Posted : 2009-08-05 16:38
Updated : 2009-08-05 16:38

Rediscovering Nacre Lacquerware

Kim Sun-kap, nacre lacquerware artisan, talks to The Korea Times Tuesday at Shilla Hotel in Seoul.
/ Korea Times photo by
Shim Hyun-chul
By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

Lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl, known as ``najeonchilgi,'' has long been regarded as a luxurious item symbolizing wealth and nobility both in the past and present.

``Najeon'' means mother-of-pearl, and ``chilgi'' refers to lacquerware. ``Najeonchilgi'' was synonymous with wealth until the 1970s-80s. But since then, it has quickly declined as a thing of the past, as lifestyles have changed from the traditional to the Western style.

``The Korean nacre lacquerware craft is in the doldrums as it has failed to adapt itself to the new environment and social needs. Without following the change of the times, we have repeated old techniques. That's why nacre lacquerware has lagged behind,'' Kim Sun-kap, a nacre lacquerware artisan, said in an interview with The Korea Times.

Nacre-inlaid lacquerware peaked during the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392). Goryeo ware features sparkling colors, their surfaces densely adorned with tiny, floral shapes made of sea turtle shell and mother-of-pearl. The patterns of ``najeonchilgi'' began to change as the brilliant Buddhist culture during the Goryeo period gave way to the temperate Confucian culture of the Joseon period (1392-1910).

Kim said that although there had been a great change in lifestyle from Goryeo to Joseon, Koreans' ancestors successfully passed down the traditional crafts to successive generations by reinventing the new styles and patterns.

``Currently, nacre-inlaid lacquerware needs new inspirations and styles adjusting to the modern environment. We artisans should make new attempts to renovate our traditional artwork,'' he said.

The craftsman is taking part in the ongoing exhibition titled ``Korea Nacre Exhibition of 19th century to 21st century,'' organized by Sohn Hye-won, head of the brand consulting company Crosspoint, which will run through Aug. 7 at the Emerald Hall of The Shilla Hotel in Seoul.

The exhibition presents some 200 pieces of nacre lacquerware cabinets, dressing tables, stationery chests, rectangle tables, tea and dining tables including Sohn's private collection, and cultural assets, as well as modern works by the nation's masters such as Song Bang-woong, Jeung Myung-chae, Sohn Dae-hyun, Lee Hyung-man, Han Sang-soo, Choi Jong-gwan and Kim Sun-kap.

``The exhibition offers a good opportunity for us to look back to our past practices and reinvent our traditional skills to create modern works. The exhibition is the first of its kind to shed light on not only the old cultural assets but also modern artwork,'' said Kim.

He said that during the 1960s-70s, nacre inlaid lacquerware furniture such as cabinets, dressing tables, stationery chests, and tables were popular as essential furniture for newlyweds. But such daily-use items have been pushed aside now for several decades. Even worse, from 1950 to 1970s, cheap versions of nacre-inlaid lacquerware were made available, using a substitute lacquer painting called ``cashew.''

``Historically, lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl was one of the most sought-after items as part of the noble and high-end culture among wealthy families. They are works of art, not just simple furniture. But so many cheap products using chemical paints downgrade the overall quality of the crafts,'' he said.

To make a piece of the ware requires the three basic materials ― mother-of-pearl (or seashells), lacquer and wood. The process involves approximately 45 time-consuming stages, the first of which is to make a basic frame using various woods. Once the frame is finely polished, then it can be coated evenly with ``saengot,'' or fresh lacquer. Then lacquer paste, or ``chiljuk,'' has to be applied to any corners or cracks. The surface of the object is then covered with a hemp cloth, which is also lacquered on. Then the process of drying and coating is repeated before the inlaying of the mother-of-pearl designs begins. The last step is grinding, lacquering and polishing over and over again.

Kim emphasized that no paint can replace lacquer, which is resistant to heat, acid and humidity and thus lasts for thousands of years. ``The ware coated with other chemical paints is not traditional. Lacquer is very nature-friendly and good for human health,'' he said.

However, he insisted that while keeping the basic traditional principles, new and creative ideas are necessary in shaping the designs and patterns and diversifying the uses of the ware.

In the exhibition, visitors can see aluminum lacquer tables decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl for the first time. ``It's very innovative. The aluminum can successfully replace wood, which warps over time. The lacquer can be coated on any kind of material. Given its durability and strength, the aluminum nacre lacquerware is a successful attempt to follow modern trends,'' he said.

In the exhibition, Kim's works are marked by pictorial patterns. ``I just wanted to make the works appealing to people all over the world. So I learned Western painting as well as the Korean traditional black-and-white drawing and folk painting to curry favor with various customers,'' he said.

Kim, who has spent 42 years making the ware, said that through the exhibition, many people will become interested in nacre lacquerware.

Sohn, CEO of Crosspoint, who over the last 20 years has created numerous hit brands such as Tromm, Hillstate, Chamisul and Cheoumcheorum, began collecting nacre lacquerware three years ago.

Now, she owns more than 200 pieces of the lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl. ``I just want to promote our excellent traditional crafts to the world as the high-end Korean brand. It was a pity to see that Korean people don't pay attention to our precious artwork. So I am trying to make them aware of the beauty of them,'' said Sohn.

She said that she will hold an exhibition every year and is planning to present other innovative items next year.

``I will bring modernized nacre lacquerware to world furniture expos next year. I think we have our strong competitive edge and it will work,'' she said.
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