Introducing the most beautiful museum in Seoul
With 10 exquisite hanok structures fitting together on approximately 6,600 square meters of beautifully groomed landscape, the Korea Furniture Museum is perhaps the largest best-kept secret in Seoul.
And for the time being at least, it wants to stay that way.
Having unofficially opened in 2008 after 14 years of construction, the private museum is the beloved brainchild of its owner and director, Chyung Mi-sook, a former professor at Yonsei University and a collector who personally amassed the museum's 2,000 pieces of Joseon Dynasty furniture over the past five decades.
Viewing and touring the museum is only possible upon request, and visitors who arrive without making reservations are politely but firmly turned away at the door.
The museum's exclusivity is in part due to the director's shyness about the media, and in part due to the concern that the beautifully kept grounds would be overwhelmed by too many visitors, resulting in inevitable damage to a fragile property.
"We wanted to create a beautiful space where you can truly experience how we actually used to live -- nature, philosophy, humanity, beauty … these are our keywords," says Jong Hyun Shim, the deputy director of the museum. "But PR is something we grapple with."
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The museum is tentatively scheduled to open to the public next spring, but the staff are rather apprehensive about the consequences.
"We don't want people coming and leaving carelessly. Even if we only receive a very small number of visitors each day, we want every single one of them to experience the history and culture in its entirety," says Shim.
"We are so passionate about our museum, we want to do it full justice for every visitor, even if it means keeping it on a small scale."
Ambassadors, curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and First Ladies who traveled to Korea for the G20 summit have visited the museum, which boasts a particularly close relationship with the Guggenheim in New York.
The museum also recently hosted (on separate occasions) American TV personality Martha Stewart and Chris Bangle, the former Chief of Design for BMW Group who is now a design consultant for Samsung Electronics.
"Martha Stewart was very interested in our moss," laughs Shim. Chris Bangle, on the other hand, was enamored with the carvings on the museum's doors and insisted on taking away some sketches of the designs.
A miniature world
Some 500 pieces of furniture of the 2,500-piece collection are on show at the Korea Furniture Museum.
Display rooms categorized by type and era of the furniture are on the basement levels, while the ground floor expo explains how the furniture was placed in its original settings within a hanok.
One of the most quietly stunning areas of the museum is the "women's quarters," which open out to a wonderful view of the city and is furnished with the furniture used by the director's mother during her lifetime.
"You wouldn't be able to understand it when the furniture is taken out of context -- but once you see how it fits in with the structure of the hanok, you understand why they were designed that way," explains Bunami Han, executive secretary and museum guide.
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As Korean traditional living culture was sedentary, most of furniture was built to be small and low; for example, the cabinets fit perfectly beneath the papered wooden windows of the Museum's women's quarters.
"Our motto is, 'We used to live like this,'" says Shim. As part of their dedication to educating and illustrating Korean history and culture and showing the way Korean people used to live during the Joseon Dynasty, the museum staff hosts various cultural events throughout the year.
They include traditional weddings, fashion shows featuring traditional Korean dress and dining events showing off Korean cuisine. Not all the events are traditional however. The museum also provided the backdrop for the international launch of the new Audi A6 in June.
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The Furniture Museum currently hosts a French restaurant. Head Chef Simon Dousset was personally recruited from France, and has worked at Daniel in New York and Gorden Ramsay in the United Kingdom.
The restaurant only accepts dinner reservations of parties larger than 20. Dinner sets start at ₩150,000 per person.
But with the elaborately traditional Korean setting, why French cuisine?
"When we host events, we were afraid that foreigners would be too alienated by eating completely foreign food in a foreign setting, so we wanted to prepare Western food so that it would be more approachable," says Joshua Park, Director of Strategic Planning.
The museum is planning to open a Korean restaurant in the near future.
Korea Furniture Museum, 330-577 Seongbuk-dong, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 성북구 성북동 330-577); +82 2 745 0181; www.kofum.com; Tours and restaurant reservations by appointment only. Guided tours:₩20,000.
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