We sat down for a conversation with Studio Kō’s very own Ibi Yoo to talk to her about the inspiration behind the creation of her studio, how she finds her artisans, the importance of staying connected with your roots, and more!
“Studio Kō represents that connection to home, a sense of identity, and discovery of your past within products that are both contemporary and specifically of historical Korean context and interpretation. The word “Kō” is Korean for ‘nose'(코) and something ‘old'(古), and I wanted to curate a studio collection of design and lifestyle brands that represent both Korean tradition and reinterpretation, revealing that what is present, is firmly rooted within our past.” – studioko.la
Please introduce yourself and Studio Kō.
So, where do I start? My name is Ibi Yoo. I was born and raised in Korea, but moved to LA in 2011. I am the founder of Studio Kō.
When I came to LA, I started with graphic design at college with the intention of transferring to art school. But, you know, tuition tends to be insanely expensive. Especially for international students.
I was already paying like 20x more than other students to go to community college, and art school was even more. But I realized that I didn’t need to go to school to do what I wanted to.
So, I made the decision to drop out of school, and started a candle business through Etsy.
After a while, I was getting tired of making candles and started sourcing products from Korea as well. They were scent-related products, like incense sticks and matches. And these items that I was sourcing were inspired by Korean traditional culture.
And that led to three years ago, when I launched Studio Kō.
I started with matchboxes and soaps, and now I have ceramics and all kinds of things.
I’m trying to transition to more of a gallery status with the products, so these days I’m not actually carrying a lot of the products that I used to carry in the beginning.
How do you feel about the growth of Studio Kō?
It feels great. Because when I started Studio Kō, I really started from nothing. I started from nothing, but I had a lot of things that I wanted to do.
Now I have almost 50 different artists that I work with.
I started with 2 products: incense and matchboxes, and now I have 500 skus.
It’s great. A little over 3 years now and I think we grew a lot.
I feel very good about it. But I think for maybe two years I was wondering if I was doing the right thing. At first I juggled another job while growing Studio Kō. Eventually, I quit that job to fully focus on the studio. And then covid happened in 2020. When that happened, personal life sort of stopped. But you know what else also happened? People started shopping online a lot. And all of a sudden my business grew so much. I started getting orders out of nowhere. I started getting a lot of followers on Instagram. And I got press interviews. Like Goop. Goop purchased a lot of my products wholesale. And for the holidays they included our products on their holiday gift guide, which was huge.
What inspired you to create Studio Kō?
You know, when I transitioned from my candle business to sourcing other people’s products, I automatically thought about sourcing products from Korea.
I missed Korea a lot.
When I first moved to LA I was really busy: going to school, meeting new friends. It was so fun, you know, I loved it. And then after some time I really started to miss Korea. And that’s when I started thinking about how when I lived in Korea I didn’t really appreciate my own culture. I had never really thought about learning my own culture and history. I felt like I should know better about my culture and history, and to try to keep some of that tradition.
In America, there are a lot of people who spend money on products that are made in Japan. And there are also stores that are only curated with Japanese products. High quality, well-made, super expensive, and very well-presented. But if you think of Korean products – you go to Korea town and go to a market to buy whatever – no one has high quality Korean products. Or even if they have some expensive Korean products, they’re not nicely presented. For example, you would go into a supermarket and see these products right next to the mops and cleaning supplies. And that’s kind of sad.
So, I thought that I can source products that are really well-made and high-quality and to focus on Korean traditional culture. But now I’m doing both modern contemporary and traditional vibes. Because I want to introduce more Korean artists, so I shouldn’t block out one artist over the other just because they’re too modern, you know? They’re still Korean artists and their art is beautiful.
Regarding those modern and traditional pieces, does Studio Kō primarily focus more on one over the other?
I always try to balance it out.
When I feel like I have too much modern art, too many products that are not really showing Korean culture, then I try to source more that focuses on the traditional style, or items inspired by old Korean products.
But I always make sure that I’m not going too modern, you know? Because I think that a lot of Korean artists are inspired by a lot of different things. And so sometimes if you don’t say that this is made by a Korean artist, you can’t really tell, you don’t really see the Koreanness from it. So, I try to balance it out.
Do you have any advice for those who want to reconnect or stay in touch with their culture, even if they are physically away from it?
