Gaon Kim + Byungjun Koo

03.17 2017 INTERVIEW DATE

Chapter 1, Lifestyle directors

Seongbuk-dong, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul

Wife and husband Gaon Kim and Byungjun Koo opened their second shop ‘Chapter 1 Collect’ in Seongbuk-dong, following their first lifestyle select shop ‘Chapter 1’ in Garosugil, which opened couple of years ago. They both believe a shop is only authentic when it portrays a strict taste of the owner, so they took without hesitation the tough road, denying to chase the trend and go down the easy, average path. And by pursuing everything their way with good reason, they were able to create a place where a subtle mix of the east and west greets their customers, such as the fascinating harmony a traditional tea table by a Korean craftsman makes with a glass from the Netherlands at Chapter 1. Here the couple share us their story about how they stood firm against the trend and walked down their lonesome path, creating a new ‘chapter’ in the Korean lifestyle. www.chapterone.kr

Yoojin Jung

Could you share us why you decided to open your lifestyle select shop Chapter 1?

(Koo) While I studied product design in college, everyone seemed to focus on getting employed at companies after graduation. Instead of working for a company and designing only a certain range of products, I flew to the Netherlands to broaden my studies. When I came back in 2005, the country’s design industry was sadly still centered in product and car designs due to the economic structure. Lifestyle is about the values of the quality of our daily lives but back then people had biased views about it, considering it as a luxury, of which designers were less interested in. However, I saw it as an opportunity. I learned that there was a big absence of places that presented our lifestyle in the best way to, say, a friend or guest from abroad, so my wife and I debated on opening one ourselves. But we couldn’t just do it on a whim so with our intentions to expand our experience and acknowledge the market deeper, I worked at a gallery for 8 years. By that time majority of galleries treated fine art only so people were unfamiliar with artistic works made by designers shown at galleries. Fortunately though, the understanding of art and design gradually began to grow. And as the gallery became more established, I figured it was time that we prepare for our shop and actually, my wife did too about the same time and suggested that we finally get ourselves started.

Kim, you used to be a fashion VMD for quite a while. What triggered you to turn to the lifestyle business?

(Kim) I had worked as a VMD for a long time, which was a job to design a space that best suited the clothes in display, so it was pretty natural for me to acquire a wide knowledge of lifestyle brands and items. At first we thought we’d start small, at a place around 33 sqm, but we ended up at the current Chapter 1 in Garosugil as we kept searching for larger spaces. At one point, we suddenly got frightened with the idea as we signed our contract for a 230 sqm space. We spent two months before the opening, day and night, doing our market research and collecting our products, and fortunately, we got a nicer reaction than we expected. All other famous lifestyle select shops had been selling Scandinavian brands but Chapter 1 presented a large mix of various products from the US, France, Italy and the Netherlands and so on, along with products by Korean designers and craftsmen. As a matter of fact, the chance to encounter works of domestic designers or craftsmen was rare back then so I guess that caught people’s attention. When we look at other Korean lifestyle select shops, generally they import and sell a total line of products from a single brand but as for us, we decided to focus on products from a variety of brands selected carefully from our perspective.

(Koo) I think every store, every shop has to reveal the owner’s taste. A specific brand or designer must not invade the atmosphere of the store. If we focused on making money in the first place, we would’ve chosen the easy way by bringing in ‘hot’ brands and benefit from their fame. But that’s not how we wanted to do it. Instead of importing a total product line of a single brand, we select every products from all different kinds of brands and in fact, this requires a very complicated, tough import process. But this is just what makes Chapter 1 unique from others.

Your presentation of products by domestic designers and craftsmen along with foreign brands was quite fresh.

(Kim) My husband had worked at a gallery and also taught college students which gave him a number of opportunities to meet young designers and artists. He often visited their studios, had noticed a lot of great works but they equally had very little idea on how to sell. We wanted to bridge the secluded designers and craftsmen with the world.

(Koo) I can assume there’s been some talks about Chapter 1 among the creative group. Because the majority are used to either galleries selling designer products like art or shops simply selling commercially. We wanted to break this prejudice rather daringly. Many view us as mere sellers but actually we aim to build our own field of business the galleries aren’t capable of doing, such as investing on production and consulting clients. There’s no particular standard in selecting our domestic products. A lot of the creators we introduce are not well-known either. We stick to our rule, that we stand beside those that silently make their original work under a long-term plan rather than supporting mass-production types for a quick profit. There’s always something unique about a carefully handcrafted piece a machine-made, mass-produced product cannot beat.

(Kim) We get a number of calls and emails from various designers and artists everyday. But we notice that there are only a few that work with a sincere heart and originality. Besides, we’ve seen a lot that make a great copy. We take extra effort on doing thorough research on the authenticity of our domestic designers.

What does the name ‘Chapter 1’ mean?

