Sulwhasoo

Welcoming spring with Sulwhasoo

As they do each holiday season, Sulwhasoo released a beautiful compact featuring traditional Korean craftsmanship back in 2019. Why I'm just getting to it now is beyond me, but I did think the design was appropriate for spring so here it is.  The 2019 compact celebrates a technique known as chilbo (not to be confused with the mountain of the same name in North Korea.) Although I couldn't find nearly as much information online about chilbo as I could for their previous ipsa compacts, I thought it was still worth a brief post - sharing cultures from across the globe is one of the main reasons I established the Museum.

Sulwhasoo collaborated with master artisan Noh Yong-Sook, the only chilbo specialist to be officially recognized by the Korean government, to produce the compact.  (Yong-Sook actually wrote an entire book on chilbo, which I was unable to locate...plus it probably would have been in Korean anyway.) Chilbo is a Korean enamel technique similar to cloisonné and dates to the 18th century.  It involves applying a finely crushed (powdered) glass, either wet or dry, to a metal surface and then baking in a kiln to create a glossy and vibrantly colored finish. 

Noh Yong Sook for Sulwhasoo

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

Chilbo means "seven gemstones" or "seven treasures," referring to gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, agate and pearl. The term actually has Chinese roots: gold, silver, etc. were the seven precious gems used to adorn Buddhist altars, as mentioned in traditional Buddhist scriptures.  Sulwhasoo explains that one gemstone or metal only has one color, so a name referring to multiple hues is appropriate given that chilbo produces a variety of unique colors that cannot be created with other techniques. 

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

The end result is stunning.  A peony motif was selected for the compact's design, as peonies traditionally represent wealth in Korean culture.  Now that I think about it, the peony is also the reason I held off on posting about the compact until now, as last spring I had planned on featuring it since peonies are a spring flower but ended up writing about Sulwhasoo's Antoinette Poisson collab instead.  In any case, the color scheme is exquisite as is the embossed peony on the blush.

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

But peonies aren't the only traditional motif featured.  The company explains that the depiction of oddly shaped rocks alongside peonies signify longevity.

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

While the design on the compact itself doesn't incorporate the rocks, they are noticeably visible on the outer box and inside sleeve. (Plus I wanted an excuse to show photos of the box, which is a work of art in and of itself.)

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact box, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact box, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

I could be wrong, but the company may have been referencing the rock and peony design on this 10-panel screen, as they look quite similar. The screen was produced during the Joseon dynasty. The National Museum of Korea explains that in addition to wealth, peonies also signified royalty as they were the "king" of flowers. The Joseon royal court used peony-themed screens during important events such as royal weddings and ancestral rituals.

Peony and rock painted screens

Peony and rock painted screen detail
(image from museum.go.kr)

The holiday 2019 collection included another ShineClassic compact with the same peony design against pale golden-beige background and a cushion case. But the most special (and unaffordable) item was a real chilbo silver powder bowl. Only three were made!

Sulwhasoo chilbo powder container, holiday 2019
(image from sulwhasoo.com) 

Here's a short video so you can get a glimpse of the chilbo process. The layering of the colors and the high-gloss finish give the design a multidimensional, almost iridescent effect. The regular ShineClassic compact is beautiful, but in looking at this video you can tell it wasn't painted by hand.

In addition to the compacts, Sulwhasoo organized a special exhibition called the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition. Apparently they've been having these exhibitions for a few years now (how did I not know this?!) and they're intended to highlight aspects of traditional Korean culture and art with a modern twist by commissioning contemporary artists to share their take on crafts, folk tales and other Korean heritage. This year's exhibition centered on prints and patterns that could be used in one's home, entitled "Micro-Sense: House of Pattern".  A "house" of sorts was constructed by eight artists in the atrium at the headquarters of Amorepacific, Sulwhasoo's parent company.

Sulwha Cultural Exhibition, 2019

As Kim Mina, senior VP of Sulwhasoo explained, the company sees itself as a sort of cultural conservator, spreading awareness about traditional Korean art and culture while making it palatable to younger generations. "Culture is like the air that we breathe. We wanted to identify elements of traditional culture and share it with everyone before it disappears. These traditional patterns are beautiful, but not well-appreciated. We wanted to show people that they don’t just exist in your grandparents' homes, or in a museum. These patterns can still live in a contemporary setting like your home."

