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The sticky craft of lacquerware: Korean crafts at Collect 2013

A variety of Rhus tree (source - Manfred Heyde / Wikimedia)
A variety of Rhus tree (source – Manfred Heyde / Wikimedia)

In our back garden we used to have some Rhus trees. Their leaves go a beautiful red colour in autumn, and their small scale fits well with the shrubs around them. But they’re a bit floppy and every now and then we had to lop a bough off, or even cut one down completely. And when we did, we had to be careful of the white sap which oozes out from the bark: it gives you a nasty rash.

Chung Hae-cho
Chung Hae-cho with a small piece of Rhus verniciflua, and one of his vases

Had I known what I know now, I would have treated them with more respect. For that white sap is the raw material for one of North East Asia’s traditional crafts: lacquerware. Rhus verniciflua, also known as Toxicodendron vernicifluum (which roughly translates as “varnish-sapped poison-tree”) is the official name for the tree known in Korea as the Ott (옻나무); and Ottchil (옻칠) is the name for the lacquer itself.

KCDF stall
The Korea Craft and Design Foundation room at Collect 2013

Korea’s master ottchil craftsman Chung Hae-cho (정해조), gave a brief talk on his art at the Saatchi Gallery in front of a selection of his work as part of Collect 2013. We discovered the laborious and time-consuming process for creating these works. When collecting sap from the tree, four days has to be allowed in between cuts in the bark to allow the tree to recover and the sap to gather again. The nasty goo is soaked into ramie and hemp and left to dry – the shape is given by wrapping the cloths around a plaster or styrofoam mould. As many as 14 layers of fabric might be involved in providing the structure for a lacquer bowl. Dies used are all natural: an iron compound gives the black colour while a stone mineral gives the red. Equally laborious is the polishing process, in which powdered deer horn is used to give the rich lustre of the finished product. Chung’s work deliberately has a wavy profile which enhances the natural glow of the lacquer – as you walk around the object you experience light and shade as the daylight dances on the curved surface, sometimes reflecting off it, sometimes seeming to be absorbed into blackness.

The collection presented at the exhibition focussed on the five traditional colours of Obangsaek – Black, Blue, Red, Yellow and White. But given the difficulty of reproducing the purity of white, Chung has green stand in for white as the fifth colour.

White in White
The White in White ceramics stall

Chung was present at the fair as part of the Korea Design Council’s stall, which also included some exquisite silver kettles from Ahn Min-sik. In the room next door there were several Korean ceramic artists represented at a stall called White on White. Meanwhile, in the project space on the top floor of the gallery there was Park Soung Chuel1 exhibiting a range of brass lamps inspired by Britain’s industrial past.

Some of Park Soung-Chuel's metal work
Some of Park Soung-Chuel’s metal work

But if Korea had around a dozen artists represented at two group exhibitions and upstairs, they should not rest on their laurels. The Japanese seemed to be far more entrenched in the fair with probably a dozen or more stalls; and the Chinese were also had a couple of stalls. But among all the competition, the Koreans could hold their own in terms of quality, and it was good to see that the V&A has given it a vote of confidence: The Victoria and Albert Museum was sufficiently impressed to purchase a set of five lacquer bowls to add to their collection.

Chung Hae-cho lacquer bowls
The five small lacquer bowls will soon be part of the V & A collection


  1. Park Soung Chuel is not a misprint. That is the way he spells his name in Roman script – see his website []

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