how Chaehoon Moon is returning to tradition in a new way

By Minji Seol

An amazing array of dishes
A dish? What is a dish? Is it too ordinary an object to talk about? Is it just a round or square shape for containing food? We use dishes every day. They are not considered special objects. They aren’t there to enjoy and appreciate in term of their tremendous art and design. However, every dish has a story and especially Korean dishes. What seems merely a shallow container for food is actually a philosophy and a way of thinking and being in the world.

Many people are impressed by the bounty of small side dishes of food when they go to a Korean restaurant. Just look at the happy people below. They’ve never seen a bounty like this before. Look Tiffany, all these dishes, I feel like I’m in Seoul. A Korean traditional full-course meal called Han Jeong Sik is served with various small side dishes of food along with cooked rice. The small side dishes of food are called Ban-chan. There is no limit to the number of Ban-chan on a table; there can be only one or two or twenty or thirty. One of the most immediate ways in which we can talk about Korean food is, strangely enough, what it’s served in. The dishes are not just what holds food, but what shapes it as well. And so, Korean dish making is not just an adjunct to Korean cuisine, but part of the show and has been developing for a long time.

The new cuisine?
Unfortunately, craft skills and traditional methods of Korean cuisine are slowly disappearing and with them a special way of relating to food and dining. As South Koreans and Koreans around the world embrace our new technological age, they have lost interest in not just the outward manifestations of their culture, but the craft and design on which it is based. Many young Koreans don’t have any knowledge of Korean traditional dishes. They tend to think that traditional products are out-of-date, not trendy or hip enough. However, there are several young artists who craft dishes applying traditional skills and methods. And we’re lucky enough that their dishes are hip enough to attract young Koreans and hipsters around the world, sparking a renewed interest in tradition. One representative artist is Chaehoon Moon. She is a designer and founder of Damoon, and creates dishes with traditional Korean materials and techniques such as Yuhgee and Ott-chil.

Moon is an interesting case of the modern and the traditional and a key figure in spiriting forth a new age of Korean design. Her work is forward looking enough to catch the attention of those fully living in the 21st century, but it also fully embraces the past. So that when we look at her work we’re seeing a redeployment of tradition and a new way of thinking of the past.

Dishes of elegance and simplicity
Look at this picture (above). The design of dishes is quite simple but the effect of the dishes is not simple at all. The dishes have an aura; they look like they want to share something with us. The simple but bold lines perfectly convey appreciation and dignity of the past in an impressive way. Moon strives to take the past and give it a clear expression in the present. That’s not easy. It looks easy, but it’s not even close to easy. The simple design is not the result of simple design thoughts and processes. The famous architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, says, “less is more” which catches the complexity of minimalist design. This becomes all the more complicated in how Moon negotiates between simplicity and traditional Korean cuisine.

A cuisine connected to what it's served in
Beyond simplicity, the dishes look like they have an interesting story. Let’s talk about the bowl. As we all know, a bowls hold soup and noodles. But, can the bowl hold a wish? How about the moon? In Korean folklore or traditional culture, the full moon is revered as a sacred object. When the full moon comes up in the eastern sky, parents walk up a hill and pray for their grown children to have a better future. They want to reach out to the moon and so a traditional bowl holds not only soup and noodles but the moon and parents’ wishes as well!

Moon’s bowl resembles the full moon shining at night. The reflective golden color of Yuhgee is like moonlight. Textured and dark color of Ott-chill on the bottom of dishes is like the deep dark night. That simplicity is hard to come by. The processes needed to create these dishes are intricate, delicate, and long. And the materials need to be timeless and elegant.

Yuhgee is Korean brassware: an alloy of copper and tin. It’s a fascinating mixture in that it preserves food temperature and even detects toxic ingredients. In Yuhgee, warm food stays warm and cold stays cold. Also, the surface of Yuhgee changes to black when it detects a toxic ingredient in the food. It has been called a living dish. Historically tableware for the royal families, Yuhgee is not easy to handle. The alloy ratio between copper and tin is critical: 78 percent copper and 22 percent tin.

A dish that can catch nature
Another critical material is lacquer. The technique to apply lacquer on various materials such as metal, wood, porcelain, and paper is called Ott-chil. It is the sap from lacquer trees in Korea. Koreans have appreciated the technique due to its great benefits: it’s a natural preservative, as well as water and heat resistance. However, even though Ott-chil and Yuhgee have great advantages, their use has declined in Korean culture because of the upfront costs.

Clearly Moon wants to honor the past and move into the future. The modern and hip style of the dishes is trendy enough to get young Koreans and hipsters from around the world to want them. But her sense of tradition and elegance speaks to a deeper sense of food and our relation to it. We should all eat with such refinement.

©Minji Seol and the CCA Arts Review

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