WABI SABI TAKES ON FAKE CULTURE
a 700 year old design style – still going strong
Wabi Sabi and the other Zen related idea of Shibui have informed the inspiration and work of many designers in the West from interior design guru Axel Vervoordt to Apple’s Steve Jobs. But the ever growing popularity of of this design style is part of a much wider phenomenon.
There’s no surprise that in the age of Post Truth and Fake News, people are seeking a degree of ‘authenticity’, and reassuringly closeting themselves in their own little filter bubbles or echo chambers. And inevitably designers are at it too. Of course the popularity of ‘authenticity’ as a criteria of design, started well before Brexit, Trump and Kremlin machinations, in response to the excesses of globalised capitalism. But the socio-political earthquakes of 2016 have made it all the more urgent.
Just look around at all the new ‘authenticity’ seeking interior design styles that are weighing down the bookshelves, the explosion of search terms on Etsy, the acres of images on Pinterest and whole swathes of fashionable London, and New York – all enthralled by the quest. Confusingly this holy quest hasn’t produced just one style incarnation – but a great many that are varied but related: there are Hipsters and Rough Luxe, Natural and Organic, Rustic and Reclaimed, Simple or Shabby Chic and of course Wabi Sabi and Shibui.
What profoundly distinguishes Wabi Sabi from all the other design styles that are apparently targeting fake culture, is of course its impressive 700 year pedigree. But it also stands out as a whole ideology or worldview, and one that unlike all the others, is genuinely ‘authentic’ and impervious to mass market commodification. As an increasing number of stylists like Hans Blomquist, and designers like Axel Vervoordt are turning with enthusiasm to Wabi Sabi, it becomes especially important to be clear about what Wabi Sabi actually is.
Andrew Juniper attempts to explain the unexplainable, and guides us towards an understanding of Wabi Sabi design.
Wabi Sabi and Design
by Andrew Juniper
When I found myself haggling for an old oven pot in a Turkish restaurant, I realised that years spent in Japan had radically and irreversibly changed my perspective on both art and beauty.
The small dark bowl that had so caught my attention had no real design to speak of, it’s surface was rough and impregnated with years of Turkish cuisine… and yes there was something about it that was captivatingly attractive. The glazed surface had become rich with visual nuance and it’s simple unrefined form was pure and unaffected by artistic considerations – it was one of a thousand similar bowls, but it’s rusticity and artlessness were extraordinarily expressive and resonated with the imperfections and impermanence of life. The pot we so admired had what the Japanese refer to as wabi sabi.
The Turkish restaurateurs who were asked to part with their pot for a price far greater than that of a replacement thought we were a little strange, to say the least, but happily accepted our eccentricity and payment. Explaining wabi sabi to an English-speaking audience is a challenge, but with a ten word vocabulary of Turkish, it was not a realistic proposition.
Having opened a design gallery called Wabi Sabi in the U.K., not surprisingly we are regularly asked to explain the concept. Yet every attempt to clarify its tenets usually resulted in a slow glazing of the listener’s eyes and then silence. This inability to adequately explain wabi sabi continued for several years, until we were approached to write a book on the subject – something most Japanese would consider unwise to even attempt. Wabi sabi is an aesthetic philosophy so intangible and so shrouded in centuries of mystery that even the most ambitious Japanese scholars would give it a wide berth and uphold the Japanese tradition of talking about it only in the most poetic terms.
The Japanese have an admirable tendency to leave the unexplainable unexplained, as is the case with Zen, whose most profound teachings cannot be communicated by verbal explanations. Zen believes words are the fundamental obstacle to clear understanding. The monks seek to reach their goal of enlightenment not through learning but by the unlearning of all preconceived notions of life and reality.
Zen believes words are the fundamental obstacle to clear understanding.
However, for those in the West who are interested in things Japanese, there needs to be some form of entry into the Japanese worldview and a way to share their aesthetic ideals. I set myself the task of attempting to clarify and illustrate some of the ideas that form the foundation for wabi sabi art. As Zen and Christianity differ profoundly, so too do the philosophies that have guided the development of art under the two cultural banners.
