Hyun Yu

Hyun Yu

Words: Anna Hoghton/ Pictures: Teri Bocko

Hyun lives in Marina del Rey, CA, an area that's quickly transformed from an old industrial park into a crowd of ever sprouting ‘live-work’ lofts. As soon as we step through Hyun’s door, she offers us soft slippers and suggests we share a meal to get to know each other. It’s a lovely idea and perhaps should have been anticipated, given the nervousness Hyun expressed prior to the interview. In the past, she’s been very protective of her space, and has never opened it up for interviews before. We are offered granola, yoghurt, fruit, and fresh muffins - all beautifully presented. Hyun’s husband sits quietly beside her, and the strength she draws from his presence is palpable. By her feet, lies her dog, a floppy-eared delight named Maddy.

For someone who is usually so private, we find Hyun wonderfully open. She lights up when she talks of her recent trip to Georgia O’keeffe’s home in New Mexico. ‘For her, it’s not just about the objects she’s creating,’ Hyun gushes, ‘it’s about everything around her, everything is an expression of who she is.’ It seems the same sentence could be said of Hyun herself. The playful curation of her living and work space gives us a glimpse into her inner world. We are aware of how special it is to be invited in and delighted to share this insight into her story.

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Minimal design sometimes seems easy because it involves fewer elements and its clean, but really, it takes a lot of thought.

How would you describe yourself as a maker?

I’d say I’m an innate maker. I don’t plan things, they just come through me. I pick out materials and they inspire or move me. It’s only once a piece is done that I actually see what I was doing all along, and what that means. My making is constantly evolving. Right now it’s jewellery, but who knows what it will be in the future! I’d like to move on to bigger pieces.

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Can you tell us more about the style of your jewellery?

My jewellery is very minimal in style. When I say minimal, that doesn’t mean simple and boring, because that would be boring to me. I try to make minimal designs that have some kind of interest, designs that excite people. I play with scale, balance, movement, colour... it’s all important. Minimal design sometimes seems easy because it involves fewer elements and its clean, but really, it takes a lot of thought. It’s not just about putting two squares together - you have to think about creating balance between the squares, that’s what brings interest. One needs to be smaller, for example, or a different colour/ texture... all of this detail is what plays into making interesting design. I love the challenge of keeping things simple, but at the same time making them playful. Whimsy is hugely important to me because I like to make people feel happy.

As well as the specifics of the design, is there a philosophy to the way you make?

For me, it’s crucial that I care. What I’m making needs to make sense to me personally, and not just be trending or popular. If I don’t feel it, it won’t work. It’s like cooking, you know? When you don’t want to do it and are forcing yourself, the food tastes so bad. But when you’re loving doing it, and cutting all the individual pieces with care, enjoying each part of the process - then the food tastes wonderful! It’s the same with making. If you have the first kind of attitude, nothing works and something always falls apart. That’s true of life in general, if you start to see it all as a struggle, then it will be a struggle. No doubt about it. I know. I’ve been there many times.

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But when you’re in a state of flow, as I’ve learnt to be in, when you’re accepting and loving all parts of the process, it’s amazing how easily and naturally everything happens. That’s why, in the end, it all comes down to care. There’s a lot of copycats out there but they don’t have that care that is so fundamental to good design. I really care about all my individual pieces and that comes through. You can’t sell, express, or tell that to people, but they feel it. When you hold objects that are made with care, they have this kind of essence from their makers. I think that’s really important.

First and foremost, you have to accept yourself, because, if you don’t accept yourself, then how can you accept anyone or anything else?

How did you get to the point where you got to the second attitude towards your work?

By learning to be accepting. For the longest time, I found that so hard. First and foremost, you have to accept yourself, because, if you don’t accept yourself, then how can you accept anyone or anything else?

