Homeworld improvement: Design mingles with recylingIt’s just a 10-minute drive from Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul, but the air is different in this old-fashioned part of Buam-dong, Jongno district. Driving up the quiet residential area along the district office, the paved road ends, and a small bumpy road full of pebble stones and soil appears. It leads to the house owned by a Won Hee-yeon, a director at the architecture firm Nok, and his wife Song Hye-jin, a food coordinator.
“It used to be a place where a shaman prayed and told people’s fortunes,” Mr. Won said of the house. “It was a run-down place, but we signed the contract anyway, because we liked the location so much. The peaks of Mt. Inwang are right in front of our nose. Besides, the rent was 400,000 won ($430), with no key money.”
The couple demolished walls and replaced them with floor-to-ceiling glass to get more sunlight. Mr. Won tore up the crumbling floor and laid down real wood. They then filled the side walls with used wooden crates. Most of the furniture in the house was also made out of the recycled wood from crates.
The couple is part of the growing number of Koreans who use recycled goods as stylish home accessories.
It helps, of course, that the house looks out over a fascinating view. A short walk downhill leads to a road surrounded by spring flowers that ends up at Gyeongbok Palace. A huge granite mountain looms over the back yard. Outside the main gate is a stream of wildflowers that runs around a spacious lot that could easily fit three cars. But the house’s true beauty is that its every corner is a reflection of its owners ― they, after all, completely remodeled it.
“We started the construction in the summer of 2004,” Mr. Won said. “Not even a single door was usable at the time. We began by restoring the wall in the back yard, to install a front gate.”
“I’m an old fan of khaki,” Ms. Song said. “The boxes were the exact same color. There was no need to paint them, because the texture of the wood on the back of the boxes looked good enough.”
The stove in the living room was made out of the metal skin from an old boiler tank. The kitchen closets were handmade with wood from roofs of an old hanok, a traditional Korean house. The audio speakers are a repaired model that a cafe owner in Pyeongchang-dong abandoned.
The living room of the house is used as a studio, where Ms. Song takes food photos for her work. It also has three cabinets, made by Mr. Won out of wooden panels that were used as shipping boxes for the Icheon Ceramic Expo. In the bathroom, they’ve turned a granite mortar into a wash basin.
There is almost nothing that is completely new in this house.
“It’s not that I’m particularly more aware of environmental issues,” Mr. Won said. “I just think [recycled goods] are more beautiful. It’s obvious that architectural accessories are often mediocre, but there’s light and style to objects that have gone through people’s hands over time. I can’t miss that.”
The couple is often out on streets collecting what other people mistakenly thought was trash.
On a recent afternoon, the couple heard that their neighbor was starting a large renovation project. To their joy, they found their neighbor had tossed out used kettles, wooden furniture and empty wooden boxes.
It’s been years since Mr. Won opened up to recycled goods as a source of his architectural inspiration.
Part of it came from the friendship he built with the architect Cha woon-gi, who died on April 5, 2004, at the age of 47. Mr. Cha won the Korean Architecture Association award two years in a row after becoming famous for his “Taehyung’s Home”, a house with a roof made of broken porcelain shards. Within months, cafes were built across the nation with similar roofs.
Mr. Cha, who had a love for amorphous aesthetics and recycled goods with distinct textures, had two companions who shared his artistic tastes. One of them was Mr. Won, his pupil, and the other a graphic designer and architect named Yeon Jeong-tae.
Mr. Won and Mr. Yeon are still “partners.” The only change after Mr. Cha’s death was to Mr. Yeon’s business card ― he shut down his advertising design firm in September to become a senior staff member at Beautiful Store, which is run by a non-profit foundation that launched a recycling movement in Korea.
“A friend of mine, who was the store’s director, talked me into it,” Mr. Yeon said. “I really enjoy making things with my hands. It’s been a while since I incorporated recycled items into my work. I was tempted when he said to me one day, ‘Buddy, you could make whatever you want [when you work with us].’”
The decision wasn’t easy for Mr. Yeon, a father of two girls and an established designer in the industry. But it didn’t take long for him to take the offer.
“Advertising is the frontier of capitalism,” he says. “I had earned enough money. But it’s not such a big deal. You think you can’t bear to get by with less money, but it’s actually more convenient.”
His plan after taking the job was to create a crafts studio, in which he would produce various items out of discarded materials. He’s got many things to take care of at the moment, but he recently completed a major project, “Sky Garden,” on the rooftop of the Beautiful Store outlet in Anguk-dong.
Mr. Won took part in the construction, creating an artificial pond shaped in the footprint of a dinosaur, a chair made out of a maple tree donated by the foundation’s supporter, and floor lighting made of wine bottles. There are wind-charms made of chopsticks and spoons, and a patch of plastic bottles as roof tiles.
“It was Jeong-tae’s idea,” Mr. Won said. “If you cut off the top and the bottom of the green plastic bottles, and slice them in half, it’s the same shape as a traditional roof tile.”
Indeed, the plastic roof tiles shining under the sunlight had an almost romantic aura, as though one was seeing through the roof of a pagoda.
The two mavens of recycled goods have similar visions for the future. Mr. Yeon and his family plan to move into an abandoned school in Yangpyeong before summer. He plans to open up a craft studio, making goods with his own hands.
Mr. Won is planning to open an architecture studio in Samcheong-dong, focusing on using recycled goods as main materials. Surrounding him there will be grass, trees, abandoned objects and an unabandonable wife.
by Lee Na-ri