Zen monks lead a simple and austere life constantly aware of their mortality. Wabi sabi art is a distillation of their humble efforts to try and express, in a physical form, their love of life balanced against the sense of serene sadness that is life’s inevitable passing. As the artistic mouthpiece of the Zen movement, wabi sabi art embodies the lives of the monks and is built on the precepts of simplicity, humility, restraint, naturalness, joy and melancholy as well as the defining element of impermanence. Wabi sabi art challenges us to unlearn our views of beauty and to rediscover the intimate beauty to be found in the smallest details of nature’s artistry.
Wabi sabi does not yield easily to a definitive, one-line interpretation, but I do hope that the legacy left by the wise Zen monks of old will offer some new perspectives on the spirituality of art in a world rapidly moving toward unrestrained materialism.
Photograph by Robert Rosenblum
When we see something grandiose or physically impressive like the Eiffel Tower, we are moved to a feeling of awe and wonder. How then, can a person be moved by a single flower in an old bamboo vase? How can this simple expression enable a person to experience a heightened sense of himself and his environment?
There is something in the flower arrangement that manages to condense, into something so utterly simple, a reflection of existence and our lot as human beings. The flower may be just coming into blossom and so signify the force of life, while the vase may be deformed or split showing the signs of decay that define the inevitable path traversed by all things organic. These thoughts may not be verbalised, but something within is touched by the knowledge that we too, are part of the coming and going of life, and as certainly as we have enjoyed the vigour of youth, we will grow older and move toward the winter years.
Zen monks and tea masters were aware of the effect a well-designed room or garden could have on one’s psychological well-being and made every effort to fine tune their arts to maximise these positive effects.
In the modern world, where design reflects the prevalent material aspirations, we live and work in areas that show scant regard for our spiritual nature. Most modern designs lack intimacy, and production costs and shrewd marketing schemes play the dominant role in defining our living spaces. As an ideology detached from the commercial world, wabi sabi provides an alternative to these poorly designed and mass-produced environments. It can rekindle the dwindling awareness of our own spirituality and bring back a sense of what it means to be human in such an awe-inspiring world.
Physical and Metaphysical Properties of Wabi Sabi
Heralding from a different cultural milieu complete with a radically different cosmic view, wabi sabi presents in its alien nature, a rather tricky aesthetic to actually analyse within a Western framework. And there is always the danger that over intellectualising – the very thing that it is trying to avoid – will diminish the potential that it hints at. Nevertheless there are certain physical and metaphysical themes that are generally present in most expressions considered to be wabi sabi.
Unlike many Hellenic-inspired concepts of beauty, wabi sabi has nothing to do with grandeur or symmetry.
Unlike many Hellenic-inspired concepts of beauty, wabi sabi has nothing to do with grandeur or symmetry. On the contrary, it requires that one should observe, with the utmost attention, the details and nuances that are offered to the keen eye. For it is in these almost imperceptible details that one can find the visual treasures that lie at the heart of wabi sabi, and it is through them that one might be able to catch a glimpse of the serene melancholy that they suggest.
Photographs by Debi Treloar
The scope of wabi sabi expression is vast and need not be limited to just the visual arts. Poetry, theatre and music are also mediums capable of instilling a sense of wabi sabi, and as is befitting of a Zen-inspired aesthetic, there are no hard-and-fast rules for the physical qualities of wabi sabi.
Indeed, one of the underlying tenets is a quest for the unique and unconventional. However, if one had to suggest one common thread that is able to link all wabi sabi expressions, then it might be said that those sensitive to its mood should, when coming into contact with wabi sabi expressions, find themselves touched in an undefinable yet profound way.
They have a sensation of yearning for something that defies articulation and a sense of peace brought by the reaffirmation of our impermanence.
