Introduction to Korean Furniture

Natural resources and climatic factors of Korea are responsible for the making of the Korean furniture. The four distinct seasons and the significant difference of temperature between humid summer and cold, dry winter influenced inhabitants to build two contrasting floor types into their homes; ondol floor was heated through flues under the floors of the house for the winter and raised wooden floor (maru) for the summer. These floor arrangement was closely related to the life style of sitting on the floor and provided structures of small rooms and low ceilings, necessitated by a heating system that only warmed the floor.
The social factor influencing the characteristics of Korean furniture was the separated quarters for men and women, respectively called sarang-chae and an-chae. This strict Confucian separation resulted in subtle differences in the furnishing of the two quarters; Sarang-chae was a quiet, isolated area built close to the main gate and it was in here that the master of the house received guests and conducted conversation on politics, arts, and various disciplines of learning. He read, painted, did calligraphy, composed poems, and meditated in this quarter. An-chae was built deep inside the garden and was a comfortable place for rearing children, preparing food, and conducting family life.

Characteristics of Korean furniture
1) Materials
1. Wood
Wood Colors Korean FurnitureWood Colors Korean FurnitureWood Colors Korean FurnitureWood Colors Korean FurnitureWood Colors Korean FurnitureWood Colors Korean FurnitureWood Colors Korean Furniture
The most common wood used in making furniture was pine, a large fast-growing tree found in profusion all over Korea. Another favored wood was zelkova, called elm or mountain ash, is a fine grained wood, hard and heavy. Paulownia, used in scholars' furniture and book chests, is light and soft, attaining forty feet or more in height and producing a fragrant lavender flower in the spring. Paulownia doesn't warp and resists cracking. It was darkened by being pressed with hot irons, then brushed to highlight the grain. Persimmon is a delightful wood, with patches and streaks of orange and black. Stains change the color of persimmon; some pieces are orange; in some the color varies from light brown to red. Persimmon is often used in the low document chests where the top of the piece was always visible. It was also a favored wood for ladies' furniture. Ginko and lime are warm, honey colored woods. Lime or linden was used for small bandaji-baby blanket chests. Pear is another unpatterned wood of warm color, used as veneer for the front panels of various chests. Such woods as white birch, red oak, maple, date, chestnut, walnut, and mulpurae were also used in furniture.
The selection of wood for any furniture was determined by its style. Sturdy bandaji and coin chests were made of thick pine or elm. Ladies' clothes chests were made with fruit wood panels, elm burl or persimmon. Scholars' pieces for the men's quarters were sober paulownia or elm.
Because Koreans valued nature and natural materials, furniture were constructed so that the wood itself was the most beautiful aspect of the piece. Straight lines and square shapes were considered ideal, but simple curves in the tops or bases were added lest the furniture become too severe.
2. Bamboo
Bamboo was used for wedding boxes, stacked clothes chests and other pieces for which the bamboo was halved or quartered only and used to form interlocking or diminishing square patterns. No nails were used. In the best pieces one looks long before spotting the heads of the bamboo pins used in construction. Brass ornaments were used sparingly.
3. Ox Horn
Yi dynasty craftsmen evolved and perfected the technique of covering boxes and chests with thin plates of ox horn. The horns of young oxen were soaked in water until swollen, then cut into squares and sliced so thinly as to be transparent. Folk art themes such as birds and flowers and animals symbolic of long life, dragon and deer, tigers and cranes were painted on the underside of the transparent horn, then affixed to wooden boxes or chests. The horn protected the painting and the colors appeared bright through their glossy covering. Hwagak boxes are square, rectangular, hexagonal or round, and larger chests in this material were made as well.
4. Mother-of-Pearl Inlaid Lacquerwork
Light wood which resisted warping was made into a frame and then covered with hemp cloth and pasted with crushed and powdered shells, ground ox skull or clay before the many coats of natural lacquer were applied. The lacquer was derived from the sap of trees. Mother-of-pearl was flattened with delicate hammers, then hand cut with small knives or scissors. At the end of the Yi dynasty in the 20th century, the primary designs in mother-of-pearl inlay were the ten symbols of longevity: crane, tortoise, deer, pine, and bamboo, water, sun, clouds, mountains, and bull'ocho, the magic fungus, which originated with Taoism in China and were incorporated into Korean art.

