Old bricks set new style, thanks to one woman

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Old bricks set new style, thanks to one woman

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Changdeok Palace, the Blue House’s roof gable, the gate of the National Folk Museum of Korea and the architectural firm Space’s headquarters all have one thing in common: most of the traditional tiles used for these buildings are the work of Kim Young-rim, 68, who revived the tradition of Joseon Dynasty-style tiles and bricks. The dynasty was ended in 1910 by the Japanese occupation.
Ms. Kim’s maternal family had a long tradition in ceramic ware. She has followed a similar path by building a kiln in Gwangju, Gyeonggi province.
Her passion for traditional bricks and tiles began in 1968. One day she dropped by Gyeongbok Palace and happened to witness the repair work on Geonchun Gate. She saw workers painting red bricks to look like traditional blackish-gray ones, and asked why they were painting them. One worker said , “Lady, why don’t you go home and cook rather than bothering us?” Hearing that, she burst out crying. A carpenter then came up to her and started chatting, and suggested that Ms. Kim produce traditional bricks.
For the next 15 months, she traveled around the country to meet tile makers and learn how to select soil and how to fire tiles in kilns, but she failed over and over.
However, an accidental collapse of a kiln in the rain produced a cooling effect that turned white bricks to their black color, Ms. Kim said. Following her success, the earliest bricks she produced were used in restoring an old fortress on Ganghwa Island. Her tiles and bricks have been used in other buildings including Japan’s Yakushiji Temple in Nara.
She took pride in continuing traditions, but did not make money. Making handmade bricks was costly and she did not have business skills. In 1990, Ms. Kim’s daughter and her husband began helping her. Jeong Hye-jin, her daughter, 45, learned interior design and developed designs with both modern and traditional elements while Lee sang-bae, 48, her son-in-law and a metal work engineering, worked on automation.
“I didn’t teach soil blending and firing methods to my daughter and son-in-law as they must learn from trial and error themselves,” she said. “Craftsmen in the past did not pass on secret techniques to their students. They needed to learn by themselves to make the knowledge something of their own.”
“I felt that she wasn’t kind,” Mr. Lee said. “But now I know all the process and even if all my employees quit, I can do it myself. I believe my mother-in-law wanted that.” His bricks were used in remodeling the Insa-dong streets in 2001 and Cheonggye Square.


by Shin Ye-ri

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