PRINCIPLES of WABI SABI
It is important that some part of every piece of wabi sabi art is organic in nature, whether it be clay, wood textile or any other naturally occurring material. The tides of time should should be able to imprint the passing of the years on an object. The physical decay or natural wear and tear of the materials used does not in the least detract from the visual appeal, rather it adds to it.
It is the changes of texture and colour that provide the space for the imagination to enter and become more involved with the devolution of the piece. Whereas modern design often uses inorganic materials to defy the natural ageing effects of time, wabi sabi embraces them and seeks to use this transformation as an integral part of the whole. This is not limited to the process of decay, but can also be found at the moment of inception, when life is taking its first fragile steps toward becoming.
No shiny, uniform materials
Materials that clearly show the passage of time
Materials whose devolution is expressive and attractive
Freedom of Form
The form of the piece should be personal and intimate with little attention given to symmetry or regularity. Unlike primitive art, which shares many of the features of wabi sabi art, it is rarely symbolic in any way. The form of the piece is usually dictated by the properties of the material used and the function it provides. An example of this is a bamboo vase. Nature has already provided the shape it is up to the craftsman to select the most attractive section and to cut it according to the size required. Form should not be a purely conceptual idea of the artist, as this may lead to the involvement of personal tastes moving the work away from artless toward artful, and thus away from the true spirit of Zen.
When being formed, it is important that the artist should be devoid of thought and in tune with the natural rhythms of life. Intellectual ideas of art and beauty are to be discarded as the artist strives to bring out the innate beauty found in nature.
Although one can get a feeling of wabi sabi from naturally occurring phenomena, it is usually the act of framing by an artist that brings the poignancy to the attention of others. As well as making something from scratch there is an abundance of good resources in antiques or secondhand markets, in the countryside, or even on the beach. When a taste is acquired for things wabi sabi, the world can turn into a very interesting place, full to the brim with creative potential. A well balanced piece of driftwood can add a wonderful touch to an otherwise minimal interior, and all that may be required is the mounting of the piece on the wall or on a tabletop. Quite often what is not as it is more important than what it is. The discipline of Japanese design is to refrain from embellishment and to let the art work by itself without trying to improve it.
Some might argue that the artist must refrain from putting in any of his own personal ideas of taste or style in order that the piece should be free from any attention or foibles of the ego. Personality, however remarkable, is still no match for nature, and so the stamp of individuality is not seen as being important – there are in fact those who decry it. For the truly great individual artists, who have through their efforts managed to transcend the bounds of their own individuality, the art then becomes egoless and artless. The great esteem shown to artists who have managed to transcend themselves and make their art artless reflects the intense difficulty of the task. The Japanese seek the enlightenment of the artist in the work that they do, for it is this element that makes some art truly great.
Asymmetry or irregularity
The form comes from the physical properties of the materials used
Artlessness not artistry
The piece evolves in a natural and unforced way
When a large percentage of modern designs use materials that often have a smooth and sleek finish, wabi sabi expressions tend to use the organic nature of the materials and forms to leave the object with a rough and uneven surface. As nothing in the world we perceive is perfect, the idea of perfection is an unattainable concept that can only be approximated. If we look at any object in enough detail we will see imperfections and flaws that are an unavoidable parts of the randomly evolving environment we live in.
If an object is supposed to be unflawed then the eye is drawn to and inevitably offended by any imperfections. On the other hand, when something makes no attempt at perfection but yields to the universal laws, then the image sits more comfortably on the eye. The iron surface of an old kettle slowly changes over the years until there is a kaleidoscope of nuances that are pleasing to the eye.
These colours are then further enhanced by the random pitting caused by the corrosion. So although the overall shape of the kettle may be attractive, the real wabi sabi beauty lies in the small details where the passing years have added an extra depth. The mind can then, without trying to fit the object into any conceptual category, enjoy the randomness and imperfections of the piece and feel in it the imperfections present in our lives. Through the textural variations, roughness, and wear and tear over the years of use, objects can become more expressive and still more appealing.
