"How do you live?" This simple question was posed to Chyung Mi-sook when she studied in the United States as an exchange student in the 1960s. Decades later, after a career as an academic in South Korea, she devised the perfect answer: in the form of a museum of traditional Korean furniture.
Seoul is a UNESCO Creative City of Design, and has plenty of blingy buildings to prove it – including Dongdaemun Design Plaza in the city centre, designed by late architect Zaha Hadid and resembling a silver spaceship. It's rivalled in the "wow" stakes by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. An exhibition of furniture sounds dowdy by comparison, and the Korea Furniture Museum plays hard to get. Perched in a residential area in the hilly north of the city, it only allows access via prior reservation on a guided tour, and there are only four English-language tours a day. I'm getting the message it doesn't accept any old riff-raff within the premises; a tourist trap this is not.
It turns out to be a delightful repository of Korean woodwork, presented within idyllic grounds. After I hike up a stretch of winding road from the nearest bus stop, I find a set of timber houses with curved eaves, standing in gardens with a view over the metropolis. There's a glimpse of the old city wall snaking down a nearby ridge and the spire of the Seoul Tower in the distance.
Our guide explains the main house itself is an exhibit, being composed of wood and tiles taken from a demolished palace. Near it is a storage house, a building once used to hold rice – the larger such a structure was, the greater the status of the householder.
Before it became a museum, the property was used as a diplomatic reception venue and received many heads of state. A wooden litter for transporting noblemen is on display in a corridor, echoing this tradition of hosting the posh and powerful. But it's furniture we're here to see, and our guide takes us past collections of glorious timber items from the Joseon dynasty, which lasted 500 years to the end of the 19th century. They're superbly crafted for both utility and beauty. There's a room of persimmon wood furniture ("preferred by men", says the guide) and maple wood furniture ("preferred by women"), whose unique pattern derives from the tree having fought off a disease.
In another room there's a set of items decorated with mother-of-pearl, its iridescent patterns lively against the dark wood. Another collection is decorated with tortoise shell, and another is covered with handmade paper.
When the building was a home, the second floor was the men's domain and here we find portable book cases that could carry scholars' references to wherever they needed them. There are also reading and writing desks, and wardrobes with poetry carved into the doors.
After viewing several more displays of furniture, none of which we're allowed to photograph, we pass through screens to a spacious former living room, then into the women's room with its impressive view over the city. It's an attractive compact space with decorated screens and mats, and cushions from which to view the gardens, a focal point of the culture of the era.
Finishing in the men's quarters, with its entertainment area and library, we're introduced to one last traditional item of furniture: a bamboo wife. This long hollow bolster made of bamboo was made to be hugged while sleeping, maximising air flow during hot humid nights. Sadly, this useful device has almost become extinct in the age of air conditioning. But it lives on here in the museum, where all that is genteel and timber has a guaranteed second life.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation and Accor Hotels.
Asiana Airlines flies daily between Sydney and Seoul, with code share connections via Qantas. See asiana.com
The Ibis Budget Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun is walking distance from Dongdaemun Design Plaza and rooms start from $90 a night. A more upmarket option is the Novotel Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun where rooms start from $165 a night. See accorhotels.com
Korea Furniture Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, admission 20,000 won ($25) a person. Bookings are essential. See kofum.com