insight - Sim Yong-sik
Written by Nell McShane Wulfhart Photography by Gillian Gillespie
Olympic host 1988
Master craftsman Sim Yong-sik works to conserve Korea’s cultural heritage through the construction and repair of traditional wooden windows and doors.
Sim Yong-sik’s title is samokjang, meaning an artisan who makes windows, doors, and furniture. His job, though, goes beyond craftsmanship – he’s preserving the cultural heritage of Korea, one hand-carved window frame at a time.
Born in Yesan, western Korea, Sim Yong-sik became a master craftsman’s apprentice at the age of 17, working under the tutelage of Jo Chan-hyeong, one of the country’s foremost joiners. “I chose this profession because I loved the smell of wood,” he said. As a child he’d also been fascinated by the elaborately carved classical doors of nearby Sudeok Temple, legacies of another age. After ten years with Jo Chan-hyeong, he began working independently, repairing doors and windows of temples like the one from his childhood. Today, he teaches what he’s learnt to three apprentices of his own: “This work can’t be learned from school; it needs to be passed down by hand.”
Sim Yong-sik’s time is now divided between the renovation and repair of palaces, Buddhist temples, and museums, and the classes he teaches. Six-month courses are offered to those with a passion for woodworking, and the students, from beginners to advanced, come weekly to saw, sand, and carve in his workshop. For casual visitors, including tourists in Korea, Sim Yong-sik also holds half-hour classes in which participants can learn the basics of fitting together strips of wood like pieces of a puzzle.
Perhaps the detail that says the most about Sim Yong-sik is that he continues to use traditional tools for his work. Occasionally, he says, he will use a modern electric tool to cut big pieces of wood, but most of his work is performed using small implements of wood and iron that haven’t changed in centuries. “When you cook or make bread, you can use a machine, but there’s more of a human element and craftsmanship in doing things by hand,” he said. “It’s the same with woodworking.”
Sim Yong-sik has been crafting traditional windows, doors, and furniture for 40 years, although it was only recently that he moved into one of his creations. Chung Won San Bang is a hanok, an old-fashioned Korean house that Sim Yong-sik and his wife bought five years ago, renovated and turned into a home-cum-museum. In the daytime, it’s open to the public. Visitors can tour the small house’s rooms, scrutinising the meticulously fitted woodwork up close, and get to know what an authentic hanok really looks like.
The rooms of Chung Won San Bang, along with a small workshop, surround a peaceful, gravelled courtyard on three sides, while the larger workshop, where Sim Yong-sik teaches classes, sits adjacent. The smell of freshly cut wood filters into the house in summer time, and sunlight comes in through the paper-covered sliding windows. ‘Flow’ is an overused word when it comes to Asian architecture, but it’s particularly apt here. The yellow wood and soft light, along with minimal furniture, create a sense of space, which is enhanced even further when the doors separating two of the rooms are hoisted to the ceiling to rest on thin beams – a design feature created for times when the house is full, on feast days and religious holidays.
Korean pine is his material of choice. “It’s easier to handle than harder woods and it’s not too tough to cut – it has a good density. After it’s finished, it lasts for a long time. The grain of the wood is also very beautiful.” He says that in the winter the wood holds heat longer than stone.
One of the most delightful features of Chung Won San Bang is the way that Sim Yong-sik has incorporated modern conveniences into the antique design. While at first glance the rooms seem as if they haven’t changed in a hundred years, a closer look reveals the influence of the 21st century. A flat air conditioner has been set into the bedroom ceiling, a very modern kitchen hides behind the full moon-shaped door, and the bathroom wouldn’t be out of place in a high-end hotel (the electric toilet, with buttons galore, is especially high-tech). Other conveniences, more traditional, have also been integrated. The closets and cupboards are covered with paper or fabric, lending the walls an uncluttered, uniform look when they’re closed.
“The door with the small latched window in its centre was the most fun to make,” he said. “It’s convenient, because those inside can tell who’s outside without opening the door, and you can pass things through it without losing heat from inside the house.” Its appearance is also important. “The window has an octagonal shape, which in Korea traditionally means that good energy will be drawn inside. The panels at the top and bottom of the door are square, preventing bad energy from coming in. It’s one door but there’s a lot of meaning in it.”
How long things last is important to Sim Yong-sik. The hanok, while sparsely furnished, is home to several exquisite antiques. He points out the low table in the sitting room: “It’s a hundred years old, an antique, but it still feels and looks as good as anything you could buy today. I love to make things using models that have stood the test of time – things whose design hasn’t been improved upon since they were first created.”
Seoul, South Korea
The 1988 Seoul Games were the last Olympic Games for two of the world’s dominant sporting powers, the Soviet Union and East Germany, as both ceased to exist before the next Olympic Games. The Soviet Union led the medals table with 55 gold and 132 medals in total. East Germany came in second with 37 gold of their 102 medals. The host nation came in at a respectable fourth place in the medal tally.
One of Chung Won San Bang’s most noticeable features is the variety in the wooden doors that surround the inner courtyard. Sim Yong-sik created them in different styles to illustrate the range of settings in which they would have been used years ago. A few are decorated with hand-carved floral motifs – these were traditionally used only in royal palaces. The doors with geometric lattice-work would have been used mainly in government buildings and museums. The plainest doors have a simple design of strips of wood crossing each other at right angles – these were for the houses of so-called ‘ordinary’ people.
The iron door handles and hinges used throughout the hanok are made by one of Sim Yong-sik’s colleagues, a man who specialises in creating traditional fixtures, as are the paper coverings that filter the light from the windows and add privacy to the rooms.