Though she was born and raised in South Korea and finished all of her primary education in her home country, it took awhile for Studio Kō founder Ibi Yoo to fully understand and embrace her Korean culture. In fact, the entrepreneur says she didn't invest a lot of time in learning more about her heritage while she lived there. "Growing up in Korea, I never thought much about my history and culture; I may have taken it for granted," Yoo tells TZR. "I didn't realize how precious even the smallest things, like bangjja chopsticks or spoons were, until I came to the states and no longer had that tactile connection with Korea."
After moving to Los Angeles and learning English, Yoo says she began to reflect on her identity and became more deeply interested in her own heritage. “This exploration motivated me to actively study Korean culture and educate myself on its historical context so that I could proudly share it with the world," she says. And thus, Studio Kō was founded.
The LA-based retailer is home to a large selection of home goods and fashion accessories — ranging from ornately embroidered socks to massive moon vases and everything in between — exclusively made by Korean designers and artisans. Since its launch some three years ago, Studio Kō has become a voice and a platform both for Korean consumers looking to embrace their culture and those looking to simply learn more about Korean heritage. And with almost two dozen artists stocked on the business’ site, the shop has also become a trusted outlet for Korean artisans to showcase their work.
Ahead, Yoo talks about her inspiration for starting the studio, how she develops and maintains her relationships with the artisans she stocks in the store, and how her Korean upbringing permeates through every pore of her business.
Let’s talk about your background. When did you move to the States and what were you pursuing before starting Studio Kō?
I was born and raised in South Korea where I was always interested in art and fashion. Preparing to go to art school, I found the education system in Korea to be pretty stifling and restrictive, so it was always my dream to study abroad. After high school, I saved up enough money and fortunately was able to go to college in Los Angeles, moving to the United States in 2011. I studied graphic design and also had a part-time job at a friend's cafe where I loved working so much that it inspired me to start my own business. I officially started Studio Kō in 2018, after a year and a half of preparation, research, and sourcing products.
What inspired the idea to found Studio Kō?
Studio Kō was born out of my longing for home. Having moved away from Korea for many years, I started to miss the everyday as well as really specific memories and senses; familiar smells, the air. This led me to fill my home with items that evoked familiar feelings, but it was extremely hard to find high-quality, beautiful, everyday items from Korea. Searching for that connection to the past is how I ended up creating Studio Kō.
What were the first products you decided to stock in your studio, and why did you start with those?
The first products I carried were from a brand called OIMU, founded by two graphic designers that create products with modern sensibilities, but inspired by traditional Korean culture. They work solely with older Korean manufacturers to help keep their business alive, and that really aligned with my mission at Studio Kō to support traditional Korean artisans. Some of the first products I sourced were incense made from native Korean botanicals and posters inspired by historical Korean paintings and folklore.
How did you build your roster of Korean artisans, and how do you maintain those relationships now?
Beyond taking a deep dive into social media to discover lesser-known artists, I spent a ton of time exploring craft fairs during my annual sourcing trips to Korea. Like most small businesses, I began reaching out via cold emails or direct messages, which was daunting at times, but once they saw the types of products Studio Kō carried and understood the vision behind the brand, [artists] were typically eager to be a part of it. The craft industry in Korea is very tight knit, so word of mouth has really helped boost trust in Studio Kō, as well as inspired a sense of responsibility in me to do my best to give a platform to these artists.
What are your best-sellers and signature items? Why have they become such pillars of Studio Kō, both in your eyes and in your customers'?
Our best-sellers and signature items are the uniquely Korean pieces like moon jars and chungja (Korean celadon). For the moon jar, I think there's something special about its shape that attracts people and invokes many different emotions. There's something calming and reassuring, but also uplifting about its round silhouette, and the subtle shades of the glaze that changes under different lighting conditions really expresses the nuance of natural beauty. Chungja also carries an extensive history that has made Korean celadon world-renowned. Some of our artists' re-interpretations of chungja express that unique jade beauty in modern ceramic forms that you can't find anywhere else.
What are the most important things to you when you're looking at working with an artist? What elements of their work do you monitor the most closely?
Trust between the artist and Studio Kō [is the most important thing]. I respect the artists and the art they create, so I don't tell them what to do or what to create. I curate the work I like, but attempt to represent each piece in a way that the artist is proud of. I always keep in mind [financial] sustainability, aiming to make sure that the artists make enough money so they can continue to create work that they love.
Talk about how Korean traditions, rituals, and culture influence your business as it stands today.
Living in Los Angeles, there is a real duality in how I approach Studio Kō but also live my life. I find that I am always viewing my surroundings through both the lens of being a Korean woman and immigrant, while also being aware of the interplay between traditions and modern progression. This really informs my perspective, work, and what I hope to represent with Studio Kō.
What do you wish you knew before starting the business?
There are really natural lessons that I've learned by starting Studio Kō and I think it's less about what I wish I knew before creating the business, and more about what Studio Kō has done for me personally. I guess I wish I had taken a bigger interest in my culture and heritage when I was younger, but Studio Kō has enabled me to make up for lost time.
What have been the most challenging parts of establishing and running your business?
I enjoy all aspects of the business, and how everything takes a bit of coordination. Outside of sourcing products (which I really enjoy doing), I think it's a good challenge to constantly grow the brand and reach new audiences — it tends to keep me really connected with my customers as well.
What have been the most rewarding parts of establishing and running your business?
Getting to work with amazing people, continuing to connect and grow a community of artists to customers who are discovering them, and understanding the beauty of Korean artisans. I'm so happy when our customers say they love what I do, and [when they] appreciate both the traditional alongside the new.
What advice do you have for budding Asian American entrepreneurs who are looking to start a business similar to yours?
It took me over a year to plan and prepare for the launch of Studio Kō, so I think it's really important to develop your concept and strategy as much as you can before jumping right in. Have an idea of not just what you want to launch, but where you want to be a year later and beyond. Find your voice, then develop your own path and milestones to aim for. Be original.
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