I think I read a lot online just to find out what’s going on. It’s easier for me I would say, because I know how to read and write in Korean. So I will just go online and read, you know? But maybe for Koreans who are unable to speak Korean I would say to watch a lot of Korean dramas or movies. I love watching movies that are based on a true story about Korean history and I actually learned a lot about the history that I never really had been interested in.
I had a customer who purchased a hand fan. These fans were made by a Korean artisan who had been making them for over 50 years, since when he was little. Sadly, he just passed away earlier this year. So this customer actually purchased some of his fans and framed them to remember his heritage. It was his way to stay connected with his roots.Ibi Yoo, Studio Kō
Has there ever been a piece in your collection that has really touched you or that you’ve felt a connection with?
I think the hand fans and the brooms are my top products because they are made by artists who have been making them for years.
I visited them last year for the first time. And I saw them actually making the fans and the brooms. They were a really, really sweet grandpa and grandma. Like they’ve been making these products for a living, but they’re the ones that have kept the tradition. I’m very thankful that they’re doing that, you know? So I should be more appreciative of those people.
In the future, what I want to do is to start a blog. I want to have a short paragraph or article about all of these artists. To interview the artists and share their thoughts and their stories with my customers.
How do you find your artists and choose which pieces to include in your collection?
Mostly Instagram. I actually find the new artists through Instagram a lot.
Probably over 50% of the artists I work with right now, I’ve found over Instagram. The rest, I find through art and craft fairs in Korea. So, when I go to Korea I go to a lot of these fairs and I get some information about the artists that I’m interested in .Then, I reach out to them.
How do you maintain your relationship with the artists?
When I visit Korea I always try to visit the artists that I work with at least once during my trip.
You send me these expensive products, and then I sell them for you. And you kind of want to meet them in person and get to know them, you know? So I try to visit their studio at least once when I visit Korea. All of my artists are really nice.
When I first started Studio Kō there weren’t that many artists that wanted to be a part of it because it was so small.
You couldn’t even see who Studio Kō was. Who do they carry on their website? I didn’t have a lot of artists. I only had a few different products.
And now I’m working with a lot of amazing artists. When I reach out it’s a lot easier than it was back in the day. It’s a lot easier because they see some of the artists they know. There have also been some artists that are like “omg I’ve been following you on Instagram, I love Studio Kō, thank you so much for getting in touch”, so yeah, that’s great.
I always also make sure that when I pay the artist they don’t worry about giving me a wholesale price. They have to make the margin that is enough so that they can continue working on their art.
That’s why I always make sure that they don’t have to give me a discount. If they want to make a certain amount making this one thing, then I’ll buy it. I don’t want to negotiate with artists. You can’t really. It’s not just a product. They put their time and effort to make that one. So I just buy whatever that they ask me for. Because I really care about the sustainable working environment for the artist too.
What does a day at work usually look like for you? What is your process?
It depends. Right now, it’s a little busier because the holiday’s coming up. So I have a lot of new products coming from Korea. Once I receive them I have to do all the photoshoots, edit them, and put them online. Then I check orders, pack them, and drop them off at the courier. And I also have to do the social media. But it’s pretty simple. Some days I just have extra work, doing things like customer service. And sometimes I just browse on Instagram to find new products.
What would you like the future of Studio Kō to look like?
I love going to galleries. But there are some galleries that you go in and you feel like you can’t even buy the pieces. It’s like going to an art museum, you know? You still enjoy the art but there’s kind of an uncomfortable feeling. I want to have a showroom that looks like a gallery, but still feels very approachable. It’s art that you can use at home.
If I have a showroom, then people can make appointments to visit. It’ll be more exclusive. If they want to buy something, they can buy something. If not, they can look around and leave. But I want people to actually see the products in person because the pictures don’t do them justice.
I also want to support more Korean artists and I actually want to do some collaborations and projects with non-Korean artists who are interested in Korean culture and are willing to learn about it.
I’m not sure what people are going to think about that, but I don’t want to just be like “oh, you’re not Korean, I’m not going to work with you”. I don’t want to do that. My goal is to share Korean culture with people who are not familiar with it. I want to share Studio Kō with them and not just with the people who already know everything about Korea. So, I think it’s a good idea to actually work with some artists that are interested in Korean culture. For them, it’s a learning experience. That’s what I want to do.
Curious about Studio Kō?
Learn more about them and see what pieces they offer on their website, here!