.These versatile tables, once such an integral aspect of everyday Korean life, have been struggling to survive the changing times. But one artisan continues to work on their production, even as he ponders the ultimate fate of the soban tradition. Lee In-se (b. 1928), a master in the craft of making soban, for which he has been designated Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 99, exemplifies the underlying spirit of traditional Korea.
.Rooted in Tradition
.In the traditional Korean home, rather than using chairs, people would sit directly on the floor, which often were heated by an ondol system of under-floor flues. Accordingly, the soban was an essential household item, since the food cooked in the kitchen would be carried on these tray-tables to the living quarters, where the meal was eaten while sitting on the floor. In addition to fulfilling this need, the soban was also used for serving snacks and as a desk.
.The earliest evidence of soban can be found in the wall murals of tombs dating from the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668). The mural of Gakjeochong (Tomb of the Wrestlers) depicts various items within a home, while a Muyongchong (Tomb of the Dancers) rendering shows a seated government official and Buddhist monk being served food on small tables.
.During the Unified Silla (676-935), Goryeo (918-1392), and Joseon (1392-1910) periods, the government retained state-sponsored soban craftsmen who were dedicated to the production and supply of the tables. As Confucianism called for segregation by gender, age, and social status, during the Joseon Dynasty it was the custom for people to be served and eat from individual soban. Therefore, it was necessary for the table to be compact in size―usually no more than 50 centimeters in length, 30 centimeters in width, and 30 centimeters in height―so that it could be easily handled.
.The soban still around today are generally based on late Joseon styles, including examples that have been named after their region of origin, such as Haejuban, Tongyeongban, and Najuban. There are also types named for the shape of their legs, such as Gujokban for its “dog legs,” and Hojokban for its “tiger legs.” Soban are also categorized by their configuration, including circular, rectangular, and polygonal shapes.
.Under the 1894 Gabo Reforms, which led to Korea’s modernization of its political, economic, and social systems, tables with folding legs became widely available. With the introduction of Western-style influences, including furniture, Koreans began to sit in chairs and eat at dining tables, causing soban to steadily fall into disuse. Nevertheless, the art of making soban has been kept alive by a handful of devoted craftsmen.
.For the past 60 years, Lee In-se has been wholly dedicated to the making of soban. These tradition-rich tables are so intertwined with his life that it is difficult to make out a distinction between the workshop and living quarters of his home. After entering Lee’s front gate, there are all kinds of wood pieces stacked high in piles. Past the wood stacks is a work area with woodworking tools scattered about, such as various planes. Beyond this is a room where the tables are finished with lacquer, whose smell permeates the air. Finally, at the back of the house is a humble room that Lee and his wife use for their living quarters. For Lee, every day of his life is another opportunity to pursue his lifetime passion: the masterful creation of stylish soban.
.“You have to start making these tables with knowledge of the tradition. My father had a soban shop, so I started helping out when I was in my teens. I didn’t really know what I was doing then. It was only when I was in my 50s that I began to understand the tradition. Even making a simple pattern is different when you have learned a lot about things from past experience and when you don’t really know what you’re doing. Knowing what you’re doing gives you the freedom not to just copy the original but to develop new patterns,” Lee says.
.Lee’s interest in soban naturally developed at the age of 16 when he started helping out at his father’s table shop in Anseong, Gyeonggi-do Province. In the meantime, he took art lessons from Kim Eun-ho (1892-1979), a distinguished artist who was well- known for his paintings of landscapes, scenes of nature, and portraits. These lessons later proved invaluable when Lee needed to create designs for openwork carving of the side panels of Haejuban tables. Lee dabbled in other jobs, like working in a tire factory and for a railroad agency, but he invariably returned to making soban. He eventually made a commitment to the craft when he returned to Seoul, while in his 20s, and thereafter has channeled his energy into the design of decorative patterns.
.Harmony of the Whole
.Although he makes various types of soban, Lee’s favorite is undoubtedly the Haejuban style. Unlike most tables, rather than being supported by legs, they instead use wooden side panels, onto which a variety of decorative patterns can be carved. By carving unique designs onto the side panels, the soban becomes an elegant work of art.
.To make Haejuban, the first step is to select good-quality wood. Wood with a uniform grain, such as zelkova or senwood, is suited for the top of the table, while gingko wood, with a fine grain that makes it easy to work with, is ideal for the side panels and the decorative carvings.
.“The wood should be from a tree that is from a humid area and has a fine grain. The wood has to be dried, and the longer it’s dried, the better―usually from five to ten years. I have some wood in my workshop that’s been drying for nearly twenty years,” Lee noted.
.“After the wood has dried, I cut it into a shape with a proportion of four to three, length to width. Then with a plane I shave off seven millimeters to make a main piece for the top of the table, and then carve the corners, either angled or straight. When the top is finished, I work on the sides. I draw a design on the wood and then carve it out with a jigsaw.
.“The pattern is important. I take traditional auspicious designs, like the man character (Π£, a good luck symbol), bats, and scrolls, and use them in combination to develop new designs. For example, I join several of the man symbols together in an unusual way, or I add scroll designs to the symbols of longevity and happiness.”
.Lee creates the patterns, taking into account the design, proportion, and composition of the side panels. His single-minded dedication, not just as a technician but as an artist as well, results in tables with elaborate and graceful details. When the sides are finished, Lee makes the brackets to support the table top on the legs. He assembles the table top, sides, and brackets, and then the legs. The assembled table, known as baekgol, is finished with several coats of lacquer, applied over a period of several months.
.Faith in Tradition
.For Lee, who turns 80 this year, his consummate craftsmanship has been recognized on numerous occasions. Since 1980, he has received all sorts of awards at national exhibitions of traditional handicrafts, while in 1990 he earned the Prime Minister’s Award for a red-lacquer circular soban.
.But what gives him even more satisfaction than these awards is when people hear about his tables by word-of-mouth and come by his place to purchase them. He is particularly grateful to Japanese visitors who come to Korea and then make their way to his hilltop workshop in Sanggye-dong.
.“I’ve been making soban all my life. I tried other work but in the end I came back to this. And I’ll keep on with this. What I want to make is a table inlaid with mother-of-pearl.” The years of hard work have taken a toll on Lee, as evidenced by his bent-over back, but he is energized by his keen desire to create another exquisite work and an unshakeable faith in the tradition of his chosen craft.