History of Japanese decor
Traditional Japanese architecture emphasizes economy of design and a great sensitivity to the natural environment. This design is characterized by the use of elements such as wood, (structural beams and furniture) straw (tatami mats) and paper (covering the shoji screens).
Houses built in this style shunned the decorative, the obvious and the extravagantly showy in favor of restraint or what contemporary designers would refer to as minimalism. For many people it is the emptiness that strikes the eye - the houses seem to have been pared back to the essential elements and made purely functional.The idea of Asian decor almost seems to be an oxymoron.
The second thing that becomes apparent is the impermanent state of the house. Interior walls slide to double a room's size, beds are pulled from cupboards, and external walls even open in summer to bring the garden inside. Furniture is constructed in pieces and stacked with handles on the sides for easy movement.
Of all the elements, the most precious and revered was wood. Carpenters were the most respected of artisans and the classic timber framework they used for house building and the traditional joinery used in constructing furniture pieces was legendary.
Elements of Asian Décor: From Metals to Petals
For many of us, the simple bold strokes of black ink on a white page, or a single bonsai branch evoke an eastern feeling. A few polished pebbles lying in a bowl or a single flower can fill a room with more beauty than fifty glass figurines. It is this essentialism which marks the understated elegance of Japanese interior design.
However, the materialistic dogma of western society instills within many of us the urge to display every single last one of our possessions in our home. The result is a cluttered yet cozy space. In contrast, eastern design, more specifically Japanese, seeks to obtain a minimalist feel; using neutral colors and geometric forms. Strong simple lines and open spaces help contribute to the organic feel of Japanese design. Whereas many western homes are full of elaborate furniture and exotic art objects, eastern homes rotate a few well placed objects, imparting a sense of beauty and a well ordered home. There is often a central focal point in Japanese rooms rather than the many focal points that are present in western rooms. The Japanese equivalent of the mantles of western homes is the tokonoma, a type of alcove where either an even number (symbolizing order) or an odd number (representing nature) of objects are displayed. Each week these objects are replaced by different ones.
Japanese furniture is minimal and serves many purposes, for example step chests serve as both room dividers, useful storage components and of course traditionally steps up to a loft space (while a wonderful use for a step chest, these days having only a solid wood cabinet to access an upper floor is completely against fire regulations). Shoji screens or furniture often divide a room, and there is always at least one window facing nature or the sky to provide a sense of space that is often missing. Storage is very important when planning Japanese interiors, very few objects are on display to maximize impact, and other objects must be stored unobtrusively.
In contrast to the simple colors and forms, opposing textures and materials are used to create a unique balance. Stone and natural materials such as bamboo, rice paper and silk set Japanese design apart from the often all-encompassing man made materials that fill the rooms of contemporary western design. The stark glass and metal constructions or brightly eclectic rooms contrast greatly with the uncluttered and open spaces that characterize eastern homes.
Asymmetry is another important aspect of Japanese design. Representative of nature in its primary form, it provides the unique balance and feeling of space so characteristic of Japanese homes. Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, embodies this aspect. An Ikebana arrangement would typically be placed in the tokonoma, with one or three flowers of different heights. Just as the beauty of a lone branch highlighted against the sky incorporates the space surrounding it, asymmetry within the home accentuates the feeling of space and peace.
The reason that this unique style arose is due to Japan having quite limited natural resources. Wood was the only abundant source of building material throughout much of Japan's history. However, the use of fires to cook with, combined with being in an earthquake prone area, meant that these structures, and the items stored within were highly susceptible to burning down. Modern-day Tokyo (originally called Edo) was victim to some incredibly devastating fires, regardless of the best efforts of what was quite a devoted fire fighting service.
These problems with buildings burning down, combined with the influx of Buddhism, lead to the essential concept of wabi sabi. In this aesthetic the beauty of the incomplete, the impermanent and the imperfect is the focus. Everything is only fleeting, and to think otherwise would be to delude oneself. The term wabi sabi is not easily translated, but eludes to loneliness, whithering and cold. To this day the Japanese have much less of an attachment to physical buildings as apposed to the idea they embody. Many temples and other historic buildings were destroyed over the past centuries by earthquakes, war and unrest; however, this has left the Japanese largely unphased, and they have kept alive traditional building methods so they can bring back treasured landmarks again and again.