(Kim) Our goal wasn’t going to end with a single store so it took us time to come up with a good name. Who knows, we could even expand to a café or a fashion store, you know. So we were looking further into the future and debated with a name that had a wide meaning and as the term ‘chapter one’ suddenly popped up, it became clear. We decided to think of ourselves as though we’re writing a book while running our shop and it was a perfect name to make our start.

Why did you decide to open your second shop ‘Chapter 1 Collect’ in Seongbuk-dong?

(Kim) As two years went by since our Garosugil shop opened, we felt we had to prepare a second store due to the change of consumption and trend. Garosugil is so trend-sensitive, everything changes too quickly. When the region was much quieter, our shop had a certain vibe of our own but as the average age of the floating population became younger, we had no choice but to adjust ourselves to that. It was a sorry choice to make since we were regretful of those changes. And then it sparked us to stretch our standard, to introduce products with higher quality even if that meant higher pricing. But of course it had to be somewhere else because that wouldn’t make sense in Garosugil.

Chapter 1 Collect is tucked away in street in Seongbuk-dong, which isn’t an everyday neighborhood for shopping.

(Kim) Thinking about the group that may be fond of Chapter 1 Collect’s products, we figured where wouldn’t matter. And we wanted a quiet neighborhood where people could browse through with time. I fell in love with this place at first sight. The location was perfect and I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a place with a 5m high ceiling that easily.

(Koo) It used to be a parking lot before. We stuck to the original structure and all we did were to divide more sections and paint the walls but the space itself already had a cool atmosphere from the beginning so our simple job worked pretty well.

 

We don’t often get to see bold colors applied in interiors in Korea. That considered, this place certainly has a progressive taste in colors.

(Kim) We weren’t able to spend much money on the interior so we decided we’d at least go wild with colors.(laugh) We chose green and gold as our main hues with a touch of a few other colors here and there to create an exotic vibe.

It’s been a year since you opened Chapter 1 Collect. Do you get to meet new customers you haven’t come across in Garosugil?

(Kim) Well, we had some expectations but we weren’t able to meet that many. We once again learned that people that willingly invest and consume on lifestyle are only a few. Would it ever change? I’m not so sure.

(Koo) I think the culture of consuming on lifestyle against fashion or food is a whole different thing. Changing one’s lifestyle can mean changing one’s whole frame of life so it’s probably not as simple as some may think. And I’ve seen a lot who hasn’t the slightest idea on where to start. My advice is that you start small and slow, even though it may not make much difference at first. When I look at our regular customers, I can feel that their taste and vibe gradually change as they make their steady purchase. And when I imagine their homes develop aesthetically, it feels very good. In fact, the thought of ourselves as giving positive influences on our customers’ tastes is quite rewarding.                                              

Does running a lifestyle select shop in Korea bring any challenges?

(Kim) The country is still very ignorant about plagiarism. It drains all our energy when we run into people that mimic our concepts, the designs, the packages and our interiors we’ve poured a lot of our time agonizing and experimenting on. And sadly we can’t depend on the law in majority of the cases. So the only solution here is to keep on finding our own creative way.

Not only are you simply running shops, but you also engage yourselves actively in directing interior styles and producing Chapter 1’s own line of products under the name Still Life.

(Koo) Recently we began to receive a number of inquiries on interior projects. To connect the space, user and product and suggest a unified presentation is what we do. It’s like bringing those separate elements, the interior, purchasing appliances, styling, management method altogether into one identity. Ironically, we have even consulted a couple of other lifestyle select shops as well. We don’t see them as competitors but more as our peers we root for, as long as they run with a different philosophy, because this we believe shall heighten the maturity of the market. Our brand Still Life is consisted of basic items that are less sensitive to trend. Putting ourselves in this design and trend market and researching for over a decade have enabled us to gradually distinguish brands that simply chase profits from brands with their own vitality. We realized that the whole use and product environment was a lot more important than just the product itself. We’re still trying to figure out a way to make our brand last long. We’ve got our great partners in various fields such as legal, economy, manufacture and trade in order to sum up and establish this ideal environment. We also have a novelist who’s working on the presentation of our products in text and tell our stories. Our aim is to go beyond the design and branding and keep our studies and experimentation going, which we believe will eventually heighten the quality of our products every year. Consumers, however, may not notice the slight differences but this whole process and our enthusiasm make us proud of Still Life. We do wish to open an independent store just for our brand, most likely a tiny place where it doesn’t fit more than two persons, filled with Still Life products only.

Do you ever consider expanding abroad as well?

(Kim) We do once our Still Life products are settled down, taking along our domestic designer products and craftworks by authentic craftsmen. Chapter 1 is already quite known in the overseas market which makes it tougher to make the attempt hastily, because it requires us to risk our name. If we were to open Chapter 1 in another country, it’ll probably look nothing like the one here.