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Outside View

Match Made in Hanok

Traditional Life

“Seoul has many long streets like New York, of course, but our lives don’t unfold there. In Seoul, we breathe, eat, drink, argue, love and break up in the countless small alleys that have no names.”
This statement about Seoul by Mark Tetto, an American businessman from New York living in the Korean capital, has resonated across Korean society on the internet. Living in a Hanok (traditional Korean house) in Seoul called Pyeonghaengjae (House of Peace and Happiness), he describes what it really means to live in Korea.

Written by Kim Samuel        Photographed by Studio Kenn

Outside View

Mark Tetto shot to fame in Korea after appearing in TV programs such as “Non Summit” and is a famous foreign resident of Hanok and an ardent fan of Korea’s cultural heritage, but his interest came after he arrived in Seoul. Having worked for Morgan Stanley in the U.S., he went to work for Samsung Electronics in 2010 in Korea. At the time, he lived in a studio apartment in Seoul’s posh Gangnam-gu District, but his life changed when he accompanied a friend to Bukchon Hanok Village. So smitten was he with the wooden home that in summer 2015, he ditched his apartment and moved into the Hanok he visited.

“I loved the way the empty house felt. The smell of the house flooding my senses as soon as the door opened was great, and so was the sound of the bamboo outside the window. My friend said, ‘You have to visit Hanok every season if want to say you’ve visited Hanok. The feeling is very different each season.’ In the middle of winter, the roof tiles are covered in snow, and in summer, aromas emanate from the floor made of Hanji (traditional Korean paper). The personally cultivated garden shines in spring and fall. In Hanok, the entire flow of the seasons is delivered to those living inside without one missed detail,” Tetto said.

Harmonizing Empty Space

  • Black rubber shoes are placed in front of a wooden porch leading to the garden.

    After moving into his Hanok, Tetto headed for Gangnam-gu’s furniture street to furnish his empty space. After buying everything he needed, he realized that not a single piece of furniture he bought harmonized with his new home. Thus his housewarming party featured just a sofa in the living room that he had brought from his former apartment. Though apologetic for not having proper seating, Tetto said he was relieved to hear admiration from his friends, who gushed about the “beauty of empty space.” This allowed him the time to furnish his home at his own pace. Over that time, every corner of Pyeonghaengjae was filled with furniture and props. He collected them while wandering from place to place, using them to decorate his house or designing them himself, thus making his home cool enough to look like a gallery.

    “I thought about what kind of future would fit my house for the first time in my life. Previously, I thought that furniture was furniture and a home was a home based on my belief that they were separate. These new thoughts were a great gift from my Hanok. I designed a low octagonal table and a carpet for underneath by mimicking the patterns of the window frames. I made the table and chairs in the kitchen independently through discussions with the designer so that they could match well. I asked a professional specializing in homemade bowls to design my dishes since I couldn’t put carelessly made bowls on such a table. In the end, I made friends with these artisans while working with them over a long period of time. I had no particular affection for furniture, bowls and these types of things, but now memories with friends linger all over the house,” he said.

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Questions about Hanok

Is tradition dead or dying in modern society? In Korea, Hanok is still used for residence but has also embraced new forms amid the ever-changing concept of living tradition. An American expat who lives in a Hanok in Seoul and a master architect who has built Hanok for decades were asked the following questions:

Mark Tetto

Hanok’ s charms are infinite. Because it’s impossible to ship a house abroad, the charms of Hanok aren’t easily conveyable to readers overseas. A friend of mine collecting traditional Korean furniture once held an exhibition in New York. I was sure that the small antique dining tables and cabinets that crossed the sea would display their beauty to non- Koreans. He later told me, “Exhibiting small tables and cabinets in glass cases wasn’t significant enough to offer viewers an original impression.” I want to show people the beauty of spaces in Hanok. Hanok has great context in that no space is abused recklessly. I want to show this context.

So for those interested in visiting Korea, I recommend staying at a Hanok not merely as a place for sleeping but as an experience. There are plenty of nice places to visit here. Rakkojae, which in Korean means “a place where one can naturally have a clear and comfortable mind and enjoy antiquity,” is an old house selected as an excellent Hanok in Seoul. A variety of programs are offered to visitors including tea ceremonies, jjimjilbang (Korean sauna), royal Hanbok (traditional Korean attire) and kimchi making, as well as traditional Korean cuisine. Bukchon Hanok Village occasionally hosts the open house “Haengbokjakdang (Happy Union).” Visitors with tickets can enter and look around the house. Hanok is not all the same; the names and feel differ from house to house.

Two Hanok places I recommend are generally not known to visitors. The Korea Furniture Museum was restored over the course of 15 years and completed by bringing in 10 Hanok, including restored royal houses at Changgyeonggung Palace. As a specialized museum housing Korea’s traditional wooden furniture, this place is worth visiting even if a reservation is needed. Gyeongbokgung Palace is good, but the backyard of Changdeokgung Palace is even more beautiful. The country’s largest royal garden was registered as UNESCO World Heritage in 1997. The superb view along with the natural beauty and Hanok will be remembered as the most beautiful aspects.

Mark Tetto Profile

  • • Occupation :
  • Partner, TCK Investment Management
  • • 2019
  • Received honorary Seoul citizenship
  • • 2018
  • Appointed first foreign honorary gatekeeper of Gyeongbokgung Palace
  • • 2016 - 2017
  • Appeared in JTBC show “Non Summit” and other programs
  • • 2015-present
  • Lives in Pyeonghaengjae (Hanok) in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village

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