W hen 19-year old Teo Yang set about choosing a school to pursue his design studies, he had one criterion. “It had to be somewhere with a museum next door,” he tells me over the phone from Seoul. “So the Art Institute of Chicago was top of my list.”
Now 39, Yang has been back in his native South Korea for 10 years, running a studio that is one of his country’s most celebrated. With a team of four, Yang rolls out a huge number of perfectly conceived projects, which include museum interiors, hotels, collectors’ homes and spas. In 2021, he completed the renovation of the original Kukje Gallery building from 1987, where bespoke walnut furniture is joined by artworks from Hague Yang, Elmgreen and Dragsett and Louise Bourgeois; there’s also an elegant private gym and wellness suite in the basement. He has his own furniture line and even a range of skincare products. “And in the long lockdown, we worked with corporations, too – huge companies like GS Energy,” he says, “getting their offices ready for post-pandemic life. We were consulting on air filtration, and how to group and divide people. Everything to make the office a super safe place in every sense.”
Yang carries out his work from a charming hanok in the city’s centre, and lives in one next door. These are individual Korean houses, built in the early 20th century, in stone, tiling and wood and using traditional techniques. Once seen as an obstruction to the racing modernisation of Seoul, they are now valued, and Yang is at the forefront of recognising how traditional Korean design can be effective in the contemporary context. A bed created as part of a collaboration with Savoir has a headboard formed into the much-loved symbol of overlapping moons, and he has incorporated classic Joseon-era still-life paintings into de Gournay wallpapers. A stool in his own Eastern Editions line is adorned with a cushion because “in the old days we used to sit on the floor, and to be offered a cushion was a gesture of care and welcome.” The furniture is so successful in the United States, he’s even thinking of opening a store in Los Angeles.
“In my country, there is a simplicity and rawness that people find through nature, which I draw on. I’m not interested in mimicking the old, but it is a strong inspiration”
After finishing his education at Chicago, then Pasadena Art Center, Yang headed to Amsterdam and started an internship with the Dutch design maestro Marcel Wanders. “I fell in love with the city, but also the studio environment,” he says. “Marcel delves into Dutch history to create new objects with new functions, and I realised I could do the same in Korea. In my country, there is a simplicity and rawness that people find through nature, which I draw on. I’m not interested in mimicking the old, but it is a strong inspiration.” In a project for the Mealdo bakery in 2017, to make a cafe in the David Chipperfield-designed Amorepacific building, he looked further afield. Here the inspiration comes from the work of Alvar Aalto, and another country – Finland – which venerates the use of wood. Its curving walls are panelled with birch louvres that might put visitors in mind of a Nordic forest.
Even his skincare line is called EATH, or Effective Achievement through Traditional Heritage. In a country where plastic surgery is rampant, Yang is proposing a different tactic. “All the products are herb-based and vegan, because we think about inner beauty, too,” he says. “When you use strong chemicals on your skin, they can end up in your gut. We offer something safe, to make wrinkles more beautiful. We don’t want to turn back time.”
Indeed, Yang is clearly forging ahead. He is currently remodelling the entire interior of the National Museum of the Korean Language. There is a private home in Venice Beach, spas throughout Korea and the interior of the Ropac gallery, which will open in the Hanan district in October. “I’ve just been on site,” says Yang. “We’re mostly using wood, including a Korean walnut for the floor, which has a subtle grey tone that will bring a crisp, calm atmosphere.” It’s a very different Korea from the K-Pop one we’ve got to know. And definitely one to watch.
Teo Yang is featured in Dominic Bradbury’s forthcoming Atlas of Interior Design (Phaidon), due to be published on 9 September