[MARKET SERIES]Table talkThe furniture market in Seoul has been through the best of times and the worst of times. It survived the market crash of the late '90s and is in the spring of hope.
Times are changing. People, and not just big spenders, are becoming hungry for good design. The furniture industry was once notorious for its ability to make replicas, scorned as "rip-offs" even when handcrafted. But "made-in-Korea" is starting to lose its notoriety. Visual appeal and comfort at a competitive price are gaining importance.
There are about six areas in Seoul where you can find dozens of furniture stores - Sadang-dong, Nonhyeon-dong, Ahyeong-dong, Euljiro, Jungbok-dong and Ilsan, a suburb of Seoul.
The following are two furniture markets and the men who helped to make them. Sadang-dong has a festive, outdoor ambience where browsers are encouraged to bounce on the sofas. Nonhyeon-dong targets the sophisticated client who is willing to spend extra money for the most beautiful designs.
On this warm spring day, Lee Chang-sang is sitting on an ergonomic desk chair. The doors to his furniture store, Hanguk OA, are thrown open. Bookshelves, patio chairs, coat hangers and end tables spill out of the front doors of his store and others at Sadang-dong Furniture Market.
"If you're in the market for furniture, we have everything at a competitive price," says Mr. Lee, former president of the Seoul Seocho Dongjak Furniture Association. Mr. Lee gave up his position last year to a younger storeowner, but he is still a central figure. A fixture on the Sadang furniture scene for 13 years, Mr. Lee has watched the stores' presence upgrade from tents to buildings.
"Here, traffic is comfortable, prices are agreeable, what more can you ask for?" Mr. Lee says. Sadang-dong Furniture Market began as a used furniture market about 20 years ago. Euljiro used to be the location for affordable furniture, but Euljiro started losing stores to Sadang-dong.
Now more than 150 furniture stores line the main road between Sadang Subway Station and Isu Subway Station, and fewer than 10 are used-furniture stores. "Used furniture is not popular anymore," Mr. Lee says. "As living conditions improve, people are looking for better and better quality." Instead of used furniture, several stores carry European antique imports and local antique reproductions from Italy, Spain, Great Britain and the United States.
About 98 percent of the goods are made in Korea at factories in Ilsan or Gyeonggi province. About 60 percent of the furniture is for offices, 30 percent for the home and 10 percent for hotels, motels and restaurants. The people who shop Sadang for home furniture tend to be new families or young homeowners who are looking for modern designs, but at affordable prices.
Nearby, Kim In-kyoun at Yoo Song, a European antiques store, says, "Customers used to come in and beg us to sell them furniture. I went home with cash stuffed in any old pocket. My, how the roles have changed." When the market crashed at the end of the '90s, prices dropped, sometimes by as much as half, and furniture from China started pouring in.
Sadang-dong once again carries mostly Korean-made products. "But once prices drop that much, it's hard to go up again," says King Jae-seong of SDF, an office furniture store. Which is why if you're in the market for fashionable but affordable furniture made in Korea, Sadang-dong is a fun place to shop.
HOURS: 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily
DIRECTIONS: Line Nos. 2 and 4, Sadang station, exit 11,
or line Nos. 4 and 7, Isu station, exit 6
"Nonhyeon-dong was sleepy and crisscrossed with dirt roads," Lee Kyung-hee says about the beginnings of the Nonhyeon-dong Furniture Market. "Taxis passed here maybe once an hour." The president of the Nonhyeon-dong Furniture Union is reclining on an imported leather sofa, smooth as butter and priced about the same as 10,000 sticks of butter. Mr. Lee's store, the three-story Young Dong Furniture, crowns a block on the south end of the neighborhood. About 27 years ago, with little "furniture know-how," what today would amount to 5 million won ($4,000) and plenty of faith in God, he rented the second floor of a building to sell Korean antiques.
The area of Seoul south of the river began to boom. New and upscale apartments and villas translated to demand for new and posh furniture. Furniture stores from Insa-dong in central Seoul, noticing that most of their clients were based south of the Han River, moved to Nonhyeon-dong en masse in the early 1980s. Mr. Lee started importing European furniture and eventually bought the entire building.
He hit a slump once, and debated selling the store. Instead, he placed an advertisement promoting a store-wide sale. People came in droves. "All businesses go through crises," Mr. Lee says. "In life you have crises. You just have to overcome them."
About three years ago, the Seoul city government recognized the Nonhyeon Furniture Union, initiated higher standards for storefronts and even uprooted the poplar trees on the sidewalks to plant more expensive zelkova trees. Now there are about 69 stores in the union that sell big-name brands such as Turri, Himolla, Kohler, Cassina and Natuzzi. The market targets older clients who appreciate quality, interior designers and design-savvy couples about to get married.
Mr. Lee still sells handmade Korean antique-style furniture, but only in one area of the third floor of Young Dong. "In my travels, I see gorgeous European designs," Mr. Lee says, "but there is nothing like Korean furniture that takes months to handcraft." Several stores in Nonhyeon-dong sell traditional Korean-style furniture by artisans whom the government has honored as "human cultural assets." But most of the furniture - 80 percent - in Nonhyeon-dong is imported from Europe.
A couple stores in Nonhyeon-dong carry Korean-made designs, but Korean designers have yet to reach the fame of European designers. Up until a couple years ago, designers learned solely from apprenticing at furniture factories and copies of European designs were rampant. Now art school graduates schooled in European design, but with a knowledge of Korean heritage, are starting to replace factory-bred designers. Furniture insiders say to get ready for Korean designers.
But for the best of Europe, you can't go wrong with shopping in Nonhyeon-dong.
HOURS: 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily
DIRECTIONS: Line No. 7, Nonhyeon Subway Station, exit 1
by Joe Yong-hee