Skip to main content

Living Floor | Apartment


In luxury apartments historically and contemporarily, the Korean tradition of eating, sleeping and sitting on the floor includes the importance of the tactile qualities of specific floor finishes, as well as the use of low-level furniture and bangsuks (cushions for sitting).


A number of Asian cultures, including those of China, Korea, Japan and Thailand traditionally conducted life on the floor. Korea’s long-standing custom of sitting on the floor.

This study examines how contemporary Korean apartments reflect traditional culture in terms of the archetypical practice of removing one’s shoes at the entry and sitting low to the floor level. Traditional rooms are usually decorated in unadorned natural materials and are largely unfurnished, allowing several activities to occur in the same space at different times of the day and night. The custom of a Living Floor is more flexible than western style living spaces. Much of the family’s life is conducted while seated on mats or the bangsuk (cushion for sitting) without western sofas or chairs. Furniture is therefore constructed so that the height is close to the floor. Moreover, the number of furniture pieces is generally kept to a minimum and can often be stacked or stored when not in use. The simplicity and austerity of a living floor is thought to derive from the Buddist philosophy.1

The living floor developed, and was sustained over time, because of two representative floor systems that mitigated Korea’s long winters and hot summers—ondol (floors heated from underneath) and maru (wooden floors).2 Ondol utilizes direct heat transfer from wood smoke to the underside of a thick masonry floor. During the Chosun Dynasty (1392 –1910), when the ondol was popularized, general living standards improved, and many Koreans equipped individual rooms with ondol floors. Chairs and sofas suspended above the floor were unnecessary, because ondol warmed the floor surface where people satin winter, and when unheated, ondol created a cool floor in summer. In modern usage ondol refers to any type of underfloor heating. Modern versions of ondol floors are heated by circulated hot water from water heaters, or an electrical heating system of dielectric heating or induction heating.

Koreans prize the natural materials and the tactile of their floors. Ondol floors were covered with oiled-paper, which received a coat of bean oil mixed with yellow coloring from gardenia seeds. Thus finished, the waxed ondol floor created a soft and intimate surface texture, and it kept the surface uncontaminated and easy to clean. Aesthetically, the ondol floor shone with a warm yellowish hue, giving an otherwise stark appearance of white-walled rooms an inviting appearance.

The public spaces in traditional Korean homes, such as maru, were floored with wood. Maru provides a cool space in Korea’s hot and humid summers, so that various family rituals could be held regardless of the season. Raised above the ground, maru also facilitated ventilation through the house.4  In contemporary Korean apartments, maru has ondol system as a home heating. Traditional maru is finished by a glue-like substance mixed with red clay coated the wood and made the finishes durable. If a more even coloring was desired, gardenia dye was added to the bean oil mixture. With use, the wood floors generally turned a deep dark brown.5 Natural materials and their finishes were thought to create harmony between humans, the natural environment, and a house. A traditional Korean floor provided an appropriate living environment for daily practices, functional, aesthetic, and sanitary.

The Living Floor in traditional Korean spaces were marked by adaptability in that furniture pieces are not permanently assigned to any room. To allow for a variety of activities, furniture was cleared away and returned later. A Living Floor requires a sparsely furnished space and makes multiple activities possible in that space. In the sarangbang, the master of the house, when alone, would rest on a padded mat (boryo) placed on the warmest part of the floor in order for him to read at a special reading table. When friends or relatives came to visit the master, the table would be removed and visitors provided with bangsuks (cushions for sitting).6 Bedding included a portable padded mattress filled with soft cotton wadding, which could be rolled and stored when not in use. The bedding was easily heated from the ondol floor and kept warm in the winter. Because most daily activities occurred on the floor, low-height furnishings and seating were used, and the furniture was small and sparse, used only for necessity. Consequently, the arrangement of furniture for Living Floor made rooms spacious.7

Living Floor in Contemporary Apartments—East and West
As Koreans moved from traditional housing to urban apartments, their life styles and interior spaces became more westernized. There are, however, several cases in which the traditional Living Floor has been adapted to contemporary apartment living.

In one interpretation, Si-young Choi designed a River Way Apartment in Seoul with a tea room centered in the space and consisting of a lower table and four bangsuks. He placed decorative elements, such as a gilt framed mirror and antique objects, on the floor, in consideration of people’s eye level when they are sitting. A water feature next to the wall attunes people to a natural environment further enhanced by low lighting.8

Designer E-wha Yu’s design for another Seoul luxury apartment combined a bed in the western style with bedding in the Korean style. The bed is low, but visually its base does not touch the floor; a plinth with a deep reveal contributes to the effect of the bed frame floating in space. Moreover the bed is encased in a low shelf, a plinth, at the head and one side, anchoring the bed and connecting it to the plinth, as if it and bed were a single piece of furniture. The floor is darkened, and the bed-shelf is light. The feeling of lightness is reinforced by a diaphanous shimmering textile hanging above the bed, which can be unrolled, and light color draperies that cover the window wall. The Korean floral screen on a side wall completes the integration of a modified Korean bedroom.9   

The Living Floor is not only an aspect of indigenous cultures in specific Asian areas, but it has also become an international living style particularly adaptable for apartments. The idea of a Living Floor has also gained a growing number of western converts as a technique to make small spaces visually larger. Low-ceilinged rooms grow higher perceptually with lower-to-the-floor furnishings.