Sulwha Cultural Exhibition "living room", 2019

Sulwhasoo incorporated their holiday 2019 collection in the "powder room" at the exhibition, as the peony motif tied into many of the patterns displayed.

Sulwha Cultural Exhibition, 2019
(images from read-a.com)

Sulwhasoo also used a portion of the proceeds from the collection towards their Beauty From Your Culture campaign, which works to raise money for various historical or cultural sites. In Singapore, for example, S$20 for each purchase of a ShineClassic compact was donated towards the Asian Civilizations Museum.

I was going to wrap things up by citing other examples traditional chilbo, but in poking around online for this post I found the work of an artist who is helping to preserve the craft in a more modern way so I wanted to feature that instead.  Kwangho Lee, a graduate of Hongik University in Seoul, creates furniture and other large home decor pieces out of chilbo.  Chilbo usually adorned small decorative objects such as women's jewelry, trinket boxes, hair ornaments, etc., and was limited to those who could afford it. Lee sought to both modernize and democratize chilbo. "Enameled things were not common purchases among the population. Barely was it used in interiors...the main idea of my works was to give new meaning and function to the most ordinary things, like wired lights and furniture," Lee explains.

Kwangho Lee, cabinet from the Skin series, 2016

While he uses the usual technique of application - painting crushed precious materials onto copper or other metals - the firing process is different and leads to unexpected results. Chilbo kilns are small because the objects it decorates are small as well, and the door can be opened to check the color during the baking process. But to accommodate the larger-scale furniture and other pieces he creates, Lee has to employ a bigger kiln used for ceramic pieces that cannot be opened during baking.  "It’s not an easy task for designers of my age and generation to practise further and beyond the original range of techniques that are considered 'traditional'. So I approached it by eliminating the traditional part, and focused only on the technique itself...the [kiln] door must be shut tightly the whole time. Therefore I can only imagine and predict the final colour of the enamel and the copper’s reaction to heat."  A close-up of this cabinet shows the variety of colors as well as the raw edges - Lee opted not to sand down the welding to create a smooth surface, preferring a rough, unfinished look for a more industrial feel.

Kwangho Lee, cabinet from the Skin series (detail), 2016
(image from kwangholee.com)

More recently Lee has experimented with placing chilbo panels into a cherry wood frame to create a modern-looking grid pattern.

Kwangho Lee, Shape of a River series, 2018
(image from dezeen.com)

I thought this was a really interesting way of combining a technique that goes back hundreds of years with a 21st century eye for design. And it's fascinating to see the contrast between Lee's and Sulwhasoo's approaches to preserving an age-old artistic medium; both have the same goal, but are working towards it in totally different ways.

What do you think of the chilbo compact? And which do you prefer, chilbo or ipsa? I love the vibrant colors chilbo creates, but I'm partial to the intricacy of ipsa.  Yet it may be usurped by Sulwhasoo's 2020 bejeweled holiday ShineClassic, which I still need to procure...stay tuned!


Sulwhasoo x Antoinette Poisson

I hope to cover Sulwhasoo's beautiful ShineClassic compact that they released for the holiday season a few months ago, but in the meantime I'm focusing on this lovely cushion compact they came up with for spring.  Sulwhasoo collaborated with Antoinette Poisson, a design studio specializing in domino wallpaper.  I know some folks think it's just marketing hogwash, but Sulwhasoo seems genuinely invested in preserving historic art forms to ensure they aren't forgotten rather than making a quick buck off of a watered-down idea intended solely for mass commodification. The company has consistently highlighted traditional Korean artistic practices for over 15 years by releasing collections based on a particular technique or genre and collaborating with top artisans. Continuing in this vein, for spring 2020 Sulwhasoo is partnering with an outside company that is equally committed to revitalizing centuries-old art production: "Sulwhasoo chose Antoinette Poisson as its collaborative partner for the year of 2020 because of the art studio’s commitment to and philosophy toward carrying on and delivering cultural heritage to present generations, with which Sulwhasoo fully identifies."

The compact features intricate embroidery depicting a blossoming flower branch and a butterfly to represent "spring, hope and joy".  Gold and silver threads are interwoven with the pink and red of the flowers and butterfly for an elegant, glamorous touch.

