“At every crossroads on the path that leads to the future, tradition has placed 10,000 men to guard the past,” said Maurice Maeterlinck. It is with no doubt that tradition, a guide for both the past and future at the same time, is something precious and important. And among the many types of traditions, there lies an epitome of the spirit that Korean ancestors held—traditional patterns. To many, traditional patterns seem anachronistic, but these people are overlooking the fact that the patterns are found not just on old remains of history; they can be spotted everywhere in contemporary lives, and this has been made possible thanks to the “Korean Tradition Pattern Database (DB).”
▲ Patterns provided by Munwha Portal.
With the Korean Tradition Patter Database as their pioneer, traditional patterns have been returning to the contemporary Korean society, which in the past just seemed to be the wrong place, wrong time for them. Last year, Tayo buses were wrapped with traditional Hangeul patterns— and it indeed was a big hit—in celebration of Hangeul Day. Wrapping papers and gift boxes were adorned with beautiful traditional patterns of lilies and butterflies. Smartphone cases, with the pattern of a dragon made out of shells began selling off the shelves like pancakes. Seoul metro subway doors, when closely looked upon, show shiny silver traditional patterns sophisticatedly drawn.
▲ Deer design pattern (left) and turtle design pattern (right). Provided by Munwha Portal.
DB, with its advent in 2005, was a project that was initiated in the purpose of trying to conserve traditional patterns. In the process of restoring relics or cultural assets, it was not hard to notice the patterns that delicately imply symbolic meanings that ancestors wanted to depict; thus, the government launched this project to widely spread and protect these legacies. With Korea Culture Information Service Agency (KCISA) leading, DB was digitalized and so far, free access to approximately 13 million Korean traditional patterns is available online. If corporations or individuals wish to utilize the database industrially or educationally all they have to do is make formal requests to KCISA and get its approval.
▲ Everyday products, decorated with traditional patterns, are displayed at KCISA. Photographed by Lee Hye Jin.
At its initial stage, the project was a little different from what it is today—its prime focus was on digitalizing patterns of its original form. Thus, the DB contained designs that were dented, partially vanished, and damaged—just as they were found. However, taking into regard the fact that many users had difficulty trying to recover the damaged portions of patterns to actually utilize them on real life products, KCISA moderates its project into one that provides designed patterns that are ready to be used and applied without requiring individual moderations. During this process, dented circles are made into perfect ones, two patterns are combined to create a new one, complicated patterns are simplified, and many more changes are made.
The first process of constructing the database is choosing which patterns to digitalize from the original patterns. This stage requires a committee of traditional pattern expertise to discuss and select patterns that will be transformed into designed and applied forms. Whether a pattern design can be applied to various things, the purpose and meaning of the original patterns will be conserved once applied to a certain product, are just some of the factors the committee takes into consideration.
▲ Hong Sunhee of KCISA explains how design patterns are produced. Photographed by Lee Hye Jin.
After the selection has finally been made, a team of designers come into the project and decide how to redesign the patterns that could be easier to apply. During this stage, the team considers the symbolic meanings and the beauty and moderates or highlights the patterns as a way to fit them. As the patterns are redesigned, modifications and complementary measures are constantly taken, until the newly designed patterns are finally ready to show themselves to the world.
In order to promulgate the database, which many people are not aware of, KCISA is holding other events, such as the third Culture Data Utilization Competitive Exhibition from July 30 to October 15. Anyone can participate by submitting their ideas or novel products with cultural data, which includes traditional patterns. KCISA also hosts various exhibitions displaying how traditional patterns from the DB can be applied to everyday products. Automatic door locks that show the design of a goblin, which symbolizes the prevention of bad things coming in; pillows with butterfly patterns that have the meaning of happiness and peace; flower designs symbolizing fortune depicted on wallets are just a few examples of the products on show.
▲ An iron with traditional patterns. Provided by Munwha Portal.
The cold truth contemporary Korea society faces today is that many regard tradition as merely old. “People tend to think that things that are Western are more sophisticated and modern than those of Korea,” said Hong Sunhee, the supervisor of the Public Business Division of KCISA. Indeed, many people are unaware of the free access of traditional patterns on the DB and do not perceive the beauty that the patterns convey. “It is rather foreign corporations that show more interest in the digitalized patterns,” added Hong as she described how Japanese and American corporations and websites have requested use of the designs.
▲ A pair of slippers with traditional patterns. Provided by Munwha Portal.
Changing Koreans’ perception that traditional patterns are obsolete, was the first task at hand for KCISA to deal with, but Hong also pointed out an important factor that should not be overlooked. “Along with the effort of individuals trying to show affection towards patterns, governments and corporations must also work to utilize and globalize Korean designs, so that we can all feel pride in our traditional cultures,” she said. Indeed, the goal of KCISA is not to advertise the fact that traditional pattern designs were given out for free—but to inform that there are many Korean traditions that are beautiful and symbolic.
▲ Products with designed patterns. Provided by Munwha Portal.
“Traditional pattern DB is a bridge that connects tradition with modernity,” is how Hong described the project in one sentence. In the past, it was not possible for contemporary Koreans to actually utilize the traditional patterns that our ancestors had left behind on relics. However, with KCISA’s project, the legacies could naturally permeate into daily lives, and KCISA at the lead of the patterns renaissance will keep going on and on. “It is time that the people know they should love and feel pride in what is ours,” said Hong. Thanks to the great effort KCISA has shown to conserve what contemporary Koreans would on their own have lost, the legacies are making a delightful return.