Steam bending is an ancient woodworking technique that uses heat and moisture from steam to change the cellular structure of wood and make it more pliable, enabling beautiful curves that add visual interest to all sorts of projects. The process involves soaking, steaming, bending, and clamping pieces of wood so that its lignin hardens into a new shape when cooled. The results are striking, sometimes looking so natural that you imagine the wood must have come from an unusually curly tree.

Steam-bent walnut furniture pieces by Bae Se Hwa.

While steam bending is most commonly used for decorative effect in handcrafted homes and sculptural pavilions, artist Bae Se Hwa takes advantage of its malleability for comfort, too. In his newest “Steam Bent” series of furniture, the Seoul, South Korea-born artist demonstrates how this way of achieving curvature can transform even hard, solid walnut into invitingly ergonomic objects with unexpected silhouettes.

Steam-bent walnut furniture pieces by Bae Se Hwa.

Elegant and streamlined, the Steam Bent Series features benches, lounges, tables, chairs, and desks that almost seem like they’ve warped in response to human touch. The pieces transition seamlessly from conventional angularity to body-hugging curvature, making what might have been uncomfortable surfaces into ones that are decidedly more supportive.

Se Hwa starts with a geometric diagram, warming slices of walnut in a steam box before bending them over a structured frame to produce the final shape. In the behind-the-scenes video above, we get to see just what this painstaking, time-consuming process looks like, giving us a hint at why the artist only produces three to five pieces each year.

Seven of Se Hwa’s most “iconic” designs from this collection were chosen by R & Company for a solo exhibit this year, a first for the artist. Many of the works included in the exhibition had never before been shown publicly, despite being sold out in all editions. The New York gallery says Se Hwa’s disciplined approach and continual exploration of wood allows him to “push the limits of this material forward.”

Steam-bent walnut furniture pieces by Bae Se Hwa.
Steam-bent walnut furniture pieces by Bae Se Hwa.
Steam-bent walnut furniture pieces by Bae Se Hwa.
Steam-bent walnut furniture pieces by Bae Se Hwa.

Contemporary art and design gallery Seomi International’s artist statement for Se Hwa reads: “Bae Se Hwa made his international debut in 2010 at the Design Miami Fair in Basel. Since then, he has become a fresh sensation as a young Korean designer. Bae is best known for his dynamic collection of works called the ‘Steam Series.’ This collection embodies emotional function [and displays] a sense of calmness and serenity. In Bae’s ‘Steam Series,’ he utilizes a steam-bending technique in which he distorts and deconstructs very linear wood elements and then recombines them into new pieces that are bent and curvilinear in form. This process has allowed Bae to create beautifully organic flowing pieces that are very much alive with rhythm and demonstrate the flexibility of wood despite its solidity.”

Steam-bent walnut furniture pieces by Bae Se Hwa.

“Bae’s philosophy is to reach balance and harmony through the use of form and function. His pieces follow this philosophy, each of them depicting curvaceous yet minimalistic designs: a perfect balance of natural elements and geometric construction that captivates and entrances the senses.”