July 21, 2024

Seoul is set to become one of the most influential style and culture hubs on the planet. It’s a brave statement, perhaps. But that’s what defines the Korean creators who are shaping the city: bold, brave and proud. Visit Seoul and you will instantly encounter keys to the success of contemporary Korean culture. Dynamic energy, speed and a remix of so many things (old and new, Western and Eastern, high fashion and streetwear, industrial and craftsmanship) welcome you – although it might make you feel slightly giddy.

‘If love and hate have the same meaning, I love you, Seoul, I hate you, Seoul’, sings RM, of South Korean boy band BTS, in his song ‘Seoul’, produced by Honne. Growing up and living in Seoul, that’s how I felt about the city of over 10 million inhabitants, so intense and full of contradictions. From being one of the poorest countries in the 1960s, South Korea achieved remarkable economic growth, and such rapid social change enforced speed and fierce competition for Koreans to outperform. A small country squeezed between China and Japan, it had an insatiable desire for external recognition, which fuelled its cultural exports, from music and drama to fashion.

Seoul traffic in Gangnam

A busy road in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district (which inspired Psy’s chart-topping song)

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

aerial view of green-roofed high-rises

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

If you ask Korean artists how they did it, they’ll tell you that they are great at absorbing diverse cultural influences and remixing them to create something of their own. An extremely hard-working ethos keeps us going until we are assured that something original has been created. As Koreans have delved deeper into identity-seeking, Korean heritage has become a key influence. Keen to stand out from the crowd, Koreans once devoured foreign trends, but many now value our sense of place, our culture, traditions and the potential to rediscover our identity.

Reinventing heritage is prevalent, particularly in two of the capital’s oldest neighbourhoods, Bukchon (North Village) and Seochon (West Village). Designed by leading Korean architect Choi Wook, of One O One Architects, the flagship store of Korea’s leading beauty brand, Sulwhasoo, is located in Bukchon. Choi’s design reflects the character of the neighbourhood, a jumble of alleyways lined with traditional hanok houses. ‘Korean culture has a long tradition of juxtaposing images with a structured logic to express ideas, as seen in its Hangul alphabet,’ says Choi. ‘I wanted to create a place’s character through imagery and easy communication; I hoped to give back the sensation of the body along with the visual experience and convey the unique landscape of old Seoul.’

wallpaper design awards 2024 best city seoul

Hwuigyumjae is a stunning 120-year-old hanok in Bukchon available for private functions

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

wallpaper design awards 2024 best city seoul

Hwuigyumjae’s Lowroof Café serves a beautifully presented pear and ginger mousse dessert

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

Choi believes that Seoul’s architecture is a reflection of Korea’s identity. ‘It is a complex of many fragments, chaotic but cheerful. It is not considered grand or beautiful, but it has a unique energy that blends with the mountainous landscape. It is not a collection of individual buildings but a giant collective.’ On the other side of Gyeongbokgung Palace is the Seochon district, home to the Onjium research institute, a cultural guardian of Korean traditions. ‘We carry out research, exhibitions, publishing and consulting centred on clothing, the culinary arts and lifestyle to ensure our traditional culture continues in modern life’, says Onjium’s chief creative officer Jeongin Kathryn Hong.

Palace reflected in water, at night

Royal Banquet Hall at Gyeongbokgung Palace

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

The centre also runs one of the most respected fine dining restaurants in town. Many acclaimed local establishments, such as Mingles, Mosu and Jungsik, reinvent staple Korean ingredients into recipes with a modern flourish. At Onjium, deep research takes a driver’s seat. Explaining Onjium’s approach, Hong quotes an ancient book: ‘The better the taste, the lighter it is. It is easy to get tired of a stronger flavour after the first taste, but a light flavour gradually seeps in and captivates for a long time.’

chef at work in open kitchen

The restaurant at Onjium is one the most respected Korean fine dining establishments in town

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

bottle of gin and cocktail

Kori gin, on the bar menu at the Rakkojae hanok hotel in Bukchon, is made with ten different local botanicals

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

At Seochon Lounge, run by Seoul’s local government, the aim is to provide much more than just a cup of Korean tea for visitors. It offers guests the chance to experience everyday life in a hanok, with ongoing exhibitions on K-style living, and a library. ‘Thanks to interesting collaborations, today’s hanoks extend to hip and trendy contents, and young audiences love their increasingly evolving charm and values,’ says Yoo-sik Kim, Seoul’s director of hanok policy. You can pick up Korean crafts at Solunaliving or Ilsang Yeoback, while enjoying exhibitions by Korean designers and artisans.

Sheer fabric

A newly reinterpreted traditional fabric at Onjium, a leading cultural foundation in Seochon

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

suspended paper plane in store

The contemporary design and lifestyle gallery Ilsang Yeoback

(Image credit: Photography by Dongkyun Vak)

Seoul, formerly known as Hanyang during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), was chosen as a capital for its outstanding feng shui. ‘The four mountains surrounding old Seoul are its best landmarks,’ said Seung H-Sang, who became Seoul’s first city architect in 2014. He shifted direction from urban growth to regeneration, and argued against people who felt Seoul needed a landmark by a starchitect.


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