|The grain of wood, in trees several hundred years old, contains meditations
and songs that it has obtained from its close relationships with sunlight, earth,
wind and rain. A tree that has grown tall by absorbing water and nutrients during
its long lifetime, and by having deep conversations with the sun and the wind,
possesses within it the mystery of the earth drawn from its roots, as well as the
numerous stories of sunlight, moonlight and insects extracted from its leaves.
A tree is destined to fall, but its thoughts and feelings survive for eternity within
The beauty of Korean traditional wooden furniture lies in the grain of the wood
from which it is made. For most Somokjang, or Master Carpenter specialized in
making this type of furnishings, no artificial beauty can exceed the loveliness of
what is natural. Thus, Somokjang place the highest value on revealing the natural
beauty of the wood throughout the entire process of creating a work. They prefer
highlighting the material’s natural patterns and forms, rather than adding artificial
ornaments or colors. They shun metal nails because these ‘alien’ objects can
damage the wood's beauty borne from the landscape, and instead, fit the parts of
the work together by making grooves and holes. The result of such meticulous
methods is a fine piece of furniture, in which the dynamic, elegant lines and forms
of nature are kept intact. Korean traditional furniture possesses its creator’s revered
love of nature, interwoven with its exquisitely refined grace.
Because of its wonderful charm, Korean traditional wooden furniture is often
compared with white porcelain of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The furnishings'
quest for natural beauty within the patterns of the grain, and the white porcelain's
search for unpretentious delight within the purity of earth, can be regarded as the
two greatest symbols of traditional Korean crafts. This wooden furniture is highly praised even today, not only for
its demure embodiment of nature's delicateness, but also the fine, delightful beauty of proportion created by the
simple lines and symmetrical division of its facing panels, its practicality resulting from its solid form perfectly
crafted with finely carved joints, and its versatility that makes it well suited to any home's interior design. Because
of these unique qualities, Korea's traditional furniture has been collected by many connoisseurs in North America
and Europe. Although these furnishings are widely loved by overseas collectors, they are, unfortunately, often
thought to be Chinese.
One distinctive feature of traditional Korean furniture
is that it is built low to the ground to fit inside Korean
homes, which are characterized by relatively low
ceilings and ondol floors. This makes a rather distinguishing
contrast to Chinese and European furniture,
which is usually heavier and taller to be suited to those
houses, which have large rooms and high ceilings.
The sunken height and modest structure of Korean
furniture often creates perfect harmony with the room
in which it is placed, with the other household objects
and even the walls left unadorned. The room that best
exemplifies the aesthetic excellence of Korean traditional
furniture is perhaps the calm, peaceful interior of
a sarangbang, a room used for both reading and
reception for the Joseon Dynasty literati.
A sequence of square and rectangular forms arranged on the front side of a piece of wooden
furniture displays the beauty of magnificent proportion. In these furnishings, metal hinges play
two important roles: firstly, as ornaments; and secondly, as their original function of joining two
parts, thereby contributing to the artistic value of harmonizing with the natural patterns of the wood.
The decorative motifs on the hinges or on the wooden surface of the furniture are usually figures
symbolizing peace and fortune within the family in folk beliefs. The finishing touches on the
surface are given by applying camellia or walnut oil to highlight the natural loveliness of the
grain. Such treatment increases the pure beauty of the wood and the
piece as a whole as time goes by.
There is a man who has devoted all his energy to keep the
unique tradition of Korean furniture alive for the last 60 years. His
name is Seol Seok-cheol, the only craftsperson designated as a
Master Carpenter by the Korean government.
View the master's works