TIME TO READ: 3m 30s
An Essay | by Emma Heath
It is the intrinsic beauty we find in peeling paint, battered floors and weathered stone that is testament to our yearning for a deeper connection with the materials that surround us.
Think about the rust that forms on metal giving it a weathered appearance. Consider timber as it ages into a stunning palette of silver grey or stone which bears the hallmarks of a life well lived. Patinas and textures in their most raw state become even more expressive.
Wabi-sabi is both a philosophy and a design aesthetic.
Wabi contains the root wa which refers to harmony, peace, tranquillity, and balance and has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. It’s a transcendental beauty achieved through subtle imperfection.
Sabi means “the bloom of time” and connotes a natural progression. It’s an understanding that beauty is transient, fleeting, and only comes with time.
In past decades, the Western world has been obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. But these days, more of us are getting tired of over-the-top indulgence and excess. We’re craving a simpler, more authentic way of being – a mindset that’s embraced beautifully in the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi.
More than just a design style, wabi-sabi is a way of seeing the world. It’s about celebrating the fleeting, flawed nature of life. Appreciating the moss that clings to stones, the cracks in treasured crockery, the fading bloom of flowers. In the words of designer Leonard Koren, Wabi-sabi is beauty that’s “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”.
While it doesn’t translate directly into English, the phrase ‘wabi-sabi’ means having a detachment from material wealth; a quiet contentment in simple, uncontrived things. This comes to life in all sorts of Japanese art and design – haiku poetry, ikebana flower arrangement, the rustic pottery used in tea ceremonies and of course Japanese gardens.
The spiritual ideas that underpin wabi-sabi translate into a range of different design principles. For a start, there’s the concept of life being temporary. Unlike the youth-fixated culture of the west, wabi-sabi welcomes the ageing process. According to wabi-sabi, objects only grow more fascinating and beautiful as they weather, warp, crack and rust. It’s about well-thumbed books, faded rugs and wood that’s been worn smooth – things that have been cared for and used time and time again.
As well as accepting the passage of time, wabi-sabi also accepts nature as it is. Materials are organic, not manufactured, and they are often left raw (all the better for ageing!). Woods are untreated, stones unpolished and metal left to gently accumulate rust. Colours are very subdued – a palette of greys, earthy greens, rusts, browns and a million shades of black. It’s probably also no surprise that wabi-sabi spaces are full of odd shapes, kinks and quirks…after all, there are no straight lines in nature! Structure is never formal or imposed, and asymmetry is pretty much a given. Certainly a far cry from the perfectly aligned aesthetic of an English country garden or formal dining room.
Another characteristic of wabi-sabi that flies in the face of western culture today is its sense of modesty. At its heart, wabi-sabi is about appreciating simplicity, and seeing the value in small things. By finding satisfaction in very little, we can free ourselves from over-reliance on material indulgence – which, in our consumer-driven world, can be an attractive prospect indeed. Editing is key to wabi-sabi. To create the perfect balance, it’s necessary to pare things back to their very barest elements. A single chair replaces a cluster, and walls may be left deliberately bare. Empty space becomes a powerful way to draw attention to what is here. It’s an understated elegance that verges on austerity.
Essentially, wabi-sabi is a meditation on life. Spaces are not just designed to be attractive, they’re created with a deeper purpose – to reflect philosophical and spiritual ideals, and inspire reflection. At first glance wabi-sabi can seem haphazard, with its crooked paths, unexpected spaces and irregular-shapes. But every single object will have been carefully chosen and positioned to provoke contemplation.
There’s no specific list of rules for wabi-sabi, and no ‘how-to’ guide – which makes it all the more intriguing. The real challenge? Learning to live modestly, mindfully and to be happy with the barest minimum. Once we’ve mastered this, the rest becomes simple.