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Teo Yang

The past in the future


Photography YUN SUK SHIM

Under the theme “the past in the future,” Teo Yang has cultivated a new aesthetic of Korea. Yang’s practice makes you feel calm, welcomed, and at ease while fostering curiosity through his intricate and detail-oriented design. By respecting the heritage of his motherland and adding his own contemporary taste, Yang’s meticulous approach has led to numerous projects  (from commercial spaces to public institutions and residential buildings) that invite visitors to experience Korea’s past, present, and future.


In the following conversation, we take a visit to Yang’s historical and art-filled Hanok house tucked away in a quiet alley in Bukchon. Each room embodies a different layer of Yang’s intimate memories and demonstrates how art can be embedded into one’s daily life. Upon meeting him, it soon became clear why he is considered the most beloved designer and creative representing Korea. He doesn’t take time for granted but rather cherishes each moment of his day as an opportunity to translate his roots into the elegant language of design.

Teo Yang at his house.

PLUS: I want to begin by discussing the earlier days of your design career. You lived overseas before establishing Teo Yang Studio [in 2009] in Seoul.

Teo Yang: I grew up in Seoul but studied [interior architecture and environmental design] in the States. After, I moved to Amsterdam, where I worked for Marcel Wanders. I have always admired his approach to design practice and how he communicated his heritage, making me reflect on my own roots. I’ve learned a lot during this time, as it allowed me to visualize my design process to the next step. The turning point was when I moved back to Korea and realized the importance› of embedding my cultural identity into my practice.

As you know, Korea is a highly populated country, and Seoul, especially, is a dense city. The country went through a lot of evolution, innovation, and change within a blink of an eye. With everything changing rapidly, it acted as a substantial driving force in shaping the city—many of the old traditional sites and buildings have been demolished and disappeared and replaced with modernized buildings and fancy skyscrapers. Witnessing and overseeing all of these changes [gave] me an urgency to take action as a designer, to revisit our heritage in a modern sense, which we can all relate to.


P: These experiences have shaped the foundation of your practice. 

TY: Yes, and I feel fortunate to find my lifetime passion, and sometimes that’s not easy. I think it’s a true luxury to have something you can work with, especially in the creative industry.


P:  You reside in one of the most significant landmarks in Seoul, Bukchon (Northern Village), and in a Hanok (traditional Korean home). How has this environment influenced your lifestyle?

TY: Living in Bukchon and a Hanok definitely influenced me in many ways. Hanok has a long history representing various historical periods of Korea. And we have different names and aesthetics reflecting different periods and regions based on where and when it was built. The Hanok where I currently reside was constructed at the end of the Joseon dynasty, during the Japanese occupation. During this time, the hierarchical system between the servant and the master of the house, women, and men, has disappeared, so this Hanok has a modern family structure reflecting that change. 

I try to showcase how Hanok can cater to the lifestyle of people in the 21st century. So, this house has been a case study for my practice ever since. I try to experiment by discovering the possibilities of Hanok while preserving the traditions and its craftsmanship. Hanok has many different rooms, each structured and arranged for specific uses. My home has a stunning quarter called Sarang Bang, which was used as a men’s room for studying, greeting guests, writing poetry, and leisure activities. And I still use that room as my library to welcome guests and do meetings. And for the servant quarter, I now use to keep my art collections, to meet people very briefly—like in a casual setting. I try to embrace the traditional philosophy of Hanok living, understanding the old functions of each room but catering to my current needs.

P: And can you share about your creative process?

TY: With each project, I try to stay true to the academic ways of approach and the definition of design. I am using design as a tool to discover societal issues and provide creative solutions. So the first step is always to delve deeper into finding a statement to tackle within the project and keeping in mind to avoid giving aesthetical solutions, such as just making a space pretty. And then, we take considerable time to do extensive research, translate it into the design and ask if this can make a positive impact. 


P: In that way, storytelling and finding purpose in design are crucial elements for you.

TY: Absolutely!


Plus: You are constantly creating and giving a new life to a space and thinking beyond the present moment. What’s your take on the essence of planning, and what does it mean to be looking ahead?

