“Nowhere in the world has any culture been so prepossessed with the pursuit of beauty as in Japan.”¹ The stereotypical associations of Japan and its culture conjure up vivid images of tranquil gardens, snow-capped mountains, kimonos, origami, sushi, calligraphy. Woven into the consciousness of Japanese culture is the philosophy of wabi-sabi, often referred to as ‘the beauty of imperfection’. As a movement so connected with nature and its processes, wabi-sabi instinctively lends itself to Icon By Design’s core principles of craftsmanship, sustainability, and timelessness – and the contentment one experiences through the combination of these. Through exploring the expression of wabi-sabi in both Eastern and Western culture, we can discover how its core principles have resonated so powerfully with those seeking an antidote to the current societal emphases on perfectionism, materialism, and consumerism.’
In order to encourage an honest discussion on wabi-sabi, it is necessary to first define its characteristics. Broken down into its most basic form, ‘wabi’ can be loosely translated as an ‘unassuming, or unpretentious quality’; while ‘sabi’ refers to the ‘process of maturity, or natural ageing’. Placed together, it refers to an appreciation of natural processes; the beauty found in natural materials and honest craftsmanship. This having been said, while “the concepts within wabi-sabi are essentially simple, there are depths and nuances of meaning that elude the casual explanation.”² Many people describe it as a feeling, and so, by definition, something that cannot be explained – it must be felt. However, for the purpose of this article, we can talk about wabi-sabi in the context of both philosophical thought (“an integrated approach to the ultimate nature of existence (metaphysics), sacred knowledge (spirituality), emotional well-being (State of mind), behaviour (morality), and the look and feel of things (materiality)”³), and artistic response (“a sense of ordered placement and balance…that is found within nature”⁴).
As a business focused on sustainability and sustainable materials, Icon By Design uses only solid timbers – embracing the natural characteristics these produce in the patina, knots and textures of our furniture. Each piece is unique; each has its own characteristic – it is a living, breathing object. Customers who purchase our products feel an emotional connection to the furniture, and enjoy sharing that connection. These are pieces to make memories around; a dining table at the centre of every dinner party, a bookshelf displaying a carefully curated collection, an armchair that becomes a loved one’s favoured ‘spot’. As the Greek philosopher Lucian wrote: “the world is fleeting; all things pass away – or is it that we pass and they stay?”⁵ Icon By Design embraces this spirit of legacy through timeless designs, made from materials that are both sustainable and durable. We create pieces that are built to last; rejecting the disposable society, and embracing the beauty of perfect imperfection⁶.
Wabi-sabi can be a confusing concept for those familiar with the Western aesthetic canon, as at its core, it encompasses several separate, and seemingly disparate, elements of artistic movements: Romanticism, Modernism, Minimalism, Eclecticism, Arts & Crafts, and Ephemeralism – to name but a few. Many academics cite the ancient tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony as the “most comprehensive realisation”⁷ of wabi-sabi; instancing the shift away from using Chinese porcelain for the ceremonial ‘vessels’ in favour of less refined earthenware and pottery around the 16th century as a turning point. To gain a better understanding of the origins of the movement’s philosophy, and its aestheticism, we must first understand the role of the tea ceremony in Japanese culture. A tradition dating back thousands of years, the tea ceremony occupied the same place in the Japanese way of life as the Holy Communion did for Catholics in the same period. Historically, both practices were shrouded in mysticism, symbolism, and ritualism, with those responsible for performing the ‘rites’ of the respective ceremonies undergoing many years of training and indoctrination. The simplification of the tea ceremony in the 16th century draws parallels with the Reformation of the Christian Church, which happened in the same century. Perhaps lines can be drawn to indicate a more universal shift in the human psyche that was occurring at that time; moving away from the alienating perfectionism of grand performance, towards a more intimate and emotional connection to the respective ceremonies’ purposes. This is, however, where the similarities between the tea ceremony and the Holy Communion end, as the East and West differ fundamentally in the basis of their spirituality. While religions of the West have lifted their eyes to the sky for enlightenment and spiritual direction, the East gained spiritual truth through observations of the natural world. As a philosophical movement, wabi-sabi was borne out of the study of nature, and the effect of observing certain natural processes (like petals falling from a cherry tree, or the weathered timber of a wooden bench) can have on our spirit. Traces of it in philosophical thinking can be found in the writings of Japanese poets during the Middle Ages, which celebrate living humbly amongst nature and natural materials; away from the urban centres. Echoing the beliefs of the Cynics, a school of thought that gained popularity in Ancient Greece, the poets encouraged their readers to “get rid of all that is unnecessary…stop [the] preoccupation with success – wealth, status, power, and luxury – and enjoy the unencumbered life.”⁸ As the philosophy evolved and gained more traction, so it bled in to aesthetics. To accompany the poetry of the early Japanese writers, woodblock prints seemed the most natural partner; their crudeness and rusticity perfectly illustrating the wabi-sabi philosophy9. Next came more formal art; painters leaving vast swathes of canvas unfinished, limiting their input to a single corner. Lastly, the tactile arts – textiles and ceramics – embraced ‘the beauty of imperfection’ into their craftsmanship. Much like the duality of the words themselves, the aesthetics and the philosophy are fused together; one cannot now mention one, without talking about the other.
