Future’s Past: The historical experiments of Korean designer Teo Yang

By Alexandra Lange

All photos: Teo Yang's hanok in Bukchon, Seoul, January 2020. Photos: Gary Yeh

  • Mar 20, 2020

A traditional Korean guest house should contain four elements: a book, a handcrafted object, a landscape painting and good tea. On a chilly day last December, the fourth item is offered as a welcoming gesture in the reception room of the home of designer Teo Yang, an emerging star in the increasingly sought-after world of South Korean design. Served in small celadon cups, the tea mitigates the draft through the wood-and-glass screen walls of Yang’s renovated 1917 hanok, a tile-roofed courtyard house in the historic Bukchon neighborhood of Seoul. The teacup sits on a footed wooden tray no larger than a notebook—made by a local woodworker—next to a precisely wrapped caramel—made by a local confectioner.

This site-specific still life of tea, caramel and tray provides a capsule summary of Yang’s approach to design, combining past and present in multisensory experiences that include interiors, furniture, scents and skincare. In fact, every detail of his home’s interior—from the built-in cabinetry with arches inlaid across the drawers to the geometric sun, moon and mountains on the sliding doors—is a reflection of the thoughtful balance he strikes between traditional and modern. The hanok architectural style, once seen by Koreans as a relic and an impediment to urbanization, is now appreciated as an important cultural form. But Yang’s interest in the form goes beyond historic preservation. ‘People think that I am one of the cultural keepers,’ he says. ‘Oh, Teo is an important figure because he protects our traditions, but I am not really trying to protect traditions. I want to talk about the future, but in a context. We have a motto at our studio: Past in the future. We always try to think in those terms.’

Yang is one of a growing number of designers working to give traditional Korean architecture and ritual—long overlooked amid the country’s contributions to international culture in the form of film, food, music and technology—a contemporary role. ‘Seoul is a city that celebrates change, celebrates innovation and always tries to focus on something new,’ he says as we sit sipping tea. ‘I like to imagine how my house would’ve looked throughout the ages if the Japanese occupation era hadn’t happened. If all those traditions and all those aesthetics had continued without disturbance, without armed force, what would it look like?’ In the decade since he founded Teo Yang Studio—which operates out of a second hanok that was built on the lot in 1931—Yang, 39, has steadily gathered professional awards and established himself as a leader among the new generation of Korean designers. In recent years, he has been courted by heavyweight international luxury brands including Fendi (a resin-and-lacquer Peekaboo bag), Samsung (a refrigerator that looks like a sliding screen), Savoir Beds (a Deco-esque moon headboard), and watchmaker Vacheron Constantin (3-D-printed pagodas).

On a national level, his projects have ranged from the refurbishment of the Manghyang rest stop (now likely the most refined highway rest-stop restroom anywhere in the world) to the design of the ultraluxe Seoul Sky Premium Lounge on the 123rd floor of the Lotte World Tower. The studio also designs receptions and events for Kim Jung-sook, the first lady of South Korea. At the 2019 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, he decided to make Korean crafts the subject of a luncheon for the first ladies of the 10 member nations, collaborating with YEOL, the Korean Heritage Preservation Society, on an exhibition of work by young Korean artisans in metal, glass and ceramics, and a luncheon served on dishware by the featured craftspeople.

‘Previous designers would just do pretty decorations,’ says Yang. ‘But we are not interested in that. We always try to talk about curation. The guests were educated first, and then they got to use the items—we even gave the cups and utensils used at the luncheon as gifts.’

Thus far, most of the studio’s interior-design projects have been in Seoul, but it’s currently working on a karaoke bar in Los Angeles for SM Entertainment, the K-pop management powerhouse, as well as a yet-to-be-announced hotel in the Middle East. (That client told Yang his work represented ‘an Asian aesthetic they had never seen before. They said they saw a hint of Belgium in the look.’) Yang opened his studio soon after returning from an education abroad: an undergraduate degree in interior architecture from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, a graduate degree from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and a brief stint in the Amsterdam studio of Dutch superstar designer Marcel Wanders. A golden Wanders lamp, shaped like a small dog, sits in a corner of his reception room. ‘Most of the designer pieces I have in this house are sort of an archive of my travels,’ he says, and every city has made its imprint.

From California: ‘The Eameses are pretty much my favorite designers,’ he says. ‘I love their sense of scale.’ From Chicago: ‘I learned so much about Frank Lloyd Wright. You learn the language of space through him. Sometimes we take it for granted—he used bright and dark, small and big, high and low. It is so simple, but sometimes simple is more powerful.’

‘People think that I am one of the cultural keepers...but I am not really trying to protect traditions. I want to talk about the future, but in a context.’