Sulwhasoo x Antoinette Poisson

Sulwhasoo x Antoinette Poisson

I'm no embroidery expert, but it looks well-made to my eye.  I also love the embroidery because it's rare to see embroidered compacts that aren't generic, mass-produced designs.  With the exception of Marcel Wanders's 2016 compact for Cosme Decorte, I can't think of any contemporary makeup brand that has done one of these.  And while petit-point compacts were quite popular in the early 20th century, they've largely faded now.

Sulwhasoo x Antoinette Poisson

I'll get to Antoinette Poisson's work in a sec, but can we take a minute to appreciate the Sulwhasoo box?  The gold and silver foil details mimic the embroidered threads on the compact, while the dotted pattern pays homage to the overall aesthetic of 18th-century France.

Sulwhasoo x Antoinette Poisson

Sulwhasoo x Antoinette Poisson

Sulwhasoo x Antoinette Poisson

Sulwhasoo x Antoinette Poisson

There was another version available with slightly different colored flowers, which unfortunately was not available in the U.S. - for some reason we only received the Perfecting Cushion and not the Brightening version.  I'm debating whether to use some of the Museum's limited budget on purchasing it via eBay.  Given that it's the same design I'm hesitant, but it's so pretty and as a collector I feel the need to have both.

Sulwhasoo brightening cushion spring 2020
(image from sulwhasoo.com)

So who is Antoinette Poisson?  The Paris design studio was founded in 2012 by three paper conservators: Julie Stordiau, Vincent Farelly, and Jean-Baptiste Martin.  The brand takes its name from Madame de Pompadour, famed mistress of Louis XV who the team describes as an "art patron and wallpaper enthusiast."  I'll let Vogue take it from here, as I'm both lazy and also prepping the spring exhibition - I'm loathe to regurgitate this information in lesser wording.  "Antoinette Poisson’s niche is the making of domino papers (papier dominoté), using artisanal techniques that date to the Age of Enlightenment, when these patterned sheets with their distinctive patterns—small geometrics or sinuous floral garlands—were all the rage. These motifs are printed on a single piece of paper using woodblocks and then hand-colored using stencils. Their compact sheet size made dominoes ideal for use as trunk liners or endpapers, but their allure was too great to keep under covers, as it were, and they were adapted for use as (pre-roll) wallpapers. At the time, decorating with domino paper signaled not only the owner’s taste, but also their wealth. Their production stopped with the advent of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution...almost all of [Antoinette Poisson's] products—trays, boxes, fabrics, and wallpapers, et cetera—are fabricated in their Parisian atelier using time-intensive 18th-century techniques. Even the paper sheets they use are handcrafted in a mill that uses methods dating to that earlier, gilded age. The impetus to launch Antoinette Poisson came when the trio re-created a domino paper for a restoration project. The results were so marvelous, that the team decided they 'wanted to propose [this style] for current decoration.'"

Antoinette Poisson wallpaper

House and Garden expands on the pain-staking technique of producing the patterns.   "Although these papers are almost indistinguishable from the originals, computer technology ensures the engraving blocks, their designs first drawn by hand, are absolutely precise. Jean-Baptiste stresses that 'all the blocks are perfect, it is the printer who adds their own imperfections in the printing and hand-painting process'." I couldn't really visualize how it all worked, so here's a brief video showing the stenciling and painting.

By 2014 the studio had produced 14 patterns, 8 of which were either exact reproductions of original prints or looser, modernized "reinterpretations" of them.  These, for example, are reproductions of papers made by mid-18th century printmakers.

Antoinette Poisson domino paper

Antoinette Poisson domino paper

This one is a reinterpretation of a pattern found in the "Chambre aux Amours” within the Museum of Wallpaper's collection (yes, that's a real museum.)

Antoinette Poisson domino paper

The rest of Antoinette Poisson's patterns are their own creations. 

Antoinette Poisson domino paper

If you look closely at this one, you can see that the dot and diamond pattern in the middle is the same as the one on the Sulwhasoo box.

Antoinette Poisson domino paper

This one appeared on Ladurée's gift packaging last year.