The examples of textures are almost limitless and include the cracked mud walls of a tearoom, the uneven weave of antique mosquito nets, the course feel of an unglazed pot, and even the worn contours of a tool handle. Textural complexity and randomness are essential elements in wabi sabi, for without them the piece will not truly suggest the arbitrary nature of evolution and devolution.
Rough and uneven
Variegated and random
Textures formed by natural sporadic processes
Ugliness and Beauty
The words are steeped in emotion as people grow up in societies that deplore the former while adulating the latter. Our ideas of what represents beauty and ugliness are based mainly on learned assumptions about the items that we perceive in our own separate worlds. But, in the Buddhist view of the world, there is no duality, no life, no death, no beauty and no ugliness. These exist only in the minds of those who are not enlightened and are the ideas we must dismiss if we are to perceive the world that lies beyond that.
As Buddha said, “If in the land of Buddha, there remains the distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, I do not desire to be a Buddha of such a land.” It has been said that wabi sabi is the coaxing of beauty out of ugliness, but this seems to suggest that the two ideas are opposing absolutes. Zen would maintain that the two are one and the same and only divided by learned perceptions. The beauty of wabi sabi is not in the realm of learned ideas of beauty and ugliness, it lies in an intuitive, nonintellectual feeling toward the objects that can bring about the wabi sabi experience. The real beauty that we can enjoy in true and pure aesthetics is neither beautiful nor ugly, it is the magical state that happens before any of the concepts have found voice in the intellect.
A knot in a piece of wood may be seen by some as an unattractive flaw that should be cut out, but there are many who find the gnarled tentacles of the knot more appealing than the even grain of the rest of the wood. For some, the lack of order and cohesive symmetry makes things ugly, for they are not so easy to analyse in terms of other known forms or textures. If the mind cannot easily categorise them, then it may find them unappealing and difficult on the eye. On the other hand, seen from a different perspective, the object, because it does not easily yield to a common form, may hold far more potential as it can stimulate new mental activity in much the same way an infant first starts to explore the world. It is precisely the deviation from preconceived notions of beauty that presents a new challenge in the way we perceive an object. Wabi sabi can therefore be seen as both beautiful and ugly, but the resulting emotional response will ultimately depend on the disposition of the audience.
By avoiding any deliberate attempts at classical beauty, wabi sabi focuses on the world before these ideas existed and gently pushes the observer toward this realisation. Perhaps the emotions aroused by wabi sabi expressions are reactions to the chords resonating deep within our souls, a resonance of the freedom of early childhood and the call of the eternity surrounding us.
Disregard for conventional views of beauty
An aesthetic pleasure that lies beyond conventional beauty
Beauty in the smallest most imperceptible details
Photographs by Debi Treloar
With the use of natural materials and dyes, wabi sabi rarely strays from the boundaries of subdued colours and lighting, for it is through these that the atmosphere of intimacy can be transferred. In the tearoom, the pastel colours of a mud and sand wall blend effortlessly with the straw used for the tatami mats, the wooden support beams and the paper screens. Light is let in only to the extent that vision is not impaired by its absence, and the subduing of colour provides the most suitable environment for the subjugation of the active mind.
In the same way that red is used in fast-food restaurants to discourage guests from settling any longer than is necessary to consume their food, the colours of tearoom instil a guest with an unusual degree of calmness and serenity. Nearly all things considered wabi sabi have not just one colour but a myriad of colours blending together. Unlike modern finishes, the surface is rich with nuance and the flows of colours create the most intricate and intriguing patterns. On careful inspection one can almost get lost in the wondrous flux of colours coming from a slowly rusting iron bowl, a decaying tree trunk, or even a dew-soaked rock.
The textiles and papers used by the tea masters rarely strayed from the ingredients to be found in nature, but large areas of uniform colours as well as any bright colours were always assiduously avoided. While the shoguns and wealthy nobility often favoured gold and other ostentatious colours, the Zen monks and the tea masters preferred the more mundane colours such as browns, greens and greys. They also tended to favour darker shades over light.
