Beige soban by Yang Byeong-yong, placed at the center of the stand

Modern Soban by Wood Craftsman Yang Byeong-yong
Soban, traditional portable dining tables made of wood, are now craft items symbolizing the sedentary lifestyle and Confucian table culture of the past in Korea. Wood craftsman and soban artisan Yang Byeong-yong is known for creating modern soban that still carry the simple, yet sophisticated charm of their traditional counterparts, by upcycling centuries-old techniques.
According to Yang, he realized that he would be working with wood for the rest of his life when he was 19 years old. “When asked about how I became a woodworker, I always answer with stories from my childhood. I still have vivid memories of playing and running around in the mountains. The texture of bark, its smell, the rustling of leaves, and how my older brother and I used to cut alders for firewood. I have been fascinated by trees, possibly because of these memories. When I took a carpentry class for the first time in high school, I knew that I would be a carpenter by trade.” Not particularly skilled at handling wood and being a self-proclaimed “slow” learner, he began training in carpentry just for his love of trees. In 2015, his joint soban creation with contemporary architect Daniel Libeskind received favorable comments at Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne held in France. Just two months ago, he featured his works at an art fair in Kanazawa, Japan. A firm belief that he will succeed one day, albeit slowly, and the enthusiasm toward woodwork and soban have led him to be one of the leading soban artisans of today.

Yang Byeong-yong at Bangim Craft showroom

Furniture Closest to Everyday Life, Soban
Soban are traditional handicrafts representing the sedentary culture of Korea. There are over 60 kinds of soban, according to their origin, shape, and usage. For example, Tongyeongban and Najuban have a distinct local color. Soban are categorized into polygonal, such as octagonal and dodecagonal, or circular. The shape of their legs also determines the name. Gujokban takes the design from a dog’s legs, Hojokban a tiger’s legs, and Majokban a horse’s legs. Soban used to be small, yet important pieces of furniture close to the daily life of our ancestors. They served as a tray moving the cooked food from the kitchen to the room and as a dining table suitable for sitting on the floor. During the Joseon era, a household would keep several soban for use, due to the Confucian idea that meals should be served separately for different genders, age groups, and classes. With the spread of Western lifestyle, however, soban are no longer needed by modern households.
Today, soban seem to have lost their original purpose and usage. Yet, Yang hasn’t stopped creating soban that could go well with the space of modern households. He seeks to carve soban that are beautiful in themselves and practical as well serving as a tea or dining table for an individual. His soban are known for their simple shapes. They have a natural elegance, having no gaudy decorations, oversized bodies, or heavy lacquer coats. He’s adopted the traditional design and modernized it, but still kept the warmth and coziness that can be achieved only through traditional handiwork. His works also catch the eye with their sturdiness, smoothness, and sense of balance that are unique to high-quality timber. A piece of soban that anyone would crave is what Yang makes.
Yang runs a studio-cum-showroom called “Bangim Craft” in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. “Bangim” means welcoming in Korean, which often entails serving food or refreshments on soban. It’s a space where the artisan features soban that mingle well with the modern life. Not only soban, but white porcelain tea cups fill the space decorated by Yang’s wife to give a well-organized, sophisticated feeling.  We sat with soban artisan Yang Byeong-yong standing at the crossroad between the past and present, in his Paju showroom. Thanks to the wide windows letting in all the sunlight, the space was bright, quiet, and cozy.

“I focus on giving it a more personal touch and making it sturdy. For that, I carve and plane hundreds of times.”
Yang Byeong-yong, wood artisan
Q. What drew you to traditional soban among various types of wood furniture?
A. Initially it was the woodturning process I became enamored with. Going through books and actual materials to learn the technique of woodturning, I was fascinated by Wonban, a circular table also known as maksoban. From then on, I have been enthusiastic about soban.

Q. What’s the process of making soban?
A. The initial steps involve drying and cutting a tree. Then it’s time for planing and carving. After assembling the tray and the legs, the product is finally coated with lacquer.

