Any discussion about traditional Japanese aesthetics requires an understanding of the term wabi sabi. A fundamental concept, one that’s centuries old, wabi sabi is the cornerstone to the Japanese conception of beauty. While the words don’t translate easily into English, and the meaning has shifted over time from its roots in Buddhism, wabi and sabi are related terms that together embody the beauty in the impermanence of life, in imperfection, in advancing age, and demonstrating reverence to the natural world. It’s said that the term was first coined by Matsuo Basho, most famous for his development of haiku poetry, which endeavors to capture a fleeting moment, generally a scene in nature, in just 17 syllables.
The meaning in today’s Japan is often condensed as “wisdom in natural simplicity”. In their book, Wabi Sabi Style, James and Samantha Crowley define it thus:
Wabi historically meant “wretched, miserable, and forlorn,” referring to the dreary state of the human condition. With regards to art and design, it connotes a modesty of choice, a naturalness that is unassuming, referring to austerity of design without severity.
Sabi, on the other hand, is spoken of as that which is “mellowed by use, patina-ed by age, reticent and lacking in the assertiveness of the new.” It also means “austere and lonely.” Things rusty, worn, or tarnished exhibit the quality of maturity that is sabi. Often referred to as the “bloom of age,” it is a quality that can only be achieved through long years of existence. It is neither created nor induced. It simply occurs through the natural process of exposure to the elements or long years of fond usage and the elapse of time. Blue jeans and bomber jackets are two icons of American contemporary culture that possess souls of sabi. The older the denim, the softer and more appealing the jeans become. The more distressed and weathered the leather on a bomber jacket, the more desirability it acquires.
Understanding wabi-sabi in the context of design
Think of that cast iron skillet granny passed down, expertly made, well seasoned and better now than new. Or the enhanced je ne sais quoia patina gives to weathered wood or metals. Admiring something in a wabi sabi frame of mind, like the iron tea pot pictured, involves acknowledging the beauty that comes with both age and utility; its understated elegance; the asymmetrical ‘flaws’ that are part of its construction. Don’t confuse the wabi sabi aesthetic with the shabby chic design trend – wabi sabi embodies unpretentious sophistication; spaces that are clean and sparse (after all cleanliness is considered a mark of respect. And clean well cared for spaces and artifacts are more likely to stand the test of time.); and made of materials and colour schemes that reference the natural world.
In following posts, I’ll be delving into specific design elements and nuances of this refined aesthetic.
Wabi Sabi Style, Crowley, James and Sandra Crowley. 2001. USA.