I met a beautiful lady who, in her quiet ways, reveals to us that we can create our sense of time and space in todays' world, even within the confines of our own cities. Call it a chance encounter—or fate.

My curiosity sprung from a photo of a traditional chest full of thread spools that promised something that I could not quite articulate. As with most places in Seoul that are virtually impossible to find due to the lack of a logical address system, Lee Hyo Jae's home-store-atelier is likewise tucked away and hidden. It was only by happenstance that I stumbled upon the correct door that day in the company of my cousin.

She was not supposed to be there that particular time and day but due to the unexpected death her friend's mother, her trip to a southern town of Korea was cancelled. Neither was she accustomed to receiving strangers who knock on her door unannounced, wishing to chat with her spur-of-the-moment. Yet destiny opened the door for an unexpected encounter, which revealed an entirely new face of Seoul and a way of living which I assumed became obsolete in this highly-developed, bustling city. For reasons unbeknown, this charismatic woman took a liking to me and her whole world opened up.

ppali ppali = "fast, fast" in Korean

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Traditional style bookcase for scholar filled with handmade thread spools of her mother.
She sees the elements in a system of symbols: Spools = woman, chest = man, concave end of the spool = negative/eum (yin), convex end of the spool=positive/yang. 

Bojagis, traditional Korean "furoshiki" that are folded, twisted and fastened to contain and carry…anything.

The universe of Lee Hyo Jae (better known as Hyo Jae) contains tradition-inspired home objects and clothing made with Korean textiles and hand-embroidered fabric. Especially notable are bojagis, beautiful, traditional Korean "furoshiki" that are folded, twisted and fastened to contain and carry…anything.

Yet what is riveting about Hyo Jae is her way of life. It is a complete integration of tradition, nature, simplicity, and mindfulness in terms of actions and interaction with daily life elements. Her verdant backyard is full of natural elements that reawaken the dormant memories and sensations that are tied to our Korean past. For Hyo Jae, it is a direct link and source for her daily life: clusters of jang doks which remind us of how we used to preserve the seasonings for our daily meals; sensuous foliage that she brings in from the garden as an adornment and a natural table cover upon which tea is served; flowers to tint her nails; large flowers for her daily cold tea which she serves to guests and her lady companions who industriously hand embroider at the central table. The art of being a woman, and the total embracement of this approach, is something that had been profoundly influenced by a central figure in her life—her mother—who made hanboks (the traditional Korean dress) and other handicrafts in the ways of tradition.

Jang dok = Traditional Korean earthenware jars to contain all types of jang (soy sauce, pepper sauce, soybean paste, kimchi…).
These jars have deep emotional associations and warm memories for Koreans.
In her backyard, there is always one set of jang dok for her mother, and one set for her.

The Mindful Meal

As a means for us to understand her universe and her philosophy toward life, and to bypass the inorganic and tedious nature of an interview, she prepared a special meal instead.

According to her, a meal should be beautifully prepared and presented before it is consumed. However, compared to the tidy habits of a cat, we humans fall short, especially at the end of our meal when we often leave behind visual clutter. For her, it is not only the perfectness of the beginning but also the end which is just as important. Each dish, a mindful creation in itself, is spread out at the beginning of the meal. When it is finished, dishes of decreasing sizes stack inside one another until the clutter disappears completely into a self-contained object. She wants to endow this spirit to her life, to her being, and to her creations. Inside and outside, beginning and end, they should all be clean and transparent.

(LEFT) Hyo Jae
(RIGHT) A poem written for Hyo Jae by Lee Wai Soo,
a famous old Korean author whose handwriting style is just as unique as his poems.

Lee Hyo Jae is a celebrated personage in Korea who has collaborated with Issey Miyake in the past, and is well-known as a spokeswoman for natural and simple ways of living. Yet, what is inspiring is her unassuming way of life and her unbridled imagination which bestows meaning and symbols to the minute details of daily life. There are those who quietly communicate its importance as well as its transcendence and endorse a nobler and conscientious approach to our everyday. Their endeavors cannot be measured with a ruler.