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I’ve learnt to be OK with things, whatever they are. It doesn’t matter if something is my fault or another person’s. There are so many different people in this world. Sometimes you’ll have great relationships or bad relationships and bad reactions, and of course, it stings when someone is mean to you. But I’ve learnt to just accept people, they have the right to feel the way they feel, their world is so different from mine. In the end, I want to be peaceful, I don’t want to be walking in hell. So acceptance is a big thing for me. Of myself, of others… of the processes of my work and life.

Do you think that attitude of acceptance is essential for creating a better world?

Absolutely. Acceptance is key. Once you accept yourself, it spreads because you cannot help but be kind to another and then, if you’re kind to one person, that person will be kind to another person. I mean this all on an individual level of course - I’m not Oprah! She could say one word and it spreads like wildfire, but, on my level, that’s something I could do to change the world slowly. Imagine if everyone did it, we’d have a really beautiful place.

I also think that pursuing what you love is important. I want that for everyone because I believe everyone has a purpose for being here. It’s just about finding your thing. It could be anything. It could be serving people in a restaurant, or helping people as a nurse. Anything. But you have to love it. There has to be that one thing where you feel like: yeah, this is really growing my soul, this makes me feel good. For me, creating is the thing I really connect with. It’s a part of me that needs to come out. I feel like more and more people are waking up to finding their true passion and I really love seeing that. Not everyone knows what their calling is yet, but I think just being open to trying to figure it out is a really great thing. It's ok just to search and be curious. The act of trying is empowering. It gives you a confidence that is so important.

Life is such a weird thing. It’s interesting, but it’s weird too. There’s so much: going here, then getting stuck there, then digging a hole here, then climbing out again. It’s like a giant game of snakes and ladders. It’s about constantly finding your way, and if you have that confidence and inner strength from knowing that you’re pursuing your own path it makes a huge difference. When you don’t know, and you’re depressed, and you feel terrible about yourself, it’s hard to get out of the hole you’ve dug. But when you feel confident it’s totally different. You still get lost, of course, but you believe in yourself. You know you can find your way and so you do.

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Tell us a bit about the ups and downs that led you to finding your craft and confidence. How did you start making?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always made stuff. Paper cut-out dolls and clothing for the dolls... I was always decorating and making. But I didn’t realise how important that was for me until I stopped. At college, for some reason, I thought fine art wasn’t a practical major but psychology was, so I choose the latter. During that time I never felt confident in myself. I felt like I wasn’t good at anything and I really didn’t trust myself. It was really tough. I always had to take a studio art class or else I got really, really miserable.

After I graduated, I started taking fine art full on and that changed my life. Making art full-time and really feeling it and knowing I could do it gave me that confidence I talked about earlier. Not just thinking I could do something, but really feeling it, with my whole body. That changed me as a person. I remember sitting on a bench one day and it dawned on me that I could really do anything I wanted with myself. I could be anything I wanted, even a lawyer or a doctor! That thought had never crossed my mind before. That confidence just kind of woke me up. I realised that I’m much greater than I thought I was and that I could do so much more than what I thought I could.

I thought: there’s so much possibility in this, I could do so much! It was just being able to touch things and to connect pieces together to make something new out of different parts… I was like: yes, I remember this, I love this!

Did that eureka moment lead you straight on to becoming an artist full-time?

Haha, no! You’d think after getting that kind of insight that I’d start pursuing my art all the time straight away, but life is a long journey. I started doing odd jobs and I was getting fired all the time.

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But when I got a graphic design job, I went back to school to study design and that was good because at least I was creating and it wasn’t just database entry work. That kept me going for seven or eight years. It was good, but one day I reached a point where I thought: I can’t do this anymore, I have to do my own thing. It was a huge decision to quit the graphic design job and took me a whole year. I was giving up a lot: benefits, salary, medical… But I knew I had to do it.