During the Joseon-Dynasty (1392-1910), lacquer was used predominantly on boxes and furniture for domestic use by the aristocracy. Chests, low tables, clothes boxes, cosmetic cases, document boxes and sewing utensils were all decorated with lacquer and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, tortoise-shell and sometimes sharkskin.

Lacquer is made from the juice of the sumac tree and it is very difficult to work with as it does not dry in a normal atmosphere, but in a special room with extremely high humidity. It also causes severe skin irritation, to which the lacquer craftsmen only eventually develops an immunity.

2) Joints
Pieces of wood joined together have been viewed for many hundreds of years as structural intercourse between male and female, yin and yang; this is reflected in the earthy and bawdy argot of Korean carpenters.
They preferred to join wooden planks and panels by tongue-in-groove techniques, piece-and protrusion-connecting, vertical edge or elevation assembly and by interweaving. Delighting in these various techniques, they rarely covered the joints, but reinforced or highlighted them with metal braces or decorations. Drawer pieces were connected and fastened with bamboo nails and the inside left free of stain or lacquer to allow the wood to breath and the bare grains to be touched.  

Joints Korean Furniture

Joints Korean Furniture Joints Korean Furniture Joints Korean Furniture
The most generally used techniques for joints were yongui (milter joints) and ssagae (finger joints). The yongui technique uses two sides or pieces cut at a 45 degree aengle. When pieced together they create a right angle shaped side but with a strong joint hidden inside. The ssagae technique calls for interlocking of the two sides like a puzzle or fingers; thus this technique is more stable than the former. Other joining techniques include mat (butt joint), tuk (lap joint), chok (mortise & tenon joint), and jangbuchok
3) Finishing
Red and black lacquer were sometimes used to finishing touches in the Yi dynasty. In the early and middle reigns of the dynasty, red lacquer was reserved for palace furniture, black for the yangban nobility. Natural and oil lacquers were also used, but the most common practice was to apply red clay, loess powder or persimmon, then wild sesame or paulownia oil. It is the regular application of sesame oil which often coats the wooden panels and tops of antique furniture. This dark surface which may sometimes obscure the wood grain is nonetheless lovely, having acquired the patina of years of hand rubbing.
4) Ornaments
1. Metal Ornament
Iron, brass and nickle or white brass were used for locks, handles, hinges, decorations and structural braces. Cut-out and etched brass fittings and locks were superbly designed and crafted for each chest or box. Locks were things of beauty quite apart from their utilitarian purpose. Silver locks inlaid with gold, black iron inlaid with silver, brass carved into the shapes of propitious animals and fish, and octagonal locks with the characters for prosperity and long life were made in various sizes. Most locks are of a padlock design to hold together two links or rings affixed to doors.
Iron decorations were used in kitchen pieces, for it was obvious that brass tarnished quickly from the carbon monoxide of the cooking fire.
2. Ornament Patterns
The multitude of designs included the animals of the zodiac cycle, the flowers which symbolized good fortune or virtuousness and animal shapes and other patterns indicative of fertility or longevity. The ornamentation adds character and flavor to each furniture, no two of which are ever identical. The roundness or sharpness of the decorations are determined by the province of origin and by the owner's taste.
3) Bases
The traditional Korean home has been heated thousands of years by channeling the heat of the kitchen fire through flues under the floors of the house. To avoid the heat of the ondol floor and to allow for ventilation, feet or stands were attached to most furniture pieces. The styles of the stands vary and these delicate legs were usually connected by a thin strip of the papered floor and lent strength to the feet. The most typical base was designed to resemble a sitting crane, ready to fly. Cranes mate for life and are therefore symbols of fidelity, honesty and good conscience. This crane symbol is often used as decorations on celadon vases. Korean Medecine Chest
Korean Chest
We think of the wardrobe as a place to hang our clothes. But it would be more accurate to speak of Korea's traditional wardrobe as a place to pile clothes. ln Korea's wardrobe the clothes are folded and stacked on top of each other. That is why, when we look inside, we sometimes feel we are looking down into the depths of a well. Indeed, when we step back and observe those clothes piled on top of each other, we are reminded of the earth's geological strata. We might equate the deepest layer, way at the bottom, with the earth's core, and the top of the stack with the earth's surface.
Each layer has its own special nature. In the summer, the layer way down at the bottom is winter clothing, but after a few months has passed, look again -now the summer clothing is buried down there. And the layers in the middle will hold clothing for the more temperate months. So the strata revolve according to the revolution of the seasons.