TY: It’s great that you asked because I always think about the context of the future and ask myself how I can create a meaningful statement and bring a new perspective. It’s essential to think about how my project will be remembered or last as time passes, and I hope my works can inspire future generations. So in this sense, I’m constantly being chased and mocked by the future. And it has inspired me to be true to myself.


P: You are also an art collector, and art is closely embedded in both your personal and professional life. How do you wish to balance them when you’re working? 

TY: For me, art is a tool to communicate with people and a guide to keeping me grounded. And, I don’t collect art for aesthetic reasons as it’s a way to deepen my knowledge of the current society. I can never take art away from my projects as it has become such an essential factor, and going further, I want my client to grow with art as well. 


P: You have done numerous art-related projects, and if you could share, what was the most memorable and/or challenging project that gave you a new perspective on your practice? 

TY: I would have to say the redesign of the Silla History Gallery lobby in the Gyeongju National Museum was the most challenging as it was my first museum project. I wanted the space to offer more than an exposure to art, so I went against all odds by suggesting a non-traditional setting for museums by removing the wall that used to sit at the end of the lobby and adding a glass window. Going beyond, I placed more benches throughout to create an inviting atmosphere, removed the glass cases where old artifacts were exhibited, and placed them on a wooden pedestal where visitors could connect closer to the pieces. This way, it allowed the visitor to connect with nature and the beautiful landscape of Gyeongju.

You have to understand that Korean culture can still seem conservative, and clients can be hesitant to suggest a design that is out of its traditional norms. Creating a space where visitors can just sit, heal and rest with art in an area that serves incredible energy was the most satisfying part of this project.

For Thaddaeus Ropac [a gallery], which opened its inaugural space in Seoul [in 2021], it also gave me a new type of challenge. With art galleries, it’s crucial to create a space highlighting the artwork, so I had to ensure it looked pristine and seamless. Nonetheless, every project gives a new creative vision we can cherish and learn from. 

With each project, I try to stay true to the academic ways of approach and the definition of design. I am using design as a tool to discover societal issues and provide creative solutions.”

P: Besides interior design, you also wear many hats; a big part is building your own brands. From Eastern Edition (furniture) to EATH Library (cosmetic) and Si Nang (perfume), what pivoted you to begin these exciting projects?

TY: Beyond interior design, I have always wanted to share Korean heritage with a broader audience. I often receive questions about how I define ‘Korean aesthetics’—and it’s impossible to justify the entire cultural history in a single answer. So, I established lifestyle brands to reveal parts of our roots and heritage, one concept at a time.

For instance, EATH Library, the cosmetic line, is my take on traditions of Korean herbal medicine. Through extensive research on traditional ways of using natural ingredients recorded in archives dating back thousands of years, I am utilizing cosmetics as a tool to talk about their uniqueness. And with the furniture label Eastern Edition, I reveal the traditional imagery, texture, and forms relating to the past. Si-Nang, the latest project I have launched, is another way to communicate my perspective of our time and future. During the pandemic, I wrote five short fictional stories about people traveling to the moon and how they created these artificial gardens. Based on this, I made five types of scents relating to each story. Si-Nang, meaning a “time-pouch” in Korean, gave me a chance to think about the future and open a natural dialogue between time and space through scent. 


P: With all these projects going on, what are your ways of taking a break, perhaps a typical ‘day off’ for you?

TY: Recharging yourself is extremely important, and I always remind myself to maintain good physical and mental health! Luckily, I travel often for work, which became my way to rest in many ways. Visiting different cities and countries allows me to stay away from the chaos in the office, giving me time to look at new things and observe how the world is changing. But a typical day off would be walking my dogs and having quality time with people I love! I live very close to the Royal Palaces, so it’s always great to take some breaks there. 


P: What do you hope to see more in the design scene in Korea? How do you envision Korean design flourishing on an international level?

TY: We’re in a fortunate position to receive all of this exposure, especially in entertainment, food, design, and even fashion. And for us to continue and grow on this, it’s crucial for every one of us to collaborate, show the diverse aspects of the Korean lifestyle, and remember to create something that is just very unique to us.

This story is from Issue Five.


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