Antoinette Poisson for Ladurée, 2019
(image from test.angels.lu)

Speaking of which, the studio is no stranger to collaborations.  Besides their usual task of producing bespoke decor for stores and individual clients, Antoinette Poisson partnered with Diptyque to create a pattern for their 2017 Rosa Mundi candle collection.

Diptyque Rosa Mundi
(image from harpersbazaararabia.com)

More recently the studio collaborated with Gucci for their resort 2019 collection.

Antoinette Poisson for Gucci(images from vogue.com)

How does Antoinette Poisson's work relate to Sulwhasoo and their goal of preserving Korean heritage? The pattern they designed is reminiscent of Hwajodo, or paintings of flowers and birds. As with my last foray into traditional Korean art with Sulwhasoo, I'm by no means an expert but I can provide some basic information about Hwajodo.  Hwajodo is a genre within Korean folk painting ("Minhwa") and was produced either by painting on paper or embroidered onto screens.  Minhwa was especially popular in the 19th century, which I guess is why all of the examples I'm finding online are from that time period*.  Typically Hwajodo depict birds in pairs to represent domestic harmony and love between husband and wife, which is why they were often given as gifts to newlyweds. 

Hwajodo screen, 19th century(image from christies.com)

According to the Folk Painting volume within the Handbook of Korean Art series, the various birds represented particular virtues.  For example, peacocks symbolize longevity, while pheasants signal beauty.  There were also rules governing the composition of Hwajodo; certain birds had to appear with certain plants, i.e. ducks and egrets were always shown with water plants. 

Hwajodo painting

However, given the lack of birds and the inclusion of butterflies, I believe the pattern created for Sulwhasoo would fall under a sub-category of Hwajodo known as Hwajeopdo, or paintings of flowers and butterflies.  (The plum blossoms are appropriate, as they are a symbol of early spring in Korea.)

Hwajeopdo screen by Kim Mijung
(image from londonkoreanlinks.net)

A company specializing in historic French wallpapering doesn't seem like it would be a match, but Sulswhasoo cites the studio's "understanding about and interest in Oriental art" as one of the reasons for the collab. The primary impetus for the partnership, however, was that Sulwhasoo found a kindred spirit in Antoinette Poisson in terms of wanting to protect and celebrate a particular type of art.  The production of domino papers was a "largely forgotten process" much like the ipsa featured in Sulwhasoo's holiday 2018 collection.  The founders of Antoinette Poisson felt it was up to them to rescue this beautiful 18th century craft and breathe new life into it.  Without them and the dedicated artisans Sulwhasoo commissions, these art forms would be erased from history.  As co-founder Vincent Farelly notes, "Even though we come from different cultures, we share the same mindset.  We both love to find inspiration from our heritage."

While the partnership between Sulwhasoo and Antoinette Poisson makes sense, I still wonder how it came about.  Antoinette Poisson isn't exactly unknown given their previous high-profile collaborations, but I'm curious to know at Sulwhasoo who came up with the idea to work with them.  I also find it interesting that Les Merveilleuses Ladurée haven't seized the opportunity for an Antoinette Poisson makeup collection of their own given their 18th-century aesthetic and especially since the studio collaborated with the main Ladurée company.  In any case, the Sulwhasoo collaboration yielded a well-designed result that combines traditional Korean and French decorative art and gives it a modern spin in the process, while also bringing these lesser-known and nearly forgotten artistic practices to a wider audience.  The metallic details of the box and embroidery elevate the compact to a more luxurious objet d'art, while the pattern itself is beautiful and appropriate for spring. 

What do you think?  Have you ever heard of domino paper or Hwajodo before?  I have to say I was dazzled by the versatility of Antoinette Poisson - I want one of their creations as wallpaper, boxes and pillows in addition to makeup!

 

 

*This website provides more background on minhwa, if you're curious:  "Minhwa, an artistic style that reflects the lives and spirits of Korean people, became widely popular during the 19th and 20th centuries. It was in high demand from the new merchant class and civilians, as the centralised authoritarian rule of the Joseon Dynasty slowly collapsed starting in the late 17th century and through the 19th century.  Up until the middle of the Joseon Dynasty, minhwa paintings were painted by court artists for use in palaces. However, with the societal changes in the late Joseon Dynasty, they started to be painted by anonymous artists of the middle and lower classes, who produced and disseminated minhwa. The common people’s wishes for a healthy and prosperous life and desire to beautify their own living environments gave birth to the development of minhwa that reflects Koreans’ daily life, customs, and aesthetics."