The colours were often toned down by the medium in which they occurred, such as the mud walls inside the tearoom. The surface is very uneven and there is a degree of inconsistency in the mud itself. The result is a whole spectrum of colours that blend together. Within the cracks and the textural variegations lies wabi sabi, both in the tiny details of the wall and its overall effect on the room.
No harsh or strong colours
Colours and dyes from natural sources
Diffuse and murky colours
Matte colours that lack uniformity
As hinted at above, there is a need to focus only on the essential part of the design: beyond its functional requirement no further embellishment should be required. This is one of the cornerstones of Japanese design and one that has stood the test of time while fashions have come and gone. Yanagi (Japanese philosopher and founder of the folk craft movement in Japan in the late 1920s and 1930s), called for a return to the crafts where the function and the natural materials used were the sole dictums for design. Nothing more should be required.
Sometimes Japanese art and architecture can seem almost brutally austere, with no quarter given to ornate design ideas, and Yanagi argued that it is here that true beauty exists as a synergy between the unlettered craftsman and the natural raw materials that he uses with such humility. It was indeed these very items that inspired the first great tea masters when they came to fully appreciate the craftwork of the simple-living potters of Korea. With nothing beyond what was required and little premeditation the potter would make his wares without considering artistic expression or personal preferences.
The tea ceremony has been called the religion of beauty, and for its top exponents, tea masters like Shukan, Joo and Rikyu, it was the uncompromising simplicity of these rustic pots that embodied the very essence of beauty. The paring down to the very minimum while still retaining the poetry was the tea masters’ maxim for design. The discovery of this obscure beauty was the challenge laid down to all those taking part in the tea ceremony.
Once attuned to this peculiarly Japanese way of perceiving beauty, the potential for aesthetic pleasure broadens considerably while the need to follow the whims of fashion is significantly reduced. This could have a tremendous effect on the environments we choose to live in and the choices we make in our physical lives. With its deep philosophical consistency, wabi sabi offers an alternative to the abject materialism relentlessly touted by the media and offers a more balanced approach to being in a modern society.
No embellishment or ostentation
Unrefined and raw
Use of freely available materials
The concept of space in Japan is more pressing than in most other countries both in physical and metaphysical terms. Physically because the mountainous regions that dominate the landscape severely limit the amount of space available for living – the average size of an apartment in Tokyo is only about 48 yd.² (approximately 40 m²). This physical restriction has out of necessity affected the way in which space has been used to maximise its potential. In the traditional house, beds in the form of futons, are stored in cupboards that are integrated into the wall, and so when cleared away the room provides ample space for other uses. The scarcity of space has made it a prized commodity, so the use of space has formed an important element in the Japanese aesthetic. By keeping artistic expression to an absolute minimum they have managed to maximise its impact.
How Japanese designs use space has also been powerfully influenced by metaphysical ideas about the material world and how people relate to it. Mu is thorny Zen concept not of nonexistence, as the translation of “nothingness” suggests, but rather the passing through to that which lies beyond the dualism of existence and nonexistence. This love of mu is found in the constant use of space to suggest it. In the open expanses of the gardens, in the broad unused areas of monochrome painting, and in the complete lack of adornment in the tearoom, the Japanese show their reverence for space and the feeling is can instil. When considering wabi sabi expressions, an allowance should be made for space to play an active role. If for example a piece of driftwood is to be placed on the wall, it should be placed on a large, empty pale wall with nothing that will detract from the single piece of wood. This non-clutter requires discipline, and it is often necessary to get rid of all excess in order to give sufficient space to just one expression.
non-clutter requires discipline
The use of space is not just restricted to the space into which an object is placed, but also the space within it. There is need to provide visual space so the nonmaterial aspect of the work can interact with and balance its material counterpart. Music has been described as the spaces between the notes, and in art too, these areas that are not actually used can be just as important as those that are. And English flower arrangement may, for example, take up two thirds of the area directly above the vase with an abundance of extrovert flowers, but a nagaire flower arrangement from the tea ceremony may take up less than one 10th. Again, the space afforded to the single flower forces the attention to focus on the smaller details, and in so doing, the life of the flower becomes imbued with far more poetry.