Q. Is there a part that you take extra caution in making soban?
A. I focus on giving the product a more personal touch and making it sturdy. For that, I carve and plane hundreds of times. I avoid sanding in order to leave the maker’s touch as much as possible. That’s what I’ve found most intriguing in traditional craftwork. A lot of artisans choose to do sanding at the end to have a smooth surface. What most people don’t see is that a truly polished craft item tends to have carving or planing finishes, if necessary. From a distance, such products give a sense of balanced beauty. Up close, they are still natural because of candid human touches. Even the sharp edges were made blunt through careful carving. It came as a big shock to me, in the beginning. We are generally taught to always aim for the perfect symmetry and be more sophisticated. Old crafts are exceptions. So when I carve, I do it freely in a relaxed manner. Those are the kinds of sentiments I want to find in handicrafts. That way, the trace, touch, and color of the maker are left in them.
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White porcelain tea cups, displayed alongside soban at Bangim Craft showroom

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Soban tray and wonban by Yang Byeong-yong, serving tea and snacks

Q. Your soban are traditional, yet modern. It seems like you have a designer’s ego. (smile)
A. I think the basics of design are in trying to adapt to the environment of the age we’re living in. It seems impractical to adhere to the crudeness of the old days when the life in the contemporary era is simple and light. Look at this mobile phone. Simple, slim, and light. You can’t force the unsophisticated things from the past on the people who carry around something like this everyday. Artisans must adapt themselves to the time to a certain extent, to understand what people find beautiful, why they prefer it, and where that leads them in their future paths. Sometimes a gadget teaches a lesson.

Q. Your soban vary slightly in sizes and colors.
A. I find it more difficult to make identical ones repeatedly. (smile) When I see a tree, I immediately think it would be good for a certain size of soban. See these cut trees. They are all different in sizes. Unless there’s a special event going on, I go ahead and start making soban even if all 10 pieces of timber have varying sizes. I would actually want different shapes of wood even when the sizes are all the same, so that I can add more personal touches to the works.

Q. You can naturally picture what soban you’ll make when you see a tree?
A. That’s right. I try to associate the characteristics and grain of the tree with what I’ll make. In making soban, the characteristics of the original timber are often preserved. Then I quickly imagine a 3D sample in my head. If I’m satisfied with it, I leave a mark on the material. I usually don’t sketch, but if there’s something I want to express in detail, I draw or make a note on the wood.
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Soban hung on the wall, appearing to be artistic objets of their own

Q. Do you think about the usage of soban?
A. I don’t think it’s up to me to decide where to put them or who would use them. That said, I do consider that aspect when I make soban. I think about what people would feel when they use my products and keep questioning myself. As a matter of fact, I wish my soban would be perceived as handmade items in the house instead of being known as artisanal works. I guess I want to become an artisan who is like a father figure. (smile) Maybe that’s why I pay attention to leaving my own touches on my creations.

Q. How do you use soban in your daily life?
A. There is a big dodecagonal Gujokban and a small Wonban in my living room. I also have a rectangular Gujokban in my bedroom functioning as a side table. 

Q. There are so many kinds of soban according to their origins and shapes. What are your favorite kinds of soban?
A. I like Gangwonban and Najuban for their simplicity, and Majokban, which I personally believe is the most gorgeous yet understated type of soban. I also like Wonban which can be created using just the woodturning method from start to finish.

Q. The curvy legs of Majokban are beyond description.
A. I agree. Majokban combines Hojokban and Gujokban. Gujokban is beautiful in itself, and the shape of Hojokban adds character. So Majokban has advantages of both designs and is technically more advanced. That’s why I think of Majokban as being at the pinnacle of soban design. There are many Hojokban and Gujokban left in the country but fewer than five Majokban remain in Korea.

Q. You often participate in overseas exhibitions. How does the international community view soban?
A. Those who haven’t experienced our sedentary lifestyle find soban somewhat unfamiliar, but because of similarities in everyday life, they would merely repurpose them. I think they draw foreigners’ attention with  their refined beauty that is uniquely Korean.
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The showroom at Bangim Craft is decorated with plants and tea cups.

