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.’