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d room Jeju

How a design hotel on South Korea’s biggest island is revitalizing its historic port district.

WORD TO THE WISE — the suites at d room don’t have room numbers, so you’d better remember which door is yours. “It’s because we want you to feel at home, like you’re at a friend’s place,” says Jiwan Kim, founder of the members-only boutique hotel. D room is the first hospitality venture by D&DEPARTMENT, the Japanese chain of lifestyle and furniture stores founded by legendary design activist Kenmei Nagaoka. There are no room numbers, no magnetic keycards, and no narrow hallways that recall conventional hotels. “Nagaoka-san has dreamed of opening a hotel since he conceptualized his company more than 20 years ago,” Kim continues. “We are excited to finally make his vision come to life.”

Recycling what’s already out there so as not to over-produce or over-consume is one of our most important founding principles.

Surprisingly, d room isn’t in Japan, where D&DEPARTMENT first opened shop and currently operates 11 retail locations. Instead, it’s on the South Korean island of Jeju, the neighboring country’s biggest island, known for its beautiful beaches, life-changing hiking trails, and endless fields of tangerine farms. Jeju — also known as “the Hawaii of Korea”— is frequented by 15 million visitors a year, primarily city dwellers from Korea, China, and Japan who yearn to surf the waves.

I land on Jeju on a gloomy day, toward the end of Korea’s summer monsoon season. The skies are eerily gray, but the palm trees right outside the airport still make me tingle with rare excitement. I don’t head to Seogwipo or Aewol, the scenic, popular spots on the island that most people would recommend. Instead, I get in a taxi for Jeju-si, the old city center just 10 minutes away. “This part of town has largely been abandoned by tourists and locals for the past few years,” Kim says, referring to the Tapdong district where d room is located. “People come to Jeju for its nature. They’re not interested in shopping or dining out, because you can do that in the city,” he continues. “That’s why we wanted to bring life and culture back to this historic neighborhood.”

Tapdong, a once-thriving fishing port, lost much of its bustling energy as other parts of Jeju became more developed in the mid-2000s. At first glance, the area is forgettable, its unlit industrial streets even less interesting in rainy weather. I get out of the taxi across from a desolate parking lot, and the only thing reminding me of the ocean is the stuffy, salty air. It’s easy to spot d room, with a giant italicized “d” painted on its facade. The concrete building is as gray as the sky, and for a moment it feels as if I’m seeing the world in black and white. But when the glass doors slide open, I’m instantly jolted back to a world of vibrant color — one filled with green life.

The ground floor resembles a conservatory, a small, man-made jungle bursting with luscious, potted succulents. I take a breath of fresh air, the crisp greenery a sleek contrast to the otherwise austere building. I’m surprised to find a lot of people inside, chatting over coffee or a meal at the restaurant next door. Passing the lively crowd, I climb the stairs and finally enter d room, its lobby tucked in a quieter corner of the second level.

If d room really was your friend’s pad — as Kim wants you to feel — then that friend is the most design-conscious and hospitable friend ever, who collects vintage everything and offers only locally sourced coffee. Every nook and cranny of the 13-room hotel is a midcentury modernist’s dream, fashioned from just the right balance of minimalism and a touch of lived-in coziness. 1950s and ’60s-designed furniture, mostly from Europe and Japan, is tastefully arranged throughout the common areas and guest rooms. Visitors can spot iconic chairs by Herman Miller, Fritz Hansen, and Castelli next to classic Karimoku tables and Poul Henningsen lamps. Modular steel bookshelves lining the raw brick walls house stacks of old books and magazines. Look closer, and you’ll also find exotic paraphernalia unique to Korea, from beautiful porcelain hangari and jangdok earthenware placed in certain corners to local farmers’ produce boxes that have found new purpose as side tables.

Staying true to D&DEPARTMENT’s roots as a design retailer, all of the hotel’s furniture and other objects are available for sale — everything from the books to the wall art, clothing hangers, towel racks, trash bins, upcycled bedding, and even the hair dryers and door tags. While not every item is secondhand or recycled, D&D takes great pride in curating products that last a lifetime.

“We believe in ‘long-life design,’” says Kim, referring to the term coined by Nagaoka to refer to timeless products with the potential to be reused again and again. “Recycling what’s already out there so as not to over-produce or over-consume is one of our most important founding principles. At d room, we want our guests to get to know the true value and longevity of these objects firsthand. It’s a full living retail experience,” he says. The hotel’s interior constantly changes as pieces are bought and swapped, giving each room a different look with every visit.

Nagaoka’s efforts to promote design sustainability have earned him the title of “design activist.” D&D not only sources used objects and fixtures from collectable brands, but also from local establishments and medical facilities. “We bring chairs from nearby schools, or dishware and cutlery from restaurants that go out of business,” says Myoung Eon Oh, d room Jeju’s manager. “They are perfectly good items that would otherwise go to waste.”


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Kim, Oh, and the rest of the staff at d room take great care in maintaining a homey vibe to prevent the place from looking like a furniture showroom. On one side of the main common area, Kim has personally set up his old JVC sound system, accompanied by CDs that the staff also brought from home. It’s not a curated selection of music, but rather a casual offering, a small gesture to share their personal taste with the guests. Instead of stiff metal table signs, there are handwritten notes, with book recommendations of the week and descriptions of today’s coffee and tea.

