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Lee Kun-hee's legacy

How the Lee Kun-hee mobile phone became a blockbuster

Oct 28, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

This is the third in a four-part series that will delve into Chairman Lee Kun-hee’s New Management initiative that charted Samsung's course in becoming the leading global brand it is today.

Last year, Samsung Electronics Co. dominated the US home appliance market in the fourth quarter with a 21.6% market share, a record-high since data aggregation began in 2010. Market watchers say the company’s successful market expansion abroad was spearheaded by its unique product design, such as the BESPOKE refrigerator, which offers an option of changing panel colors.

Samsung's BESPOKE refrigerator has earned a number of major design awards already this year, including a gold award at the International Forum (iF) Design Awards in 2020 and another win at the 2020 NYCxDESIGN Awards. US media outlet Fast Company praised the BESPOKE as the "world’s most beautiful refrigerator."

Samsung's BESPOKE refrigerator
Samsung's BESPOKE refrigerator

Samsung Electronics is well known for its original product design.The company has steadily increased its market share in all divisions with design at the forefront, as that has given Samsung products the competititve edge over others with similar features and specs.
A prime example is the South Korean tech giant's wine glass-inspired Bordeaux TV series released in 2006. With the design, Samsung was able to edge out the then-unconquerable Sony, and has held the No.1 position for 15 years in terms of TV sales as of last year. Industry players say that Samsung reached the top stop thanks to its original product design and artsy touch, whereas Sony focused on picture quality and functionality.

Samsung's wine glass-inspired Bordeaux TV
Samsung's wine glass-inspired Bordeaux TV


Chairman Lee led Samsung Electronics’ evolution to become a design-focused company, in line with the 1993 New Management initiative.

At the time Chairman Lee said: “Design will become a valuable asset to the company and a winning move in corporate management in the 21st century."

Lee's mission underscored in 1996 when he called for a design revolution: “Design should not be treated as just an aesthetic element of a  product."

But it wasn't easy to bring change to a traditional manufacturing company fixated on the idea of just making sturdy product.s

However, Chairman Lee’s visit to the Milan Furniture Fair in 2005 further fueled his determination for design-focused management. After visiting the fair, Lee said: “Samsung’s design competitiveness is still not first tier. It takes an average of 0.6 seconds to grab consumers' attention, and if we can’t seize that moment, we can’t win.”


Under Chairman Lee's creative management, Samsung Electronics introduced the concept of "forward-looking design" pioneered by the Samsung Design studio. In line with the company's design revolution, the studio's role was to identify upcoming trends and reflect them in the company’s product designs in advance.

Samsung Design is the mastermind behind the Samsung T100 folder-type mobile phone, also referred to as the Lee Kun-hee phone, which was the company’s first mobile phone to sell over 10 million units in 2006. The team also designed the popular wine glass-inspired design for Bordeaux TV.

Samsung's T100 mobile phone, also known as the Lee Kun-hee phone
Samsung's T100 mobile phone, also known as the Lee Kun-hee phone

To this end, the company set up Samsung Design studios in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Milan, Tokyo and Shanghai. As of 2015, the global design studios housed over 1,500 employees.


In 2006, Chairman Lee flew to New York to receive the prestigious Van Fleet Award. He was expected to return home once the event wrapped up, but that was not the case. Instead of flying back to Korea, Lee traveled for 40 days — to New York, London, Dubai and Yokohama —  to underscore the need for creativity to his employees.

Chairman Lee stressed: “The 21st century is not an era to simply make and sell products, but an era in which to create new value by gathering creativity, ideas and information.”

Chairman Lee's comments in 2006 reflected his philosophy on creative management, and this was considered to be critical moment in the group’s history, on par with the 1993 declaration of the New Management initiative.

Around this time, Samsung was dealing with rumors of crisis as its revenue had been stagnant since 2004. Also, the company's semiconductor business was performing poorly due to lowered prices and its mobile phone business was unable to narrow the gap with Nokia, which was No. 1 at the time.

Chairman Lee found a solution in creativity. He proposed creating a completely new product instead of following in the footsteps of the industry's larger peers. Starting in 2006, Samsung began to roll out new products such as digital camera phones and fusion semiconductors.

Chairman Lee Kun-hee exames a digital camera phone
Chairman Lee Kun-hee exames a digital camera phone

Chairman Lee's creative management is still in full force. Recently Samsung Electronics unveiled Cube, a square box-shaped mini-refrigerator that stores wine, beer and cosmetics. The company also has a shoe storage system, a TV on wheels, and an artificial intelligence oven in the pipeline. All of these products are the first of their kind.

“Samsung Electronics’ strategy is to disrupt existing product designs to further grow the market,” said an industry source. “Chairman Lee’s legacy is the DNA that has made Samsung the global brand it is today.”

Write to Hyung-suk Song and Su-bin Lee at

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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