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The Art of the Imperfect: Understanding Wabi-Sabi

Some people are saying wabi-sabi is the new hygge, or that it’s going to be the big trend of 2018.  But what is wabi-sabi?  Emerging from traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is a perspective centered on the acceptance of imperfection and transience.  Aesthetically it is somewhat related to minimalism, since it values simplicity, uncluttered, underplayed, and modest surroundings, yet there’s more to it than that.  Let’s dig a little deeper to really get a feel for what may be the next big thing in interior design.


Wabi-sabi has its origins in the 15th century, and began as a reaction to the lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials that made up the prevailing aesthetic at the time.  Wabi-sabi is difficult to translate, but has been defined as, “the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West,” by Leonard Koren, who wrote one of the first books really introducing wabi-sabi to the West.  The term is a combining of the words “wabi” and “sabi” which both have their own difficult to translate meanings.  Wabi refers to simplicity, humility, and living in tune with nature.  It can be used to describe someone who is content with little and makes the most of whatever they have.  Sabi refers to what happens with the passage of time.  It’s about transience and the beauty and authenticity of age.  To practice sabi is to learn to accept the natural cycle of growth, death, and the imperfections that accompany that progression.  Together the two terms create a feeling that finds harmony and serenity in the uncomplicated, unassuming, mysterious, and fleeting.


Wabi-sabi isn’t sleek and mass-produced.  It’s about finding the beauty in the imperfect and promoting the asymmetry of nature and perishable natural materials.  As such, characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, and modesty.  The example often given of the embodiment of wabi-sabi is Hagi ware – the Japanese pottery used in many tea ceremonies.  The pieces are often rustic and simple-looking with shapes that are not quite symmetrical, and colors or textures that appear to emphasize an unrefined or simple style.  History is a big part of wabi-sabi, so buying new products that have been distressed by hand doesn’t fit the bill.  The wear needs to come with actual age and the influence of time.  The presence of cracks and scratches in things are considered to be symbolic of the passing of time, weather, and loving use and are to be embraced.


While wabi-sabi is really more of an aesthetic philosophy than interior design style, there are some ways to incorporate wabi-sabi into your home and life.  The first is to embrace natural, humble materials.  Wabi-sabi favors having fewer but longer-lasting and higher-quality possessions – having items that get better with age and can be repaired.  Start looking for pieces made of wood, wool, clay, rough paper, bamboo, flax or linen, leather, stone, woven grass, and iron.  All of these materials are subject to wear, nicks, tears, cracks, and rust.  Handcrafted pieces are an ideal way to bring wabi-sabi into the home since they’re usually made from natural materials with small imperfections that add to their charm.  Also look for objects that are both beautiful and useful.  If the things you use are also beautiful, you won’t have to fill your space with objects that have no function other than to be attractive.  If you’re trying to decide on a color palette, wabi-sabi tends to manifest in heavier shades, like the dark grays, blues, greens, and rusts found in the sea and in trees like olive and sequoia.  Lighter shades are often muted pastels like those found in deserts and at beaches.


While wabi-sabi itself is perhaps too ingrained of a cultural philosophy to be considered a trend, we can certainly see the aesthetics of wabi-sabi growing in popularity.  From the outside it looks like the clean, uncluttered spaces of minimalism but with a bit more of a welcoming personality.  The key to true wabi-sabi is authenticity.  You must actually embrace the rough edges and imperfections that time leaves on your objects if you want your home to embody the wabi-sabi style.  So if you have an appreciation of transience and vintage objects that actually show their age, or just want to be more in harmony with nature give wabi-sabi a try.

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