Peace and longevity from Sulwhasoo

My heart skipped a beat when I spotted what Sulwhasoo had up their sleeve for this year's ShineClassic compacts. Every year the company collaborates with an artist who represents an aspect of Korean artisan culture to create a design for two compacts, a tradition Sulwhasoo began in 2003.  Master craftswoman Hong Jeong Sil was selected to produce the ShineClassic compacts for the 2018 holiday season.  We'll delve more into the traditional metal inlay technique known as ipsa that Hong used to create these stunning pieces, but first, let's take a look at them in all their glory.  Unlike last year's release (another that I never got around to writing about, sigh), this year I was so smitten with the design I got both compacts, steep price tag be damned.  I really try to only buy one since the designs are the same, just with different color schemes, but I simply couldn't resist these!

Even the boxes are works of art inside and out. 

Sulwhasoo 2018 ShineClassic compact

Sulwhasoo-gold-box

Sulwhasoo-box-detail

So luxurious!

Sulwhasoo-box-open

The inside of the lids are etched in a metallic finish depicting a charming nature scene with trees, waterfalls, birds, deer and even a turtle.  According to the Sulwhasoo website, these "symbolize longevity and great fortune, carry the message 'One can achieve his or her purposes and lead a healthy, peaceful life.'"  As it turns out, the inclusion of these motifs is not accidental.  Like many Korean artists, Hong is inspired by a traditional group of ten symbols of longevity collectively known as Ship-jangsaeng:  Sun, mountains, water, cranes, turtles, pine trees, bamboo, mushrooms, deer and clouds. I thought the whole scene was merely cute and whimsical and that Hong just personally found these images enjoyable - I had no idea how culturally significant these motifs are.

Sulwhasoo-box-insides

Sulwhasoo-box-inscription

The intricacy of the compacts themselves is exquisite.

Sulwhasoo-compacts

Sulwhasoo-gold

Of course, I managed to nick the powder on this one...I must learn to control my excitement when handling Museum objects.

Sulwhasoo-gold-inside

Sulwhasoo-silver

Sulwhasoo-silver-inside

Here's some of the pamphlet that tells a little bit about the ipsa tradition.

Brochure-detail

Shineclassic-brochure

Brochure-symbol

Ipsa-brochure

So what exactly is ipsa?  I'm afraid I can't go into too much detail since I completely didn't see this entire book on it until it was too late, but hopefully what I was able to gather online will suffice for now.  (I plan on ordering the book and updating this post accordingly, if I remember.)  Basically ipsa is the art of inlaying thin, delicate strands of silver, copper or gold onto a metal surface.  It's similar to damascene and other metal inlay techniques found around the globe, but two elements make ipsa uniquely Korean:  the focus on graceful lines and the preference for silver over other metals.  This very helpful article from Koreana magazine explains the history and general style of ipsa.  "During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), it was developed into a brilliant art form, representing the epitome of metal craft.  Still, Korean metal inlay is unique for its emphasis on the 'art of lines.' The designs made with lines of a consistent width are simple yet artistic, basic yet whimsical. Designs expressing wishes for good fortune and prosperity, health and longevity, abundance and fertility, or images of the ten symbols of longevity (including birds and flowers, grass and insects, and landscape scenes with ducks in a stream under weeping willows), were crafted onto incense burners, braziers, tobacco cases, clasps, and stationery items, which were always kept close at hand and appreciated for their refined appearance...Though gold was rarer, silver was the preferred choice...Silver is rather plain by itself but radiates brilliance when combined with other materials. It has a subtle elegance that endures over time, rather than something fancy that can quickly fade. These qualities of silver appeal to the inherent nature of the Korean people, which is why silver was most commonly used for metal inlay work."  Hong's work for the Sulwhasoo compacts definitely represents the traditional ipsa style through the "basic yet whimsical" lines and symbols of longevity. 

