Cafés play an important role in the social lives of Koreans. While Americans, Europeans and Australians tend to spend more time in their homes with their loved ones, Koreans often opt to go out to cafés to socialize, not only during the day, but also at night.
As a result, most cafés stay open until 10–11pm and are full of people drinking coffee after dinner.
Following Starbucks’ successful penetration of the Korean market approximately 20 years ago as a third space for people to escape from their highly standardized, cube-like apartment dwellings and offices, individual specialty cafés now lead the way with new types of spaces.
As the average staying time in the café lasts more than an hour, a space worth “staying” and “visiting” that is new, hot and distinguishable has become a crucial element to gain popularity in Korea.
As the average staying time in the café lasts more than an hour, a space worth “staying” and “visiting” (new, hot and distinguishable) has become a crucial element to gain popularity in Korea. It’s worth noting that Korea’s cafés per capita largely out number the most caffeinated city in the US – Seattle – making it a highly competitive market.
This competition has been healthy for design. Specialty coffee players create aesthetic cafés that are both charming to drink and relax in, with some noticeable trends.
Regenerated Spaces Still Rule
A long-standing trend in Korea has been to transform former factories into cafés, beginning with Anthracite Hapjeong’s opening in 2010. Regenerating architecture is a mainstream of café space design and they are loved mainly for two reasons: the vast impression of space that they provide and the nostalgic vibe. The traditional Korean space has low ceilings which makes the high, spacious factory buildings even more appealing.
Cafés on Trend
Column (Daelim Changgo), which opened last year, was previously a warehouse for nearby factories. Its vast space, with a beautiful indoor garden, is beloved by many.
Café Onion was a metalwork factory and had been abandoned for six years before it was renewed. The designers explored cement materials for tables and seating, matching the original interior of the spaces.
Anthracite Jeju is a renewed starch mill factory in Jeju Island, with a unique bar using basalt rocks from the island.
More Emphasis on the Bar and the Barista
In the past, conventional Korean cafés had a distinct separation between the coffee bar and the hall space, which meant that the customer experience with the barista ended promptly after ordering and collecting the coffee. Now specialty cafés in Korea try to reach out to the customers more, reducing the barrier between them and the barista. This usually accompanies minimal, Nordic-style coffee bars which highlight the barista’s performance.
Cafés on Trend
Center Coffee, the recently opened café from former Square Mile roaster and 2015 World Coffee in Good Spirits Finalist, Sang Ho Park, emphasizes the barista with white and minimal, simple interiors. On the first floor it has only a few places to sit down, all facing the coffee bar, encouraging visitors to watch the barista while they work.
At our café, Bean Brothers Starfield, there is literally nothing between you and the barista, allowing customers to stand side-by-side with the barista at the espresso machine. The idea is to make you take a good look at the espresso shot you’ve ordered.
A Role Model for Home Interiors
When Kinfolk hit every metropolitan city around the world as the bible of living well and decorating your home well, Seoul was equally inspired. Now cafés in the city have become a great reference – like an interior design magazine – for people’s living spaces. The furniture, home accessories and kitchenware that cafés use are creating a buzz among interior lovers and this is motivating specialty cafés to make more of an effort in aesthetic table settings.
Cafés on Trend
Orer is directed by a textile design PhD, Jaewon Kim, and shows how a café can be a good reference for home styling. It has a small outdoor garden room that makes it even more adorable. A homeware store opened nearby in response to customer requests to buy the items featured in the café.
SEO YOUNG YOUN is Marketing Director of Bean Brothers Korea.