Korean craftsmanship is seeing a renaissance, and we're loving it. Ditch those made-in-China reproductions, or else the hastily-bought airport gifts. Instead, do yourself a favor and visit these shops, where Korean traditional artisans and modern designers alike display their wares. You'll find beautifully hand-stitched fabrics, hand-carved stamp seals and lacquerware in all shades of colors.
The best traditional design stores
Simply entering the door is like an act of visual purification. The founder of this shop is artist Keum Dong-won, who expresses beautiful human emotions through color, touching on themes such as nature, life, music, and time. The artist creates and sells various items such as scarves, bags, watches, cups, and mirrors, all based on his own work. This space holds the answer for all who wish to bring a little more artistry into their everyday lives, as well as people who are looking for a beautiful gift to give.
Tchai Kim is the second brand launched by hanbok (traditional Korean dress) designer Kim Young-jin. Kim started out intending to tailor the hanbok for everyday wear, adapting the design to appeal more to people with contemporary lifestyles. But don’t let this fool you into thinking these are modified, watered-down versions of hanbok that you might see anywhere around Insadong. While her methods of adapting tradition may be flexible, Kim hasn’t let go of that definitively Korean aesthetic. The end result is a design that could easily catch the fancy of any lady from any generation.
In this four-story building, seventy-odd shops are distributed in a spiral pattern. This is the biggest and busiest shopping center in Insadong. The place is teeming with independent shops selling items such as clothes, shoes, and accessories as well as miscellaneous items such as hand-crafted soap, porcelain, traditional crafts, and snacks.
Back in the old days, when fabric was scarce, the women in poorer homes would take scraps left over from making clothes or blankets and sew them together to drape over their dining tables. We’re talking, of course, about jogakbo (patchwork cloth). Although the jogakbo is rooted in harder times, it has since blossomed into a beautiful art form in its own right, mesmerizing all who encounter it. Somni, in Insadong, showcases various items derived from jogakbo that are lovingly hand-stitched by craftsmen. You can find charming little everyday accessories like decorative cellphone chains, pencil cases, and needle packets, or larger and more elegant items like drapes and tablecloths.
Modern Market Place opened shop in a small hanok where Na Seong-suk the lacquer-master once lived. It’s now a space where handicrafts made by craftsmen all over the country as well as other artists’ works are exhibited and sold. In the small, endearing C-shaped home, every nook and cranny is crammed full of tidy items borne from the loving hands of artists and craftsmen. Hansan moshi (fine ramie textiles from the Hansan region) by artist Kim Gang-ryul, sseulteori (small handmade brushes) by master craftsman Lee Dong-gyun, mamiche (traditional tea-straining frames) by artist Paik Kyung-hyun, ceramic pottery, traditional brass spoon sets, and small rice bowls are all on sale.
Jeo Jip is a gallery dedicated to the art of the chopstick. The building, a pure white asymmetrical structure that recalls folded paper, is itself a work of art. There is a range of prices and styles, ranging from traditional mother of pearl to modern bright colors, and Chinese (long and sturdy), Japanese (short and pointy) and Korean (the happy medium) traditions of chopstick making are all represented. All of the chopsticks are made with the same dedication to craft: each pair takes five to six months to complete. These may be amongst the most expensive chopsticks you’ll find in Seoul, but they’re also the loveliest.