This brief history of traditional Korean furniture aims to address common questions about its origins and the limited availability of antique pieces in the market.
Feature photo at the top of this post: A painting by Shin Yun-bok, who was born around 1758 and passed away after 1813. He was a Korean painter known by the pseudonym Hyewon, with the courtesy first name Ipbu. Like his colleagues Danwon and Geungjae, he is renowned for his depictions of everyday life.
The history of Korea is relatively unknown in the Western world, primarily because Korea remained isolated from the outside world for an extended period of time. Korea was known as the “Hermit Kingdom”.
During the 500 years Joseon Dynasty ( 1392–1897 ), there was little exchange with the outside world. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the first missions reached its shores.
It is, therefore, easy to understand why traditional Korean furniture, in particular, became “popular” only much later, certainly long after Chinese or Japanese furniture.
The current examination of traditional Korean furniture does not solely focus on the final years of the Joseon dynasty. However, it is indeed challenging to find information and furniture from before the 19th century.
Korea, as we recognize it today, is divided into two at the 38th parallel. Nevertheless, in this study, we portray it as a unified entity, as it was during the Joseon dynasty with its eight provinces.
KOREAN DURING THE JOSEON DYNASTY.
THE EARLY YEARS.
The mural paintings on the tombs walls of the Goguryeo Kingdom ( 37 BC – 668 AD ) such as Ssangyeongchong, Muyongchong, Sashinchong, and Gakjeochong aid us in deducing the living conditions of those times, as they depict wooden benches, chairs, and tables.
In Korea, abundant wood resources have been available for a long time, as large parts of its territory are covered by wooded mountain areas. People have traditionally built wooden houses to live in and used wood to make their utensils and work tools.
According to “Sinjeung-Dongguk-Yeojiseungram,” a geography book compiled in 1530, there were stores that sold a variety of wooden products, including boxes, windows, chests, wardrobes, and paper cabinets.
HANOK – INSIDE THE KOREAN HOUSE.
During the Joseon dynasty, the residential space in the Hanok (Traditional House) was divided in accordance with Neo-Confucian ideas. According to its principles, the genders (male and female) lived separately within the domestic space.
The women’s quarters were called “anch’ae“, and the inner room (bedroom) was called an “anbang“. Men’s quarters were referred to as “sarangch’ae“, and the main room as the “sarangbang“, which was mainly used for studying and receiving guests.
Traditional furniture was categorized based on the space in which it would be used: “anbang” furniture for the women’s quarters and “sarangbang” furniture for the men’s quarters.
The “anbang” typically housed storage furniture, such as clothing chests (Jang with different levels). These chests were often elaborately decorated with favored colors and attractive metalwork plates. In contrast, furniture from the “sarangbang” was more restrained, with less decoration to showcase the wood’s natural grain. The colors were darker.
The study of the origins of traditional Korean furniture is challenging due to the lack of adequate documentation.
Before the 19th century, paintings provide some insight into the lifestyle of Koreans during the Joseon Dynasty. Starting in the mid-19th century, photographs taken by explorers and early missions become particularly valuable for the same reasons. Here are some illustrations from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.
The earliest paintings with Korean furniture we found were done by Shin Yun-bok, better known by his pen name Hyewon (1758–1813), was a Korean painter of the Joseon dynasty. Like his contemporaries Danwon and Geungjae, he is known for his realistic depictions of daily life in his time.
The photos above indicate that the small low tables called Soban (Photo on the right), the Jang or multi-storey clothes storage furniture, the rice chest (Photo on the left), existed already in the 18th century.
THE EARLY YEARS OF THE TRADE.
In “Imwon-gyeongje-ji,” published in the early 19th century, 1108 markets in the country’s eight provinces are named. Among them, 164 markets are mentioned with lists of the goods they dealt in, including more than 80 markets that carried woodenware products.
Furniture appears to have been a popular item among both foreign collectors. The “bandaji,” which had the added merit of being large and featuring ornamental elements, was one of the most sought-after pieces of furniture.
The fact that George William Gilmore illustrated one in his book “Korea from its Capital” (1892) reveals the increased demand for furniture and the emergence of ‘Cabinet Street.’ An example of a chest in his possession featured beautifully patterned wood and matching brass designs of butterflies, suggesting that foreigners preferred this type of storage furniture. The photograph of the interior of Gordon Paddock’s house, or the American Legation in Seoul, circa 1904, shows many of the curios that would have been circulated by dealers at the time.
A newspaper article in Kwŏnŏpsinmun on 16 March 1913 reported this increasing demand from Western travelers, titled “ Korean Cabinets are exported to the West “. It reads: Recently, Korean clothing cabinets have been remarkably exported to Europe and America. In the past Westerners used to buy fans, brassware, and other utensils, but recently the clothing cabinets have become very popular. They cost 14-15 wŏn and more, some reaching 100 wŏn each.
A catalog from “Taylor’s Ye Olde Curio” shop, published around 1917, allows us to explore the furniture pieces available at that time.
It is interesting to note that there are few bandaji, nong, or coin chests, but instead, small cabinets with large doors and a fairly contemporary design for the time.
This reflects that at the beginning of the 20th century, the new market in Korea, primarily intended for Westerners, played a significant role in boosting the production of furniture. Some of the designs were even modified to cater to the preferences of this new clientele.
It is now clear why so few original pieces exist today. Among the oldest, many of them available on the market were acquired during missions to Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
NOTE: These pieces serve as a good example of the furniture that was in vogue in Korea in the early 20th century when the first foreign merchants began trading. The furniture often featured numerous brass hinges. Note the construction of the back part, which typically followed a European style.
(PHOTO ABOVE): Korean cabinet Mori-Jang. around 1900.
Rectangular body on curved feet under a curved frame. At the front wing doors, five drawers in different sizes and blind cassettes. Handles in the shape of Ruyi, decorated with brass appliqués in the shape of rosettes and bats. HxWxD: 109x122x51 cm
PROVENANCE: Private collection of a shipping clerk at Nord Deutscher Lloyd, who was employed in East Asia business in Shanghai and Yokohama until 1940.
Another similar piece. early 20th century.