Sometimes, the word minimalism conjures images associated with a totally tidy, almost sterile emptiness. Over the decades the term has evolved to convey an overall timeless simplicity no matter the culture—and right on the nose is Korean minimalism, a design aesthetic making waves by expanding outside of its native origin. New York’s rugged exteriors often leave little room for a noteworthy first impression. But hidden behind centuries-old buildings and creaky staircases are some of the city’s most impressive interiors. Wedged between a circus of gimmicks are a growing number of stores that offer less adrenaline rush yet more of a dopamine-inducing experience. These tiny but mighty vessels of minimalist spaces are designed to be low-key on purpose and are led by a handful of Korean American entrepreneurs.
Korean-inspired physical fronts—cafés, retail stores, and pop-up shops—provide a calm sanctuary through delicate slices of the culture, despite the bustling avenues these buildings occupy. Often housed inside these soothing interiors are common threads—neutral-toned walls, nature embellishments, and skillfully yet casually arranged pieces of decor—resulting in a warm yet inviting stillness to the room.
Bomi Jin, the founder behind her namesake boutique in SoHo, says she wanted to create a home away from home as much as possible. Finding that coziness and peace in Manhattan was intentional, down to the floor she opted for. Bomi is tucked away at eye level on Mercer Street, but a climb to the second floor reveals a curated universe full of hard-to-find home goods and cool-girl accessories. “I didn’t want [Bomi] to be another ground-floor shop in SoHo,” she says. “I hope when people come upstairs, they feel a sense of calm, almost like a friend’s apartment.”
Korean minimalism is a term that has yet to be fully adopted in the mainstream design lexicon. One of its main distinctions, though, is maximizing with very little. Like New York City, space is also limited in Korea’s metropolitan areas, including Seoul. It’s often out of the necessity of getting creative with limited wiggle room, but the end result is never cluttered. “Though not the largest, it’s not as occupied,” Bomi adds. “That, in itself, gives an experience.”
Minimalism is often affiliated with that of Japanese and Scandinavian methods—or their love child, Japandi. According to Jenni Lee, founder of the luxury loungewear label Comme Si, what sets Korean minimalism apart from all the other variations is its sturdy roots in Tao influences. “Korean minimalist design [is based on] the Taoist principle of yin and yang—harmony with nature and simplicity.”
There’s a level of flexibility in the aesthetic thanks to its aforementioned core traits. Jenni emphasizes that because of Korea’s emphasis on aspects like balance, intentionality, and restraint, it offers a solid foundation to incorporate the contemporary—think sleek, unfinished wood structures with industrial warehouses or artisan-made trinkets on top of metal shelves. “Much of these spaces are blank canvases that often incorporate earth elements,” says Carol Song, owner of Dae. “That one modern touch is what makes it different.”