When I express surprise that the neutrals-loving Yang worked for Wanders, whose work can often be neo-Baroque, he explains, ‘I loved Marcel when I was in school: the knotted chair [Wanders’ most famous work, a 1996 seat made from cord braided around carbon fiber and then epoxied stiff] and his Delftware collection, a traditional ceramic that he redesigned. I love the way he incorporated old techniques like knots with new techniques like pouring resin.’ His time living and working in Europe also gave him an important insight: ‘Seeing all those historic buildings and furniture pieces, I would always ask myself, ‘Where is the traditional design in Korea that I was never exposed to?’

Upon returning to Korea, his design philosophy began to coalesce. ‘That’s when I first started to study my own traditions,’ he says. ‘It became a manifesto for me—I needed to bring these old artifacts that had been forgotten to a contemporary platform.’

Yang got the opportunity to turn his lens back on European design when the studio was commissioned in 2017 by local bakery Mealdo and the Alvar Aalto Foundation to design a cafe inspired by the work of the Finnish architect and designer. The cafe, which sits among the lower level shops at the David Chipperfield–designed Amorepacific headquarters, looks like a tribute to Aalto’s iconic Savoy vase, all lush birch-lined curves and copper accents, with a library table in the center displaying monographs on Finnish designers. The liberal use of wood and the strategic softness of the built-in banquette remind me of Yang’s home, despite the inspiration being half the globe away.

Traditional inspirations are more overt at the EATH Library boutique, a short walk from Yang’s home and opposite an essential work of contemporary Seoul architecture, SO-IL’s chain-link-wrapped Kukje Gallery. Currently in the middle of expansion, the gallery gains design strength from the neighborhood setting, with a hanok on one opposite corner and EATH on the other. EATH’s facade splits the difference, with two large, irregular-shaped windows bordered in rich wood paneling. Inside, the shop’s wares are displayed in handcrafted wooden cases like specimens in a natural history museum. It’s a far cry from the pop, plasticky skincare shops in the Myeong-dong shopping district, but both styles epitomize modern Seoul.

Developing a skincare line might seem an unlikely project for an interior designer, but Yang describes it as simply another foundational cultural element that he can reinterpret. ‘Korean traditional medicine is a great heritage that we have,’ he says. ‘But it is another thing that people don’t appreciate much. People tend to go towards Western medicine. I wanted to show that traditional herbal remedies can be translated into a contemporary thing.’

‘Seeing all those historic buildings and furniture pieces [in Europe], I would always ask myself, ‘Where is the traditional design in Korea that I was never exposed to?’

Polishing off my tea and caramels, I realize that talking to Yang induces a dreamlike state. The enclosed room, the scent of pine and incense, the faint sound of electronic music remove all other stimuli. I can see nothing through the trellised windows but the tree in the courtyard and a wedge of sky. I could imagine myself anywhere in the world except, given the architecture, I could be nowhere but Seoul. (The design scene in the city has gained remarkable visibility even over the last year alone. Architectural Digest, in a survey of young designers this January, said that ‘as the numbers reach a critical mass, the Western design world, collectors in particular, have started to connect the dots.’)

It’s no surprise when Yang mentions, in passing, that film has been as influential for him as the design world. ‘Movies inspire me because, as a designer, I also come up with a program—a space program. When designers create a space for people, we always think about who the people will be and how they will use the space. We even write scenarios.’

He cites Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s internationally acclaimed dark satire (the first foreign-language film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture), as an example of how a film’s production design can amplify a story’s central theme. The intricate design of the characters’ living spaces in Parasite reflects perfectly the class tensions between the wealthy Park family, who live in a striking contemporary house, and the struggling Kim family, who live in a dingy semi-basement apartment. ‘It is a very Korean mindset, that hierarchy we have in society,’ Yang says. ‘But it’s so interesting to exaggerate that hierarchy so that we can really see it. Sometimes I see myself as a parasite as well, working in this industry, because a lot of interior jobs are based on clients, and it is hard to do your own projects.’

Yang cites fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford as an aspirational model of complete control of creative vision. He particularly admires Ford’s 2016 film Nocturnal Animals for its obsessive attention to detail. ‘He chose how the characters would move and what their lifestyle would be and what kind of car they would drive and what kind of clothing they would wear. Even though you can’t smell things on film, you always feel like there is this aroma.’

It dawns on me that the aroma I’ve been inhaling is no accident either. Yang produces a line of candles named for specific inspirational spaces, and the one burning in the corner now is called Northern V, after the original name for Bukchon village, located north of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The candle has a label printed with the silhouette of the palace’s elaborate roof. While it wouldn’t occur to most designers to try to bottle, or melt, a sense of place, the candle epitomizes Yang’s entire project—made with traditional methods but contemporarily stylish, Korea-specific but luxurious anywhere, mobile yet rooted. I want to take one home to Brooklyn to see if I can create my own guest house, beginning with a scent.