My suite is narrow and high-ceilinged, with a bed in its own elevated mini-room, separated by warm wooden walls. There’s no ocean view typical of an island resort, but that’s quickly forgiven by the oddly serene ambience, thanks in part to the intentionally dim lighting. I change into the organic cotton pajama set provided in my size, and I actually do feel at home. “In order to ensure our visitors enjoy a quiet stay, we don’t allow children or outside guests to enter our hotel,” Kim later tells me. There are no visual distractions — no purposeless, ornate decorations, no TV. Away from the rush of the city and noise downstairs, I feel a sense of calm and ease I never knew I wanted.

D&D Jeju’s full and official name is “D&DEPARTMENT Jeju by Arario.” In 2014, Korea’s Arario Group, which runs several art museums and contemporary galleries throughout the country, began a cultural renewal project in Tapdong, starting by transforming Tapdong Cinema — Jeju’s first-ever movie theater, which went out of business in 2005 — into an art museum. After years of unsuccessful attempts at stimulating foot traffic in the area, Kim looked to Nagaoka’s expertise in lifestyle retail. “Nagaoka-san is known for his know-how in localizing in different cities, while preserving the character and tradition of each location,” Kim explains, referring to D&D’s stores, which each offer different products made by local artisans. “No two D&D shops are the same. We realized that in order to succeed, we had to offer something unique to Jeju that people couldn’t get anywhere else.”

About a third of D&D Jeju’s expansive shop, attached to the second-floor lobby, is filled with housewares, food and drink items, and design objects unique to Jeju. To create it, Kim and his team conducted two years of research and development, looking into Jeju’s traditional goods and local cuisine. “We visited street markets and scouted grandma-and-pop artisans — individual manufacturers who handcraft things like stone plates, wooden tables, and sun hats,” Oh recalls. “One of our partners is a family business that’s been brewing traditional liquor for four generations. These artisans have been in their trade for 40, sometimes 70 years. Some of them are named ‘Living National Treasure’ by the Korean ministry,” she says with a smile. Next to each meticulously displayed item in the shop are short descriptions of its maker, including how many years they’ve been active and their location on a map. It feels more like an exhibition than a retail store. “We want you to see their work here, and then actually go and visit them,” Oh adds. “Our curation is like a physical travel guide through the island, a new kind of design tour.”

Ultimately, Kim’s goal isn’t to make you stay or shop at d room; it’s to urge you to explore Jeju itself. “That goes for not only tourists, but also for locals who’ve lived here their whole lives,” Kim says. “There’s so much history and charm to be discovered on this island. Just use our rooms to take care of your lodging needs, and hopefully come again.”

Things to See and Do Near d room

Jiwan Kim, founder of D&DEPARTMENT Jeju by Arario, shares some favorite spots around his boutique hotel.

  • Arario Museum Tapdong Cinema

    This museum is inside a historic building that used to be Jeju’s first movie theater. The original yellow tiles have been kept on the first floor, from the KFC that was there in the ’90s. Arario Museum boasts one of the best private art collections in the world, with a curation of works by artists from all over Asia and beyond.

  • Magpie Brewing Company Tapdong Store

    Magpie is a beer brewery based in Jeju, also known for its delicious pizza menu. They make everything themselves, from the pizza dough and toppings to original sauces. You can taste more than 20 different kinds of beer, and also buy cans for takeout.

  • Go’s House

    Go’s House is a unique architectural feat, combining the traditional Korean giwa roof with a Japanese-style interior. It is open to locals as a beautiful meeting place, and has a quaint library of books related to Jeju Island.

  • Arario Museum Dongmun Motel I & II

    Arario revived two other abandoned motels in the heart of Jeju Island’s old city center. You can see more permanent collections as well as special exhibitions in these locations.

  • Gwandeokjeong Hall

    This Joseon-era military training facility remains the only building of its kind to be preserved in its near-original condition. It’s the oldest building on Jeju Island, and was named Treasure 322 of Korean national treasures.

  • Arario Museum Tapdong Cinema

    This museum is inside a historic building that used to be Jeju’s first movie theater. The original yellow tiles have been kept on the first floor, from the KFC that was there in the ’90s. Arario Museum boasts one of the best private art collections in the world, with a curation of works by artists from all over Asia and beyond.

  • Arario Museum Dongmun Motel I & II

    Arario revived two other abandoned motels in the heart of Jeju Island’s old city center. You can see more permanent collections as well as special exhibitions in these locations.

  • Magpie Brewing Company Tapdong Store

    Magpie is a beer brewery based in Jeju, also known for its delicious pizza menu. They make everything themselves, from the pizza dough and toppings to original sauces. You can taste more than 20 different kinds of beer, and also buy cans for takeout.

  • Gwandeokjeong Hall

    This Joseon-era military training facility remains the only building of its kind to be preserved in its near-original condition. It’s the oldest building on Jeju Island, and was named Treasure 322 of Korean national treasures.

  • Go’s House

    Go’s House is a unique architectural feat, combining the traditional Korean giwa roof with a Japanese-style interior. It is open to locals as a beautiful meeting place, and has a quaint library of books related to Jeju Island.

Our Contributors

Elaine YJ Lee Writer

Elaine YJ Lee is a writer and creative producer based in New York and Seoul. Her work has appeared in i-D, SSENSE, HYPEBEAST, Highsnobiety, Document Journal, Apartamento magazine, and more.

Kim S. Gon Photographer

Kim S. Gon is a photographer based in South Korea. His work has appeared in Allure, Elle, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. Gon is represented by VOTT Agency.

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