How two South Korean designers are responding to their nation’s ‘loss of culture and tradition’

Seoul – South Korean design studio Labotory has a special connection to Café Oriente, a place for drinks and traditional bites in the country’s capital. For Labotory cofounders and Seoul natives Kee Min Park and Jin Ho Jung, the project was a unique opportunity to reflect on Korean culture and customs – the client challenged them to authentically represent that collective history today.

‘Seoul has experienced rapid economic growth and modernization since the end of the Korean War – Koreans and market demands have thus changed rapidly,’ says Park. ‘We are gradually losing our culture and tradition. So, to instead cherish that background, we aimed to apply a traditional sense of Korean beauty to Café Oriente – spaces should not only deliver beautiful visuals but also offer visitors a unique emotional experience filled with nuance.'

To do so, they incorporated various elements of a customary Korean home within the café. Curved awnings define the building and the 58-sq-m layout, partially underground, offers a courtyard in the middle of the space – a direct reference to the structure of traditional Hanok houses. Inside, a main coffee bar replicates this bracket-shaped form, giving functional shape to each area. Details include natural wood, cream-coloured wallpaper, solid granite and furniture inspired by the shape of the awnings. And the courtyard continues inward – Labotory built a rocky, well-manicured garden underneath the customer seating.

Even with the long list of nods to the past, Café Oriente feels distinctly of-the-moment. ‘Our goal was to bring emotion forward through a combination of minimalist design and contemporary Korean aesthetics,’ explains Jung. ‘Being persistent and disciplined about working with the spirit of tradition, we have learned how to organize, understand and give meaning to a visitor’s spatial experience. We believe that if we concentrate on identifying what’s within, visitors who come to our spaces can be reminded of their own identity.’

Café Oriente was submitted to Frame Awards 2020 to be considered for the distinction of Restaurant of the Year. Additionally, Labotory was featured in our Sep-Oct 2019 issue, Frame 131. Get your copy here.

Location 16-9 Itaewon-ro 54-gil, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea

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