As a philosophy so “diametrically opposed to [its] Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in a Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection”, what relevance does wabi-sabi hold in today’s ¹⁰ society? Is it simply, as columnist Michael Hogan proposes, “the latest in a long line of repackaged philosophies being peddled as the antidote to all our 21st century ills”¹¹? Well, no. Unlike movements such as Feng Shui (which, to be done properly, require the hired skills of an expert) and, more recently, Hygge (retails latest buzzword encouraging us to socialise with wine, cheese and knitted blankets), wabi-sabi is not commercially-driven. Rather, it is a rejection of today’s materialistic rat race, where consumers compete against one another in an endless quest for ‘perfection’. As Andrew Juniper explains:
“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.”¹²
Just as Apple spoke to “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels” in its iconic 1997 advert, so wabi-sabi speaks to those in opposition to a world obsessed with perfectionism and material possessions. In a society so dominated by technology, it’s easy to forget that we, as human beings, are part of a natural world order. As Crowley reminds us, “technologies may change, but both nature and basic human needs remain constant.”¹³ It’s this encouragement to live in the moment, to appreciate the beauty of ‘the mundane’, that resonates with a great number of people dissatisfied and discontent with the artificiality of today’s society¹⁴.
Wabi-sabi is much more than the appreciation of a chip in a vase, as some cynics would have you believe. To embrace its philosophy is to embrace freedom; it is a release from society’s laser-focus and an introduction to a wider picture. It encourages mindfulness, minimises obsessiveness, and promotes a way of living that is sustainable and enriching. In the context of design, it advocates the use of natural materials and durable craftsmanship – minimising the need to constantly repair or replace; imbuing each piece with its own legacy. Wabi-sabi is the enjoyment of the things around us, whether that be in the appearance of our material possessions, or the memories associated with them. We may live in a disposable society, “but disposability is not the answer; a change of heart is the answer.”¹⁵
1 James and Sandra Crowley. Wabi Sabi Style. pg.2
2 ibid. pg.3
3 Leonard Koren. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. pg.41
4 James and Sandra Crowley. Wabi Sabi Style. pg.1
5 Douglas Todd. 2017. “How Alike Are Danish “Hygge” And Japanese “Wabi-Sabi?””. Vancouver Sun. http://vancouversun.com/news/staff-blogs/how-alike-are-danish-hygge-and-japanese-wabi-sabi. (Accessed August 11, 2017)
6 “Imperfection involves the viewer in the creative process, because within imperfection is found the allusion of perfection.” James and Sandra Crowley. Wabi Sabi Style. pg.15
7 Leonard Koren. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. pg.31
8 Leonard Koren. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. pg.59
9 “The Japanese were to become masters of space, and have throughout their long artistic history stressed the importance of space or nothingness as a juxtaposition to things that presently exist.” Andrew Juniper. Wabi Sabi, The Japanese Art of Impermanence. pg.53
10 Andrew Juniper. Wabi Sabi, The Japanese Art of Impermanence. pg.9
11 Michael Hogan. “Wabi-sabi is the new hygge? Spare me this half-baked New Age bilge”. The Telegraph. March 9, 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/wabi-sabi-new-hygge-spare-half-baked-philosophies-new-age-bilge/ (Accessed August 11, 2017)
12 Andrew Juniper. Wabi Sabi, The Japanese Art of Impermanence. pg.80
13 James and Sandra Crowley. Wabi Sabi Style. pg.1
14 “Many new things now are made to be disposable because consumerism is out of control, and there simply isn’t enough room in our homes in which to stuff everything.” Richard R Powell. Wabi Sabi Simple: Create Beauty. Value Imperfection. Live Deeply. pg.5
15 Richard R Powell. Wabi Sabi Simple: Create Beauty. Value Imperfection. Live Deeply. pg.5