In the early 1960s, J. Neil Stevens designed a penthouse guest room with a Living Floor in the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago. The “mattress” was placed on a low platform, and an antique tea table and bangsuks were arranged with a traditional Asian screen in the background. Other chests in the room are western in height. In the same time period Jerald Intrator designed a Living Floor seating area in a Greenwich apartment in New York City by raising the seating area off the floor plane, but keeping it low to the floor. Essentially a platform, raised by a plinth with a deep reveal, accommodates Bangsuks, as well as a corner seat with cushions to support one’s back.10  In both designs, the adaptation of a Living Floor for Americans relied on raised cushions and beds slightly off the floor, but Stevens’ penthouse guest room borrows strongly from an Asian aesthetic. Intrator’s design, however, is more generalized in its iteration, drawing from traditional Asian design, as well as Modernism.

In the 1970 decade, Ron Doud and Lisa Elfenbein designed a Living Floor for another New York City apartment. The furniture in the living space is comprised of two seats and a table whose shapes are exaggerated, as if they were sculptural objects in gallery. Contributing to this impression is a sculptural object, an abstract lamp, and a dark, round object dropped slightly below the ceiling. A single seat sits on a two-inch high wooden platform which is turned vertically to serve as the framework for the seat back, which is of an exaggerated height. The seat and back are upholstered in the same manner. Two pillows rest on the upholstered seat. The “sofa” has the same two-inch wooden seat and seat back and the same upholstery treatment. This seat is elongated horizontally to sit more than one person. One side has a low back next to the wall, and four pillows are arranged as if a person should recline. The room also contains a large round table that is also low in height. When the interior was published in Architectural Record, the author argued that the abstract shapes of the furniture could be adapted to the human body in various ways, and be used in various positions in tune with users’ needs.11  However the furniture was used, the design of this Living Floor departed from the expression of Asian themes and origins.

In European apartments, evidence for the Living Floor practice continued through the last decade of the 20th century. One example of Living Floor in a Parisian apartment illustrates upholstered chairs with deeply buttoned seats and backs placed directly on a low platform. The conventional character of the seats look as though they once had legs now removed. The platform upon which the seats reside also serves as a display area for Asian antiques. Hanging bamboo blinds and a light warm brown with black accents evoke a harmonious associated with an Asian aesthetic.12

This study suggests that the appearance of an Asian Living Floor in contemporary Korean, European and American urban luxury apartments means that it has been adapted for an international audience, one whose life style necessitates flexibility and open space planning.13

end notes

  1. 1) Michael Freeman, Sian Evans and Mimi Lipton, In the Oriental Style: A Sourcebook of Decoration and Design (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 62.
  2. 2) Sang Hun Choi, Interior Space and Furniture of Joseon Upper-Class Houses (Seoul, Korea: Ewha Womans University Press, 2007), 15, 41.
  3. 3) Choi, Jae-Soon et al., Hanoak: Traditional Korean Homes (Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym, 1999), 179.
  4. 4) Choi, Interior Space and Furniture of Joseon, 41.
  5. 5) Choi, Jae-Soon, Hanoak, 179.
  6. 6) Choi, Interior Space and Furniture of Joseon, 90-91.
  7. 7) Freeman, In the Oriental Style, 143.
  8. 8) Sung-a Byun, “River Way,” Interiors Korea, no. 202 (July 2003): n.p.
  9. 9) “A-Project,” Interiors Korea, no. 240 (Sept. 2006): 144 -149.
  10. 10) “Converted Stable,” Interior Design 47, no.2 (Feb. 1961): 124-125.
  11. 11) CKH, “Opting for the Unconventional Interior” Architectural Record 167, no.11 (Nov. 1979): 127-130.
  12. 12) Freeman, In the Oriental Style, 206-207.
  13. 13) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of Living Floor in luxury apartments was developed from the following sources: 1880 Wunhyyon Palace [c1880] Seoul in Choi, Jae-Soon et al, Hanoak: Traditional Korean Homes (Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym, 1999), 155 / 1960 Guest Bedroom, Greenwich Village Apartment [1961] Jerald Intrator, Interior Design; New York City in Anonymous, "Converted Stable" Interior Design 47, no.2 (Feb. 1961): 124-125; PhotoCrd: Lisanti; Ambassador West Hotel Penthouse [1962] J. Neil Stevens, Interior Design, NSID; Chicago in Anonymous, "Mood Oriental," Interior Design 33, no.8 (Aug. 1962): 109; PhotoCrd: Marshall Berman, Jr. / 1970 Brian Thompson Apartment [1979] Ron Doud and Lisa Elfenbein, Ron Doud Inc.; New York City in CKH," Opting for the Unconventional Interior," Architectural Record 167, no.11 (Nov. 1979): 127; PhotoCrd: Anonymous / 1990 Private Apartment [c1990] Paris in Michael Freeman, In the Oriental Style: A Sourcebook of Decoration and Design (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 205; PhotoCrd: Pascal Hinous / 2000 River Way Apartment [c2003] Si-young Choi/Axis; Seoul, Korea in Sung-a Byun, "River Way'" Interiors Korea no. 202 (July 2003): n.p.; Private Apartment [c2006] E-wha Yu/ ITM I & A; Seoul, Korea in "A-Project," Interiors Korea no. 240 (Sept. 2006): 144 -49.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) Kim, Najung.“Theory Studies: Archetypical Practices of Contemporary Luxury Apartment Design.” M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2009, 71-81.