including ones for glass nails, and is also launching a few new editions at the end of May. She gave us a sneak peek, and we’re happy to report that everything from delicate chains to more sturdy trompe l’oeil hardware are making an appearance.
Individuality has gone mainstream too. The idea of the point nail (known in the states as the accent nail), where a single nail has a unique design that doesn’t match the rest of the hand, has been so totally accepted that the point is now the norm. Multiple points, too—it’s not uncommon to see a different design on every nail. Mixing is the new matching.
One of the emerging trends in the nail world is what she calls the “half-cut,” (searchable on IG as #halfcutnails), which is color on the bottom half of the nail, either rounded elliptical or cut off by a straight line. It combines a few ideas—negative space, the half-moon concept, and usually a graphic element or two, depending. It’s a few pieces from a few things, but in (and on) the right hands, the half-cut looks totally fresh. As with most negative space designs,you can keep them around longer than would a traditional paint job. “Half-cut nails look like little eyes when they grow out. I love it,” says Park. The let-it-be approach is good for nail health too, where constant applying and removing of gel lacquer can take a toll.
Although she’s prolific and works in multiple media (even dabbling in jewelry), she’s not eager to branch out in certain areas. She’s not interested in making a line of polishes any time soon—she’s happy making stickers for salon and DIY use. “I’d rather spend my time making it easier to create my designs elsewhere,” she explains. Satellite expansion isn’t on her radar either—she prefers to maintain a strong presence in her own salon. She doesn’t even feel pressure to be on Snapchat. Instead of spreading herself thin, she prefers to focus in on the art, and let all those great expectations fade into the background. “I think it’s fun, so I keep it fun.”