Sulwhasoo-gold2

Like the other holiday collabs we've seen so far, ipsa requires precision and painstaking labor.  The patterns must be carefully drawn out on the surface before the inlay is applied.  Each strand of metal, some as thin as .25 millimeters, must be formed by hand and then attached to the surface individually. This means even a very simple line takes hours.  Over 30 types of tools are used - everything from pliers and hammers to tweezers and chisels.  As Hong says, it's essentially "embroidery with metal."  Sulwhasoo provided a few snapshots of the process, but I would have loved to see a video showing Hong creating the original design.

Embroider

Additionally, there are two main types of ipsa.  I'll let Koreana take over again:  "The first, called kkium-ipsa, involves incising a decorative design onto the surface of a metal object using a burin, and inlaying the threads of silver into the incisions. This technique was widely used during the Goryeo Dynasty. Because Goryeo had adopted Buddhism as its official religion and ideology, the metalworks that were produced primarily included bronze Buddhist implements, such as incense burners, incense cases, and kundikas. During the subsequent Joseon Dynasty, Buddhism was suppressed and supplanted by Confucianism. The production of bronze Buddhist implements thus diminished, while large quantities of ironware items were supplied to the royal palace and the homes of the elite class. Since the major material for metalworks was now iron instead of bronze, it was necessary for the metal inlay techniques to be adjusted accordingly.  This led to a second technique, jjoum-ipsa, in which the entire surface of a metal item is uniformly incised and then silver thread hammered into the incisions. This is the technique that Hong learned and applies in her works today. The surface has to be engraved four times, each time in a different direction, which calls for painstaking patience and perseverance."  There was only one design for Sulwhasoo intended for a small surface so it may not have taken that long, but the shapes clearly require a lifetime of skill.  I might be able to inlay a single pre-made strand of silver onto a surface in a straight line, but could I form many strands into deer and trees?  No way!

Production_process(images from sulwhasoo.com)

In addition to the Sulwhasoo compacts, another impressive example of the labor involved to produce an ipsa piece is this vase by Hong.  I can't even imagine how long it took, since it appears to use three different kinds of metal of varying lengths to form a pattern.  There must be hundreds of individual strands.

Vase

I also wanted to share this image from Hong's protege, who is taking ipsa in a very futuristic direction by creating a QR code that can be scanned and connected online.  The code is made with very thin strands of silver inlaid on an iron plate.  Again, each strand is handmade and applied individually.  It must take hours to get them to perfectly line up; otherwise, I suspect the code might not work.

Ipsa-qr
(image from ipsajangproject.tumblr.com)

The final element of the ipsa technique is making a black background (historically from burnt pine soot) or leaving it unfinished.  "Those parts of the surface not inlaid with silver thread are colored black, using traditional techniques, or left unfinished to emphasize the natural color and texture of the metal. The black background surface contrasts with the sheen of the silver thread and highlights its brilliance. In the past, the soot of burnt pine was mixed with vegetable oil to make the black coloring, but these days powdered graphite is used. After applying the black coloring, the surface is rubbed with vegetable oil and then polished to a lustrous finish."  I'm not sure how the background for the original design of the gold ShineClassic compact was created, but it's truly striking.  I am a bit puzzled as to why the silver toned compact is on a white background, however.

As did Yang Huazhen and Zhang Xiaodong, a Qiang embroiderer and kite maker, respectively, who collaborated with Shu Uemura, Hong answered the call of reviving a dying cultural tradition and more or less single-handedly brought it back from the verge of extinction. Born in 1947, she graduated in 1969 from Seoul Women's University with a degree in crafts, followed by a graduate degree at Seoul National University in 1971.  While studying there, she came across an old ipsa piece in an antiques district and it was "love at first sight":  "'The silver thread embroidery of the old metal artifact seemed to reveal the purity of the artist's heart and spirit. I was spellbound by the beauty and started to ask around about learning metal inlay. But I was surprised to find that it was a disappearing art. In a book, Human Cultural Treasures, that I had come across by chance, it said that 'traditional metal inlay is no longer practiced,' which bothered me so much I couldn't sleep that night.'"  Hong was struck by the fact that there were so few artisans left, and took it upon herself to learn ipsa in order to preserve Korea's cultural history. "It was almost like the book was assigning me a mission," she says.  After five years of searching, she found one of the few remaining ipsa artists, Lee Hak-eung, who took her on as an apprentice.  Even though Lee was nearing 80 years old and hadn't actively practiced ipsa in over 10 years, he agreed to be Hong's instructor.  At first he was reluctant to teach her ("Why do you want to learn this? It is a difficult road paved with poverty," he told her) but knowing that ipsa was nearly wiped out, coupled with Hong's dedication and talent, eventually he relented.  There was a steep learning curve, as Hong soon found out.  "The hardest part about learning everything was the lack of ‘curriculum,’ so to speak, because there was so little information available about ipsa at the time. Nobody had really researched it because hardly anyone even knew about it.  It had basically been abandoned," she says.

