A primer on Joseon furniture

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A primer on Joseon furniture

During the Joseon Dynasty and in the early 1890s, owning furniture was a privilege.
Common people owned only bandaji, or a box-shaped chest, which was often used to store clothes. Furniture such as sabang takja (display chest), mungap (stationery chest) and yakjang (medicine cabinet) belonged only to aristocrats. Before industrialization, furniture was custom-made.
The most notable distinction of traditional furniture, compared with modern furniture, is the use of nail and glue. Wooden panels and frames used the tongue-and-groove method instead of nails. Because of wood’s characteristics ― it contracts in hot and dry air and swells in humid air ― glue was not used in connecting panels.
Another big difference was that different types of wood were used to make a single piece of furniture, unlike modern furniture. Most commonly, zelkova wood plates were used for a facade for furniture because its texture was considered beautiful.
Mostly for nong (detachable cabinet) and jang (cabinet), two wooden plates cut from the same piece of lumber were placed in a way so that the texture of the two plates formed symmetry. Rather than engraving panels, craftsmen tried to preserve the natural beauty of the wood.
Paulownia boards were applied to the side because they were known for good ventilation. Bamboo was used as a frame because of its durability and clean surface.
Wood was burned with hot iron to give the furniture dark colors and to highlight texture. Lacquer and yellow-earth dissolved in water were also applied to wood as coloring.
Traditional furniture pieces were largely categorized into three types by their usage: living room, bedroom and kitchen.
Jang, nong and bandaji belonged in the bedroom; mungap and sabang takja were placed in the living room. Duiju was used to store rice and other grains.
Although nong and jang were often used to store clothes, unlike jang, nong could be separated into two or three pieces and was portable. Paulownia wood or gingko wood were used for nong because they were light, which was necessary as nong was often carried on the back of a horse.
A medicine cabinet houses many drawers, where traditional oriental medicines were stored. Natural ingredients such as leaves and roots were used for a single treatment, which required large drawers.
Each drawer stored one or two types of ingredients. The drawer was sometimes used to measure the amount of ingredients. Large medicine cabinets had shutters that could be locked for securing the more powerful medicines.
Yellow brass was a main material used for making hinges, locks and handles, and the brass hinges and locks were also decorated with Buddhist images and writings that were meant to convey messages for good luck.
The keyhole was often hidden behind a round-shaped brass piece called eunhyeol. Furniture pieces such as mungap that had hidden keyholes contained important articles.
As furniture ages, its surface gets darker. To prevent insects from eating up furniture, humidity needs to be controlled or oil should be applied to the surface.
Antique furniture is priced according to its year of production, shape and rarity. Because of the nature of wood, existing antique furniture is most likely less than 200 years old.

by Limb Jae-un
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