Space and the discipline required to maintain it is a key aspect of the Japanese aesthetic ideals, and when considering wabi sabi designs, the provision of adequate space is an important element that adds so much more than “nothingness”.
Nothing surplus to requirement
Significant areas of “nothing” in interiors and gardens
Ample space around all accent pieces
Accent pieces at an absolute minimum
Of all the elements of design this is probably the hardest to provide guidelines for, and yet it is arguably the most important factor in the outcome of the piece. The Greeks had a special formula to decide matters of balance and applied this to many aspects of architecture and design, but needless to say, no such rules exist for wabi sabi designs. In keeping with wabi sabi’s centrifugal reference to naturally occurring phenomena, all aspects of the design must be physically balanced in such a way as to reflect the physical balances found in the natural world.
These natural proportions, which have evolved as being the best suited to the environment, are the yardsticks by which wabi sabi expressions should be designed. It is only by continued observation of the surroundings that a feel for these unwritten rules will become imprinted on the aesthetic judgments of those trying to create. The hard work of creation is in this relentless assessment of the guidelines provided by nature.
The form of most wabi sabi pieces is usually dictated by the function that they are intended to fulfil. There is little history of art for art’s sake in the tearoom, as each part of the tearoom and ceremony are integrated into the function that they perform – the beautifully crafted whisk also whisks the tea beautifully.
The artistic input for the ceremony came from the simple flower arrangement, the hanging scroll, the refined poverty of the interior, and the exquisite movements of the tea master. The Taoists and Zen monks were very practical people, so things without function were often considered frivolous. When considering wabi sabi designs, abstract sculptural pieces should make way for unforced designs that also incorporate an element of usefulness such as a vase, a table or a teacup.
Careful and constant observation of the physical balances found in nature
No prescribed formulae
No regular or uniform shapes
Design elements balanced in a way that looks completely natural and unforced
Photograph by Debi Treloar
It is an undeniable truth that much of the beauty accredited to the simple lines in Japanese design comes down to the determination to keep both art and everyday designs to a functional minimum. There has been a tendency in the West to make something beautiful and to then spoil it by fussing it up. Art is sometimes better defined by what is left out then by what is put in.
To the Japanese mind, this purity and honesty is vital, as within any design the eye is naturally drawn to a feeling of sincerity. There was a master gardener who noticed an apprentice trimming a hedge while slightly off-balance. The master gardener quickly reprimanded the student, explaining that his lack of focus and effort would mean that this spirit would be transferred to the feeling of the garden. He said that it was vital that everything done in a garden was done in a spirit of dedication and humility, for it was through this struggle that the work would become imbued with spirituality. More than any learned ideas, it was the effort and attitude of the gardener that would decide the outcome of the garden.
This way of making things is not limited to gardening but extends to every aspect of Japanese art. The quality of any piece of art is said to be decided before the pen or brush has been lifted, for it lies within each person, and the art that is produced is only as good as the spirit of the artist at the time it is made. The links between wabi sabi and Zen exist because the monks were well aware that artistic expression is a carbon copy of the awareness of the artist, and if anything of worth is to be made then the spirit of the artist must be the first criteria to be satisfied.
In some ways it is fitting that I end on sobriety, for it is sobriety that has cut its way through the long history of frivolous materialism, and it is sobriety that lights the way for all the future endeavours of mankind. Sobriety is a natural extension of the resolute modesty found in wabi sabi thought, and armed with this sobriety and humility Japanese artists, philosophers, and poets have continued to seek the ultimate truth of art and the life that it defines.
Reality of impermanence used to add a sense of perspective and finality
All design work approached with humility and sincerity
Clarity of personal motives
All aspects of design kept to a functional minimum
Pieces that are intimate and personal
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