Hong-jeong-sil
(image from magazine.seoulselection.com)

Under Lee's tutelage, Hong quickly realized that ipsa needed to be officially recognized by the Korean government in order to not disappear completely.  For her, getting ipsa on the government's radar, along with educating a new generation about it, were just as important as learning its technique in terms of preservation.  “If people don’t know about it, then it won’t stay alive.  You can’t keep something alive simply by being very good at it, because then it ends with you. You have to let people know; you have to show them."  Hong submitted a comprehensive report documenting every ipsa piece she could find, and because of this effort, the craft was registered as an "important intangible cultural property" in 1983.  Hong went on to establish her own school, the Gilgeum Handicraft Research Institute, and in 1996 she was awarded the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Korea No. 78, making her the official holder of ipsa (Lee was the previous holder and had passed away in 1988).  Making ipsa modern was also an important lesson.  "I learned that metal inlay could not be done if the hands did not follow the heart. I also realized that although I was learning a traditional art I would have to develop it to fit modern times," Hong says.  While the Sulwhasoo compacts depict fairly traditional Korea motifs, Hong's other work expresses a more modern sensibility.  Take, for example, this sculptural paperweight/brush rest from 1980 that resembles a post-modern mountain range.

Hong Jeong Sil, paperweight, 1980
(image from ganoskin.com)

And the painterly flourishes on this vase from 2013 merge a classic silhouette with 21st century abstraction.  As Hong notes, "Tradition and modernity, past and present, aren’t separated by some boundary like some people think. They are inevitably linked.  The past isn’t over; it illuminates the present and helps reveal the future."

Hong Jeong Sil - Afterglow  2013
(image from constancychange.kr)

While Hong has made a career out of rescuing ipsa, she doesn't think Korea's modernization necessarily caused it to be almost completely erased from history.  In fact, she believes the modern era helped Korea reflect on its cultural heritage. Explains Hong, “Some people despair at the disposal of traditional culture that occurred throughout Korea’s often rushed modernization, but I think it couldn’t have been any other way. Only now can we afford to look back and reflect on what can be learned from our past, on what can be salvaged. Only now do we have the economic status that affords us the ability to value our traditional culture...Korea’s culture and traditional arts are getting more attention these days, not because they’ve gotten better or more beautiful – they’ve always been beautiful – but because people’s perceptions have changed.  Korea’s original sense of beauty, something only we can intuitively know, is finally getting some attention."  I'd add that it's far easier to connect with aspiring artisans and reach the public at large nowadays. While educating new generations via the usual methods (schools, museums, etc.) is critical, a beauty collaboration is a wonderful way of bringing people's attention to an otherwise little-known art form and in this way, helps preserve it. 

In conclusion, I thought Hong's work translated beautifully to the compacts.  While perhaps not as intricate as the original ipsa design they're based on, the engraving captures the essence of the technique and ipsa's overall style.  Ipsa is heavily focused on lines, and the beauty and grace of Hong's shapes remained intact on the compacts (i.e. they didn't get out of proportion or distorted).  Elaborate metal compacts such as Sulwshasoo's ShineClassics are obviously the perfect vehicle to showcase a historical metal inlay technique.  And as with all artist collabs, I'm happy to have learned about such a historic part of Korea's culture, and I appreciate people like Hong keeping it alive.  Hong is equally pleased to share her work: "I want to make Korean-style beauty known to the world. I want people to exclaim: 'So this is what Korea is about. This is the beauty of Korean silver inlay.'"  Mission accomplished!

What do you think of these?  Have you ever heard of ipsa?