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In the surprisingly cutthroat world of Korean cafes, smaller ones tend to have the kinds of opportunities that large franchises typically don't. They can fully embrace a theme or a concept and speak to a specific audience — an Instagram-obsessed one. When it comes to Seoul, South Korea, cafe culture is a beast of its own. Trending cafes with unique food, drinks, or decor can land themselves on television, earn viral infamy, and generate lines wrapping around the block.
One of these cafes goes by the unassuming name Cafe Yeonnam-dong 223-14. Though it's named after its address in the Yeonnam neighborhood of western Seoul — not far from the bustling hotspot of Hongdae — it's hardly nondescript. The cafe went viral after numerous people began sharing images of its unique interior on Instagram and Korea's blogging platform, Naver. And it's not hard to see why.
Stepping into this cafe is like entering an entirely different dimension.
Lee Jung-sang, the head of Cafe Yeonnam-dong 223-14's marketing team, spoke with SYFY WIRE about the birth and rise of the cafe, as well as its astounding 2D design. Cafes open and close in the blink of an eye in Seoul, where competition is fierce and one's ability to go viral is a surefire guarantee of sticking around.
"There are many cafes that make their interior impressive and colorful," Lee told SYFY WIRE. "Cafés should mainly be about the guest and its menu, and an exuberant interior will overshadow all of that." Unlike the exceptionally colorful cafes of Hongdae like Cafe Yam and Zapangi in Mangwon, Yeonnam-dong 223-14 went for a simple black-and-white design.
"We wanted to make a space that would allow the visitor to stand out as a guest of honor," Lee explains. "That is why we chose a black-and-white color theme with minimum décor. As a result, customers could have a space they are comfortable with."
It was that very same minimalistic decor that became the hot topic of the Seoul cafe world.
Every inch of Yeonnam-dong 223-14 is painted in a way that makes it seem like you're walking into a comic book or webtoon. It's actually quite unnerving upon entering the cafe, as you can feel you're either walking into a Vorsicht painting or a-ha's iconic "Take On Me" music video. But it's neither of those things. It's a cafe that's art in itself. From the bathroom and rooftop to the doors (which you have to pause a moment to figure out whether you can even open or whether it's an illusion), the cafe is a sketchbook come to life. Even the plates, cups, and tableware are painted in the same style.
The cartoonish effect, it turns out, was a happy accident.
"We didn't intend for the 2D effect, but merely a simple black and white design portrayed with lines," Lee says. "But by drawing with simple lines, we inadvertently ended up with a 2D effect."
Nicknamed "The Comic Book Cafe" by locals and tourists alike, the first location was incredibly small and tucked away in the maze-like streets of Yeonnam. Lee says that only four to five groups could fit inside at a time, and the constant long line was what made the owners decide to expand and move to their current location.
Many bloggers and reports claim the cafe was inspired by the Korean TV show W starring Lee Jong-suk and Han Hyo-joo, wherein the main characters reach each other between the real world and a webtoon. Lee, however, says this isn't the case and it's a happy coincidence, though in the original location there was a menu item called "W Coffee."
"There is no relations to a webtoon," he says. "Some customers mentioned that as well after we opened, which is how we came to know about the similarities."
Regardless of where the idea came from, it's an amazing visual trick. The food and drink are typical of any cafe; the real treat here is the aesthetics, and they've become enough of a draw that the cafe is going global. Lee revealed that the team behind Cafe Yeonnam-dong 223-14 are currently in the process of opening their first foreign branch in Saudi Arabia. When it'll be open isn't yet known, but they are also working on opening branches in multiple other countries. Who knows, this 2D world of coffee and cake may very well be coming to a city near you.
Thanks to Jenny Han for translation.