The curvy road to Bugak Skyway from Seongbuk-dong leads to no other than a grand complex of hanok (Korean traditional house). The Korea Furniture Museum was first given public spotlight in 2010 when it hosted the special luncheon assembly of the first ladies who visited Korea for the G20 Summit.
As the name reveals, the museum holds some 2,000 pieces of Korean wood furniture collected by the founding family, forming the core content of the museum. Yet despite its name, the architecture built in traditional Korean style, is a striking feature that simply cannot be missed parallel to the furniture collection. The museum founder and director, Ms. Misook Chyung, invested fourteen years to establish a hanok compound that consists of ten new buildings with the aim of preserving Korea’s inherent architectural roots simultaneously as attempting to classify them into the realm of internationally recognized high-end contemporary architecture. The interesting feature of this compound is that each hanok was built in a different style with the aim of incorporating diversity. Therefore one is able to experience a variety of different social setting from a hanok belonging to a Korea royal palace to a nobleman’s house to a storage, and a kitchen. In this regard, the architectural feature of this museum contributes to its furniture collection almost like a gigantic piece of woodwork or even a handicraft functioning for human life.
Upon entering the gate, the visitors are ushered to Gung-chae, a palace-style building. The total floor area of this rectangular-shaped courtyard house reaches 979 m², consisting of a lobby and a banquet hall on the first floor and permanent exhibition halls in the entire first and second basement levels. The peculiar design of the building allows natural light to penetrate into the basement spaces, and the objects are displayed in a series of paper-covered rooms, looking like a show-window without glass. The museum avoided putting objects in glass vitrines in order to create the most natural settings for the furniture.
The stairway at the end of the permanent exhibition space leads to the special exhibition hall and then, the end of this space is connected to the nobleman’s house. The special exhibition hall, which is about 215 m² in size, is used for temporary exhibitions and for various other events organized by the museum. The nobleman’s house is a show case display, how each of the old furniture was actually arranged and used in a Korean household. The tour of the house offers more than just taking a peek into the lifestyle of upper-class people of the Joseon period. What we can learn is that the size and proportion of Joseon furniture are calculated in accordance with the size and proportion of windows and walls of private residences. In addition, the tendency of applying Cha-gyeoung to interior decoration played a significant role in the design and arrangement of furniture.
Joshua Park, Director of Strategic Planning and Human Resource Management, says that every single corner of the museum has a story. First of all, most of the buildings in the complex were built with recycled timbers and roof-tiles collected during the country’s modernization period. The museum director was able to acquire materials from Changgyeong Palace in the 1970s when the palace was undergoing renovation. These were used for columns and roof-tiles of Gung-chae. The museum also took over the residence of Empress Sunjeong and restored it as the nobleman’s house. Likewise, the storage building, what is now used for small events and banquets, is a restored work of the residence of Empress Myeongseong’s brother, which was originally located in Mapo, Seoul. What is noticeable here is that the museum took a progressive stand rather than a traditionalist one in reinstating the old hanoks. That is to say, they ventured to reform the defects of hanok hindering contemporary living, while preserving its unique beauty. In addition to the basic mechanical facilities for a modern building, such as electricity, air-conditioning and heating, the museum does not require the visitors to take off their shoes and sit on the floor, the manners still common in Korea. Also, although the museum consists of several independent buildings, the visitors can stay dry on rainy days since all the buildings are connected to one another with roofed corridors. This is the reason why the museum has modern feelings that clearly differentiates it from other established sites, such as old palaces and folk villages, while it also exudes an air of calm tranquility that disconnects the space from the hustle and bustle of the contemporary world.
As mentioned at the beginning, the initial collection of the museum started with sets of furniture bequeathed by director Chyung’s parents and continuously expanded afterward. Ms. Chyung was born to Dr. Yil-hyung Chyung, the politician who served as Korea’s Foreign Minister in 1960, and Dr. Tai-young Lee, the first woman lawyer and judge in Korea. Ms. Chyung, once an art student, failed to realize her dream as a painter due to her family’s opposition and became a collector instead. The Korea Furniture Museum came into being when she felt the necessity to manage her collection more systematically. Ms. Chyung is famous for looking after every nook and corner of the museum in person. The museum staff members say that “it is common here to see the director wandering around in working garments and tending the garden.” Ms. Chyung’s two sons are also working in the front lines of the museum management focusing on its program and visitor services with strong conviction that “serving people is the most valuable job.”
The Korea Furniture Museum stands unparalleled among Korean private museums in that it represents the actual living environment of the past with an insight that furniture cannot be separated from human life, rather they are the living evidence of what used to be in each period. What is also remarkable about this museum is that it endeavors to exert the same amount of effort to maintenance and management as they did when the museum was first established.
 Cha-gyeong(借景), literally meaning ‘appropriative landscape’ or ‘borrowed scenery’, refers to a design method which uses/appropriates distant scenery as a part of my own landscape by positioning the building and windows for the view.