It is not only seasonal change that determines what is on the floor of the wardrobe. The very difficulty involved in pulling something out from way down inside there affords a place to secure the family's valuables. Embedded in the deepest fathoms of the wardrobe we will find the anchor which stabilizes and secures the family through the storms that life will now and then send its way.

That is why, though the Korean wardrobe is not all that high, its depth is an abyss. One cannot locate the valuables stored in the wardrobe simply by opening it up and looking inside. The clothing covering these valuables has to be taken out, piece by piece. The Korean wife or mother looking for some valuable can resemble some prospector digging away shovel by shovel, or the pearl diver pushing down, down and around among the coral reefs. Whether it be a worn out piece of clothing or some yellowing family photo, each item uncovered during the search receives a special greeting in the mother's smile, or in her sigh. This welcome can sometimes come close to the exclamations an archeologist will utter in the process of excavating an ancient tomb. In the depths of the wardrobe are things lost to time, forgotten in life's forced march, naturally receiving a special welcome when they surface again and beckon us to stay a bit and remember.

This stratified structure is inherent in every Korean chest no matter what kind or size of chest it is. It does not have to be a fullsized wardrobe. It may be the chest for boot socks, which looks like a child's miniature of the larger wardrobe, but has that same indeterminable depth. Whether it is a chest divided into several compartments, like the wardrobe, or of just one cavity with nothing more than its floor to serve as its one and only "shelf," any Korean chest has its layers and its bottomless bottom.

The wardrobe does not come in only one size or type. The feature which best distinguishes one wardrobe from another is the number of levels it has, and we name them accordingly. There is the two-shelf wardrobe, the three-shelf wardrobe, and so on. As the eye follows these shelves up or down, as it alights on each of the shelves and on the layers of clothing stacked on them, one begins to sense a regular rhythm there. Then again, in each wood shelf nature provides an irregular pattern in the grain of the persimmon tree or the paulownia. We can see in this regular rhythm and irregular pattern the beauty of a mosaic, and this mosaic is enhanced by the varied patterns and colors of the clothes stacked several high on each shelf.

The Korean wardrobe is a composition of a simple rhythm weaving colors and textures into a mosaic of life. Though its contents are not locked up as if in a safe, they are protected from prying hands by the wardrobe's ever revolving depths. Never locked, in its fathomless depths it nevertheless safeguards its most precious things, as does the heart of the Korean mother.


4) Regional Characteristics
The design of furniture was dictated in part by the designs and styles prevalent in the place of construction, the regional climates, and by the traditional shapes and decorations associated with usage. As people began to travel, some geographically dictated distinctions began to blur. But origin is usually identifiable by the wood work and the differences in ornamentation.

Cholla-do was a rich farming area. Here various woods were found and the furniture were of excellent quality. Persimmon was frequently used for the furniture of wealthy land owning farmers.
Kyungsang-do also produces furniture of many woods and brass ornaments of superb quality as this province too was the home of yangban families.

Chungchung-do was the seat of many aristocratic families. Dignified furniture, often made of paulownia, was produced in this area.

Kangwon-do furniture are of many stylers reflecting the influences of the other provinces. It was here that officials took refuge when dismissed from government service. Many brought their household possessions which local craftsmen would copy.

The Kyunggi area surrounds the capital, Hanyang, where furniture were made for the great palaces, for the court and the important official families attached to it. But many furniture are of pine, few other wood being readily available.

Ganghwa Island Dolmens
Ganghwa island Dolmens

Ganghwa island, where royalty fled from Seoul to escape foreign invasions, also produces exquisite furniture pieces elaborately covered with brass ornaments. The greater area of Ganghwa consisting of 29 islands in the Yellow Sea. Farming, especially ginseng and rice as well as fishing are important. The largest island was briefly the site of the Korean capital in the 13th cent. It was early fortified as an outer defence for Seoul and was stormed and occupied by the French in 1866 and by the Americans in 1871.

Farther north, in what is now North Korea, little wood other than pine covered the hills. The craftsmen used whatever was available, covering most of the surface of the furniture with metal ornaments.



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