“You can’t just keep wondering, “Why is that one beautiful?” When you use your hands continuously and repeatedly, you get a better end result. Beautiful labor leads to great products.”
Yang Byeong-yong, wood artisan
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Well-lit showroom at Bangim Craft

Q. This is your showroom and studio. When do you work on your projects, normally?
A. My work pattern keeps changing. Sometimes I wake up early in the morning. Sometimes I work late into the night. When I’ve got work to do, I don’t take my hands off the wood. If you only try to make something fancy, there would be no progress. Beautiful labor leads to great products. I’m certain of it. That’s why one has to continue trying. You are not going to produce high-quality soban if you just look at such products. You can’t just keep wondering, “Why is that one beautiful?” When you use your hands continuously and repeatedly, you get a better end result. A fine piece of soban can be made when your tools and skills improve together. It means you have to train your thoughts and hands together.

Q. It’s interesting that you used the term “labor.”
A. What our ancestors used to do can be called noble labor. They climbed the mountains to find timber, and came down carrying the heavy load. To them, it wasn’t intolerable labor. It was part of the process of making things. I’ve been working in this line of trade for almost 30 years now since starting carpentry at age 19. I’ve never found the work tiring.

Q. What kind of a future project do you have in mind?
A. There is this one type of soban that many people are anticipating but hasn’t been made. I’m going to work on that soban design. It’s what I’ve been envisioning as well. It will be a bit more modern design but won’t deviate from the traditional soban design in its size or shape. In addition, there’s this technique used by our ancestors that I haven’t mastered yet. I hope a couple of years’ efforts can get me there. I want to work on that.

Q. You seem to have it all planned out, thinking of what you will be capable of or making in a few years.
A. That’s true. (smile) I had waited 10 years before I could make my first Majokban legs. After cutting the wood for the legs in 2002, I stopped, thinking I couldn’t. Since then, I saw a lot, learned a lot, and tried cutting again years later. Finally in 2012, I was able to feature my own Majokban at Choeunsook Art & Lifestyle Gallery.


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Majok Hwahyeongban





Q. What gives you assurance regarding continuous efforts?
A. I’m somewhat slow in learning. Even if you’re slow, that does not make it okay to just wait. You have to keep trying. It won’t happen in a day but will be enough to make it happen some day. I mastered woodturning on my own in three years. For some, it would have been a year-long training. For me, it was a three-year-long endeavor. A decade of working in this job has given me a sense of relief that I am now a skilled person. (smile) The artistry that has 100, 200, or even more years in its history cannot be mastered in a month. If you want to even skim the surface of it though, you have to keep digging. You repeatedly make mistakes but time passes and there will come a point where you think “Maybe in a few years?” It’s only your expectation. I don’t take it lightly.

Q. It makes me look back on my life attitude.
A. I feel the passing of time when I check my wood inventory. I would see the ones I’ve put away after the first work session and find markings such as “2014.” That happens. Time flies even when you do nothing. What I’m trying to say is that my seemingly inconsequential efforts will eventually be worth something later on.

Q. I’m suddenly curious about how satisfied you are with your soban creations.
A. About 90 percent. (smile) Whenever I make soban, I hope whoever gets them would find good use for them and even find pleasure using them. I guess my customers would be happy to know that I had this kind of attitude. I think making a craft item requires sentiments. Of course there are other craftsmen who are more skilled than I am, but I’m sure I have a competitive edge when it comes to genuinely liking woodwork and soban.

Q. You seem to have fun making soban, Mr. Yang.
A. That’s the only way to assure the happiness of the users, I believe.
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View of Bangim Craft showroom

Bangim Craft
74-29 Dolgoji-gil, Paju-si, Gyeonggi Province
Phone +82-31-944-0776
November 2019 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Photographer:Ahn Garam

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  • Editor: Kim Hyewon
  • Photographer: Ahn Garam
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