Yang is on a mission to preserve South Korean heritage in modern architectural design.

PHOTO: TEO YANG STUDIO

Teo Yang is a South Korean architect who started his career much like other forward-thinking designers of his age – outside of his homeland.

A graduate of interior architecture at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and environmental design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, he worked in the big cities of Berlin, Los Angeles and the like, building a name for himself in the world of luxury interior design.

That was until an epiphanic moment in Amsterdam set him on a different path – a quest to define his own cultural identity.

On A Mission To Preserve South Korean Heritage

Now 41 years old and head of his own design practice in Seoul since 2009, Yang is on a mission to preserve South Korean heritage in modern architectural design. Since then, he has amassed a body of work that covers public spaces, private residences, commercial and government projects.

Worked for Marcel Wanders in Amsterdam

The Seoul native traces his heritage awakening to the time that he worked for the acclaimed Marcel Wanders in Amsterdam. He was inspired to embrace ancient Korean folklore and philosophy – so it’s no surprise that Teo Yang Studio is located in a beautifully restored 1917 hanok. 

Gyedong Residence – The living room in Teo Yang’s hanok is adorned with artwork by Korean artist Lee Bae. This is one of Yang’s newest and favourite pieces.

Teo Yang Studio: Located in a 1917 Hanok

Well-known for his passion for conserving such traditional Korean houses, Yang laments how many of these buildings are being damaged by property developments or commercial outfits.

Hanok: A traditional Korean house

According to him, hanok are a tool to show respect for the culture and local content. But instead, hanok are increasingly being used mainly to promote consumer brands where only the structure remains but the space within is devoid of its original content.

The exterior of Teo Yang’s beautifully conserved home.

“Inside, there’s no connection to the past and it doesn’t have a narrative. That’s when you see a taxidermy of a hanok.”

A History Buff Protecting The Past

 The self-confessed history buff now devotes himself to protecting the past as much as he can. And he has found his life’s calling in the process.

“When you’re a teenager or in your 20s, you don’t realise how time flies. Sometimes you don’t really get a chance to find that manifesto, and you just live with what is given to you. I feel that I was very lucky to have found this mission that I could devote myself to. And I think great opportunities just came to me almost as a gift.”

He has indeed added diversity to the interior design world by weaving in elements of Korean tradition. But at the same time, his unconventional storytelling methods have earned him his fair share of critics in the industry.

Fair Share of Fans & Haters

“I do get my fair share of hate. I think that’s because I’m trying to approach things in a different way.” There are of course people who understand and appreciate his work ethics, so he is not fazed.

“I’m going to be working hard, and truthfully, on my mission. And I’m pretty sure I will be able to prove to people that I’m not just doing this for myself or the studio.”

Refurbished Two National Museums in South Korea

Among the projects he’s proud of are the interior refurbishments of two national museums in South Korea, when they were closed during the pandemic.

Working on such venerable institutions is the ultimate goal for many interior designers, he believes. Museums are not just for preservation and education, but they have a role in evolving cultures through the experiences they present.

Silla History Gallery, Gyeongju National Museum 

Teo Yang Studio was responsible for revamping the Silla History Gallery at the Gyeongju National Museum in Gyeongju city, North Gyeongsang.

Opened in late 2020, the sleek space houses ancient artefacts from the rise of Korean civilisation. Yang created a soothing and comfortable ambience for visitors to enjoy.

In contrast to rigid museum guidelines to steer clear of the exhibits, he used light bamboo stands to indicate that people shouldn’t stand too close to them. He even educated the guards and docents to have a friendlier, more welcoming tone of voice.

National Hanguel Museum, Seoul

The studio also worked on Seoul’s National Hangeul Museum, which was launched in November 2021. The exhibits feature the linguistic structure and evolution of Hangul, the Korean alphabet system.

Teo Yang Studio injected a modern aesthetic into the design of the National Hangeul Museum in Seoul.

Yang feels that museums are a great platform for designers to showcase their work and contribute to the community. He says that designers should feel some obligation towards public design, hence, “I give myself pressure to do very well on such projects”, he says.

Teo Yang Studio: Private Residential Projects

As for private homes, Teo Yang Studio hardly does any these days.

“We rarely work on residential projects, although we still do them maybe once every two or three years. Usually clients come to us because they want to pursue that (Korean heritage) lifestyle within their homes as well. And we’re not trying to turn their house into a museum or a gallery.”

Samseongdong Residence. The entrance foyer of one of Teo Yang Studio’s residential projects.

Preserving South Korean heritage in a home

For such clients, Yang would recommend picking one room and transforming it into, say, a tea room in which the homeowners could meditate while being surrounded by Korean craft. Or perhaps adorning their dining room with a beautiful artwork by a Korean artist.

“That could be just a very easy step to support our heritage and culture and be part of the movement that I’m trying to create,” says Yang. He suggests subtle ways to incorporate more local craft in their homes, and show them that there is great beauty in Korean contemporary art.

Inject Traditional South Korean Arts & Craft

Needless to say, Yang is an advocate of traditional Korean craft. He was appointed creative director for the Craft Trend Fair held in December 2022.

“We had a huge success with over 50,000 visitors. We were able to talk about the role that craft plays in our society. And a lot of people learned the essence of craft.” 

According to him, Korean craft is hardly promoted in the international scene because the artisans are very “shy” to talk about their work. “There are designers who love to talk about themselves, and there are artists whose gallery speaks for them. But for craft, the system doesn’t exist. So annual shows like this really become a platform for these craftspeople to shine.”

Korean New Year Falls on 22 January 2023

As we spoke, Yang was gearing up for the Korean New Year (which falls on Jan 22). “It’s a time of gathering for families and friends. We have a ceremony to pay respect to our ancestors, and we bow to our elders who in return give us presents and sometimes money as well.”

A celebration of local ingredients

The new year is all about food, of course, and all made with local ingredients. His favourite is the rice cake soup, tteokguk, which is the main dish for the celebration. Eating a bowl of tteokguk represents growing another year older, and also longevity and prosperity.

“I love the Korean New Year. It really feels that it’s now time to rest and recharge ourselves.”

It’s set to be a busy year in 2023 for Yang as he takes on projects that cover his two loves – design and wellness.

Creative director for Seoul Beauty Travel Week

Besides designing an art gallery showroom and energy company headquarters, Yang has also been appointed creative director (for the second year) for the Seoul Beauty Travel Week. The festival’s main objective is to promote wellbeing, healthy lifestyle and food, and an appreciation for life.

All these projects invariably align with the designer’s principles. Whether it’s heritage or lifestyle, his mission is to contribute to the country’s cultural development and resonate with people. Whatever he does, Yang reiterates, “it’s all meant for the good of society”.

This story first appeared on The Business Times.