I’d been creating paper goods on the side - cards, calendars, prints… and selling them on Etsy. After I quit, I took my designs to my first craft fair. It was so bad! I think I sold one or two items, and it took me forever to prepare for that show. I was crushed. But during that time, I took a five-day jewellery course at the community college. It was nothing major, just bead work. But when I started touching stuff and putting it together it just brought back that moment on the bench and I thought: there’s so much possibility in this, I could do so much! It was just being able to touch things and to connect pieces together to make something new out of different parts… I was like: yes, I remember this, I love this! So I created a small collection with very limited technical skills. I went to a second art fair and this time I took my jewellery. It went great and that started this whole thing.

What places have made you?

I grew up in Korea. Asian culture is very quiet compared with western and I think I definitely carry that. Coming to the US when I was twelve also changed me because my life would have been completely different and I would be a different person if I was living in Korea. I don’t know if I’d even be doing what I’m doing because opportunities are different there. I first moved to El Paso, Texas. That’s a border town with Mexico and a dead end city. El Paso means a passage, people pass through it to go to another city but it’s not a destination of any type. I really didn’t like that place. I was not a happy or confident person at the time so I was really insular there. But then I moved to Austin for school and then to L.A. and that changed everything. At first, L.A. was too big and this huge culture shock, but I learnt to find my rhythm here and now I love it.

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It’s a big city with so many opportunities. Sure, it’s an expensive city and traffic is the worst, but that’s part of big city living. The makers community in L.A. is very strong. Lots of shops are reaching out to independent makers because they want to support independent artists and bring in unique items. Before, just museum shops did that, but now you can walk into any boutique store and they have such beautiful things. There are so many different markets too. I’m currently preparing for West Coast Craft and its located in Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. There will be loads of vendors there selling fashion, jewellery, food, you name it. It’s such an exciting and creative atmosphere and I love seeing people try my things on. It’s great research to see the jewellery against different skin tones and face shapes, and find out what people respond to.

I love all nature. I find it so energising to be out there and I feel like nature is the most beautiful art there is.

Do you have any other favourite places?

I love all nature. I find it so energising to be out there and I feel like nature is the most beautiful art there is. You see some rock and tree formations and they are so perfect. You cannot make that. But, by being there, you can breathe and open up. I need nature. I have to go once in a while. Last year my husband and I visited Petrified National Forest, and I was completely taken by its beauty. It's hard to pick just one favourite place in nature, but I would say this place is my current winner, until I come across another awe-inspiring place that is…

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Between space

There are two reasons for calling this space the ‘between space’. Firstly, and very practically, my work desk is located in-between the living room and the kitchen. Secondly, it's a place where design is worked on, coming from concept to a finished product, so it’s also named because that in-between part of the process happens here. I don’t have a lot of space, so I can’t make many big things at the moment, which I’m itching to do, but for now, it’s what we can afford and I know the rest will evolve at the right time. Everything is within easy access and it’s comfortable with my dog and husband around to help me.

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If there was a fire this would be the first thing I’d grab! I don’t know what I’d do without it. It contains all my instructions on how to make all the pieces I’ve created. It’s important because it’s so practical. I have all the specifications in there - the lengths, sizes, and how I put them together, because I cannot possibly remember it all. I really need to take photographs of the pages because if I lost it I don’t know what I’d do…

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This is the cheapest hammer ever and also the first hammer I ever got. I’ve tried three or four hammers since and had to return them all because when they don’t hammer in the same way. I even got the same brand and it was not exact. So I’m stuck with this old thing forever. If there’s a fire, I’m grabbing the hammer and the notebook for sure.


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My husband has played such an important role in my life because, as I said, before I met him I was a completely different person. He gave me space to be myself and accepts me for who I am. He makes me feel very safe and like I can do anything. We can go anywhere together and that will be our home. This ring is made by a German designer Niessing. I love it because there’s a movement to it. It’s a simple design with interest. See the beads inside? They move. It’s very subtle but it just makes it interesting. It’s also curved inside and out, so it’s really easy to wear, and so simple I could wear it with anything. It encapsulates everything I believe is important about meaningful, minimal design.

Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.