“As Dusk approaches in the hinterlands, a traveler ponders shelter for the night. He notices tall rushes growing everywhere, so he bundles an armful together as they stand in the field, and knots them at the top. Presto, a living grass hut. The next morning, before embarking on another day’s journey, he unknots the rushes and presto, the hut deconstructs, disappears, and becomes a virtually indistinguishable part of the larger field of rushes once again. The original wilderness seems to be restored, but minute traces of the shelter remain. A slight twist or bend in a reed here and there. There is also a memory of the hut in the mind of the traveler” (‘Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers’ by Leonard Koren).
The quote from Leonard Koren gives a glimpse into the basic essence of Wabi-Sabi as a philosophy, which I feel is a search for the beauty in the imperfect, incomplete and impermanent. A lot is always left to the imagination of the beholder, just as Andrew Juniper (Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence) very rightly said that “all beauty lies in the sphere of perception”.
Our classical Western notion of beauty has always been something perfect, enduring, and where one could imagine celebrating anything except rust, patina, wear and tear. According to Richard Powell, author of Wabi Sabi Simple, “Accepting the world as imperfect, unfinished, and transient, and then going deeper and celebrating that reality, is something not unlike freedom.”
Hence, the idea of abandoning ‘perfect’ and even ‘good enough’ would seem irresistibly tempting to a Wabi-Sabi enthusiast. “Life — the fingerprints, scars, and laugh lines — is itself perfectly imperfect, and the beauty in that, monumental” (Gretchen Roberts, Wabi Sabi Your Life: 6 Strategies for Embracing Imperfection).
In its most untainted form, Wabi-Sabi embodies the principles of evanescence and delicate traces at the borders of nothingness; that everything whether tangible or intangible evolves from or dissolves into oblivion leaving behind its evocative existence, and that the real beauty lies in the unseen and unspoken.
Here I’d like to quote Junichiro Tanizaki “…enhanced darkness casting pale glows / dim shades owing to curio lamps / candles, are actually considered to be ornaments used for lighting up alcoves and recesses in a Japanese room; whereas a westerner might quibble perceiving it as no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament…”
Wabi-Sabi is often termed as the ‘feng-shui of the new millennium’ however there is a huge difference between the two — Wabi-Sabi on its own is a whole philosophy / worldview cutting a wide swath across philosophies, attitudes, lifestyles, relationships, experiences, art and materials, culture, prose styles as well as architectural / interior ideals.
However, unlike ‘Feng-Shui’, you cannot hire a professional to Wabi-Sabi an interior space. The reason being Wabi-Sabi is more of a sensibility than a mere decorating style where beauty itself is considered a dynamic event occurring between the observer and the object / intangible experience and hence can be defined as an altered state of consciousness or a moment of poetry and grace in itself.
Earlier on Japan’s geographic location was isolated by the sea – a string of islands about 100 miles from Korea and 500 miles from China - protected it from foreign invasions allowing controlled contact with other nations. This helped Japanese aesthetics develop in an utmost unique fashion.
Even though Wabi-Sabi as a formal term was articulated only recently, the concept itself is a much an ancient one. Having stemmed from Zen Buddhism (introduced in Japan, after India and China in the 12th century), it holds in common many core spiritual pillars of belief including the belief in harmony (harmony with nature – and the consequent belief that being human fundamentally implies being imperfect), respect, purity, tranquility, anti-rationalism, transcendental truth and leading an unencumbered life.
Just like Wabi-Sabi, Zen practitioners believe that the most vital knowledge can only be conveyed through the interaction of the imagination or experiences instead of written or spoken expression. Perhaps this is why majority of Japanese hesitate to explain the concept Wabi-Sabi in words or thorough speech, they perceive it as more of a ‘feeling’ to be experienced than a material concept which merely adds to its properties of being mysterious. Wabi-Sabi also draws inspiration from the 9th century Chinese Minimalism as well as Taoism – emphasizing harmony, naturalness and simplicity.
“A state of mind…a living tradition”
The genesis of Wabi-Sabi traditions could be traced back to priests, monks and primarily the Japanese tea-masters of 16th Century.
The tea ceremony was variedly called Sado, Chado and Chanoyu. In the context of which Wabi-Sabi reached it’s most comprehensive realization. Instead of solely signifying an event, this ceremony became a multifarious affair encompassing the synthesis of many Japanese arts including interior and garden design, flower arranging, painting, food preparation, and performance; understated, crude, anonymous and indigenous Japanese, Korean tea-related objects and folk-craft were placed on a higher aesthetic pedestal than the glossy, glib and flawless Chinese valuables.
Rikyu, the Japanese tea-master 1522-1591 came up with a new kind of tea room modelled on a shoddy farmer’s hut with mud walls, thatched roof and exposed wooden structural elements; pushing materiality/artifice out of every corner of the room; establishing an egalitarian atmosphere.
Everyone entered the room crawling/bent as an act of humility, eliminating any possibility of deriding the farmer’s hut/materials being medieval/less-preferred.
The tea-making process itself is as simple as fetching water, collecting firewood for boiling, preparing tea and ultimately serving it. Instead of expensive beautiful utensils, warn bamboo tea scoops made of virtue of their age for example, and hand crafted bamboo vases are to be employed.
A successful ceremony is to leave its participants with a feeling of Jaku–tranquility and Sei-Purity. Of course, outside of the tea room all these Wabi-Sabi ideals of existence fade away, in line with the belief in evanescence and impermanence. Importantly enough though, the 16th century tea-room was not without function, where wealthy merchants and warriors sought to consummate their deals and alliances.
In light of trends today then, amongst other things people are looking for Green – harmonious with nature and ecosystem, wellbeing-oriented options and above all simplicity; where simplicity and organized clutter could contribute towards a tranquil environment and an overall therapeutic effect.
Wabi-Sabi ideals propose exactly that while at the same time making sure that the eventual design scheme does not lack personalization, experiencing and aesthetic value in any way. Wabi-Sabi doesn’t mean embracing clutter, Griggs Lawrence explains.
“There is thought and work behind it, not neglect; hence a definite move away from the chaotic maximalist ideals but not to the extent of stark minimalism’.
Other latest trends such as the concept of immersive retail such as that depicted by ‘Louis Vuitton’, ‘Zara’ and ‘Ralph Lauren’ incorporating features like the interactive changing rooms also fall in line with the Wabi-Sabi philosophy; where the idea is to leave the client/customer with an intangible experience convincing them to return back based on their subliminal recollections.
“Our trend research shows that people are ready to seize the moment and indulge in reminiscence – Now is the time to think, to dream, to love and to act” (Shillingford M – Creative Director for Dulux, 2018).
“It is the tactile, the sound element and the impeccably comfortable and personable experience that makes people come back…” (Paul Bishop, Owner and Managing Partner at Bishop Design).
Finally, in terms of interior design then, that would mean creating an overall experience, embracing the rustic appeal, the earthiness, the diffused glow of the rice paper, the course and unrefined, the scars of clay cracking while healing/drying, the ageing and the scarring of time!
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