The Courage to Be Different

Interview with Ohhyun Kwon | Designer and Café Owner / 40 yrs

I felt guilty when designer Ohhyun Kwon started sharing and chuckling about how there are rumors that he has a café because his parents are rich. It’s an understandable assumption because his café is located in the front yard of his big house. I surprised to hear that he started this café with the funds that he had set aside for his wedding and marital home.
Ohhyun Kwon and Sunyoung Park got married by simply exchanging rings. They purchased a 50-year-old brick house at an afforadabe price and started their marriage. That’s when they started “Café BuBu” in Mangwon-dong. It wasn’t an easy decision especially because everyone around them was telling them it’s a bad idea. So they needed to stand firm on their conviction, confidence and courage. This has been an important foundation in their marriage as they started operating their new business, raising children, etc. Whenever fear or anxiety would creep in, they would always re-visit their conviction and courage they had in the beginning of their marriage. Their marriage is a picture of a family walking together toward one destination with the same understanding of happiness.

Owning a café is a dream for many office workers.

My wife and I were both designers before we started this café, but it wasn’t simply because it was our dream. We used to share about our future plans a lot when we were dating. Most people focus on earning money so they can get by during a certain period, but I wanted to make sure we had a long-term steady income. Kind of like a life- long job, especially because being a designer is short- lived. My wife and I were both very exhausted from client- based projects and we knew it’d be the same regardless of who we worked for. Ultimately, we agreed that we’d find meaningfulness by providing something with our values and love. That’s how we landed on opening a café.

Why a café though?

In my early 30s, I was very passionate about becoming a famous designer and made sure to keep up with all the trends, especially from Cheongdam-dong and Sinsa- dong, the two fashion leading areas in Seoul. Then I fell into a slump in my 6th year as a designer. So I decided
 to study abroad in Japan. After about a year and a half
 of studying in Japan, my perspective towards design completely changed. I learned that my knowledge of design was very superficial and opened my eyes to what’s underneath the iceberg; the deeper meaning and stories behind design, the recycling and reforming art of design. I worked at numerous cafés in Japan to make a living and while learning about the coffee culture and tastes, I came to a realization that cafés make a great environment for designers to create and work.

I can only imagine how your parents reacted when they found out about your plan to spend your wedding and housing funds.

I’m from the east coast of Gangwon-do and my wife is from Busan, so they’re opposition was quite strong considering how conservative they are. We actually held a formal presentation for them about our plans and tried to convince them that we’ll open a café first then have a wedding ceremony later. We wanted them to understand that we weren’t simply following our dreams, but we were planning for a better future because our wedding ceremony practically didn’t help prepare for our future.

How did you both stand so firm in your decision despite all the opposition?

It may have seemed a bit selfish, but we knew that satisfying other people wouldn’t contribute to our happiness. We found it crucial to share our definition of happiness and priorities to be on the same page. We also have plans to be a small business that can help farmers and natives in rural areas. Having a café is a small beginning to reach our greater goal. We’re not sure when we’ll reach our bigger goal, but we’re just working on the rough sketches together by calling it the ‘couple’s project’.

How did you feel when your son Hyukjoo was born?

He was actually born right before we opened our café so my stress level was pretty high. Originally our plan was to open our café in October and have our baby in November. But one day in October, my wife called me crying saying her water broke while she went shopping for some materials for the café. I immediately took her to the hospital with a lot of panic, anxiety, and fear, especially since the baby was being born prematurely. I actually passed out because of oxygen deficiency while helping my wife with the Lamaze breathing method. (chuckles) When I woke up it was time for me to cut the umbilical cord.

Has it been hard being a first-time father?

I still get the chills when I think of the moment I cut his unbilical cord. I was hit with not only the responsibilities, but also the realization that things will never be the same again. Even though everything was part of our plan, I don’t think anything could’ve really prepared us for the reality. I felt a bit foolish to have thought that I could’ve prepared for it. (chuckles) Once the baby was born, our café project was all on me since my wife had to recover and tend the baby. It definitely wasn’t easy, but it did encourage me to work harder when I thought of my child. It was no longer just a ‘couple’s project’ but a ‘family project’.

How did you process the heavy responsibilities that came with having a child?

Responsibilities are a scary burden to begin with. I tried to overcome my fear by simply taking it day by day. We’re expecting our second child soon, but I’m honestly not sure if I fully know what it means to be a father. One change I notice is that I think about my family before making decisions. Even before making a small purchase, I think about getting one for my wife and son. Hyukjoo is at the age where he’s learning the concept of ownership and says, “it’s mine!” a lot. So sometimes I feel like I’ve become a responsible father when I find myself putting family first.

How are you applying the recycling and reforming art of design in your life with your child?

Even before my son was born, I liked objects that had stories behind it. When I pick up abandoned tables or chairs and refurbish them, I do it with my son. We get to spend time together and talk about stuff while we clean and fix them. It’s not simply, “Yea, I bought it.” but we get to share the process of where we found it and how we brought it home, etc. He learns how to recycle, refurbish, and reuse items and even help others in need instead of easily discarding things. My dad was more interested in leaving his children with teachings and values as opposed to financial or materialistic inheritance. My grandfather and uncles were all carpenters so I learned how to use the saw at a young age, which is a skill that still comes in handy. Sometimes bringing home stuff from the street can be embarrassing, but it’s worth the joy once you overcome the hesitation. I even feel like I’m re- living my childhood when I work with my son.

Mangwon-dong seems like the perfect neighborhood to live the old-fashioned way.

According to my research, Mangwon-dong has the highest population of single-person households and workspaces in Korea. So we have a sense of community with our neighbors of common interest in the midst of cultural diversity. I think it’s a great location to raise a child because we’re close to the market and subway, there’s a walkway by the river, etc. but my favorite part is the fact that the neighborhood is very friendly. Unlike the big marts where you just pick up what you need, you get to hear the stories of the street vendors in Mangwon market. For example, when we go shop for carrots for our smoothies, we can ask the vendor where the carrots are from and learn about the differences of each origin. We don’t come home with just the carrots, but we also bring back a story with it. Hyukjoo is the same way. When he goes to buy his favorite jam, he’s not only going to buy the product, but also to meet the vendor. I believe building relationships and making memories such as these are far more beneficial for the child’s emotional health than any other education system.

Your life story from making a 50-year-old house into a café to enjoying life in your neighborhood with your child, seems like you’ve created your own life pathway.

I feel like everything that happened since our marriage has been very smooth, which I think was possible because my wife and I clearly defined our definition of happiness and thankfully had similar values and plans. Of course there were times that were trying and stressful, but we were able to firmly establish our beliefs and values through these hardships. And as we’ve found our way of life, we’re able to organically befriend our neighbors and do life together.

Tips for Fathers | Mangwon-dong stores recommended by the Kwons

Subaco — A toy store that makes you want to start a collection with their vintage, small, and cute toys.

Jicjo Sil — A weaving workshop and store where everything is handmade with quality and sincerity regardless of how long it takes.

Cacao Dada — A chocolatier’s factory where chocolate is handmade from cacao beans that were personally chosen and roasted.

Mannada Gongwon — A clothing boutique that sells mommy and baby clothes that express their natural beauty.

Zsaeugo — A store owned by two sisters who make jam and sweets from grains directly purchased from their grandma and nearby farmers.

Zero Per Zero — A studio that makes graphic design stationeries with the values and themes of earth, travel, and love.

Edited by Hyejin Choi Photographed by Juyeon Lee