The most unique part of traditional Korean furniture is in the grain of the wood it was made from. Korean carpenters placed great importance on maintaining the beauty of the wood throughout the process of making Korean furniture since ancient times, and rarely used binders such as metal nails to hold them together, mainly because these objects tend to damage the wood’s beauty and nature. Instead, they created natural grooves, holes or segments that can hold pieces of the furniture together snuggly, resulting in furniture arts that are elegant, beautiful and functional, and these traditional Korean furniture are often highly sought after by many collectors, especially from North America and Europe. Here, we highlight 10 of the most unique and useful traditional Korean furniture that you most probably are unaware of.
Little-Known Traditional Korean Furniture
(1) Buddhist Desk (Gyeongsang)
Initially used in temples throughout Korea for the reading of religious texts and scrolls, the Buddhist desk, or Gyeongsang, started appearing in private residences towards the later part of the Joseon dynasty, according to the literature ‘Korean Antique Furniture & Accessories’ by Mathieu Deprez. Gyeongsang are often engraved with the Buddhist swastika, ansang (elephant’s eye), or bullocho (mythical fungus, a symbol of longevity) and their legs are often carved finely, with the top panel curving up at both ends to prevent scrolls from falling off the desk.
(2) Medicine Chest (Yakjang)
Traditional Korean furniture such as medicine chests were traditionally used by doctors and pharmacists to store herbs and ingredients. Consisting of many small drawers, each storage space has, on the outside, the name of the herb or ingredient printed in Chinese or Korean. Usually, such medicine chests have little decoration or ornaments, as it’s an item of importance, especially in the more affluent Korean families who mostly have one in their home for their own medicine and herbs. On average, the Yakjang has about 60 drawers, but the bigger ones can accommodate up to 200 drawers.
(3) Formal Clothing Box (Gwanbokham)
The Gwanbokham usually comes in three-tier, and was used to store the uniform (dannyeong) and hat (samo) worn by Korean officials. The embroidered patch on the front and back of the robe indicated the rank and type of the official, and included tigers (military officials), cranes (civil officials) or dragons (royalty like kings and princes).
(4) Hat Box (Gatham/Gatjip)
Hats in Korea were symbols of status and power, and hence they play a very important part in traditional Korean society. Some lower ranks of society were forbidden from wearing certain types of hats, and there were also a huge number of hats for different occasions.
In Korea, a gatham was likely used to store only the finest hat of its yangban, or mostly civil servants and military officers, owners. There are two types of hat boxes, one is a big cylindrical or polygonal box, often octagonal, whose diameter is the same from top to bottom. The second box follows the shape of the hat, with a broad base for the rim and a smaller compartment on top for the hat’s top. Such hat boxes were often made of wood or oiled paper, and hung on the wall from the ceiling, or placed on top of a piece of furniture. Both boxes have white or gold brass fixtures and a lock.
(5) Mirror Case (Gyeongdae)
Korea’s Gyeongdae are small boxes with a mirror hinged to the top panel and when the box is closed, the mirror folds face down beneath the top panel, unseen. Drawers in front are for women to put their accessories or small jewelry. Mirror cases are lavishly adorned and decorated, often with mother-of-pearl. The Gyeongdae are often placed atop chests, or mungap.
(6) Inkstone Box (Byeorutjip/Yeonsang)
Inkstone boxes were used to store the inkstone, the ink stick, brushes and paper, though some were also designed to store only the inkstone and nothing else. Byeorutjip are just rectangular boxes with an inner tray and a top that lifts off, while yeonsang is a bit more elaborated, with a hollowed foot stand serving as a storage tray, a split or single top lid opening on a removable divided tray, and sometimes one or two drawers. Inkstone boxes often have little decoration in keeping with Confucian aesthetics, said Deprez in his book.
(7) Letter Rack (Gobi)
Gobi were used by Koreans to store letters, scrolls, calligraphy or paintings, and were hung on the wall of the master’s room. Often made of wood or bamboo, some have very simple designs, while others are intricately carved with the Buddhist swastika.
(8) Charcoal Brazier (Hwaro)
Charcoal braziers were used as an additional source of heat during the cold winter months in Korea, and also used for tasks such as heating small handheld irons and boiling water for tea. Usually made in the shape of a big bowl with a huge lip, with or without feet, these braziers were made often of iron, copper alloy, stone or silver.
(9) Paper Holder (Jitong)
Paper holders, or jitong, were made of wood, bamboo or ceramic and used to store rolls of paper. Some of them had edges that is similar to a flower petal pattern, the purpose of which is to help secure the paper rolls.
(10) Water Dropper (Yeonjeok)
Water droppers were used to add water to the inkstone on which the ink stick was ground. Water droppers were usually made of porcelain with two small holes, one for filling water and another for pouring it out. They come in various shapes and sizes, and could be round, polygonal, rectangular, or even in the shapes of animals or objects like fishes, frogs, chicken, etc.
So there you go, 10 traditional Korean furniture pieces that you probably didn’t even know existed. Do you know of any other rare, little-known Korean antique furniture? Write to us!
Water dropper. Photo: Korean Antique Furniture & Accessories’ by Mathieu Deprez