Have you read or heard the term "Wabi-Sabi" recently? If some of the design blogs are to be believed, it’s becoming a "thing" in interiors. Yet, the very act of force, of trying to make something a "thing", opposes the essence of Wabi-Sabi.
To truly understand Wabi-Sabi, one likely has to spend years studying Zen Buddhism and the social and cultural mores of the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony. Wabi-Sabi has developed from two different philosophies, and can be (sort of) summed up by Richard R. Powell, who wrote in his book Wabi Sabi Simple, "It nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."
"Wabi" can mean loneliness or distance from society, a sense or remoteness that is grounded in the natural world. The four seasons, most especially autumn, are deeply connected to the spirit of Wabi. Unlike Western cultures, which celebrate Autumn as the season of bounty and harvest in preparation for the long winter ahead, Japanese and Zen Buddhist cultures see the Autumn as the unavoidable path to death, the ultimate distance or separation from all we know. However, this is not a state to feared, but to aspire too. It is the shucking off of worldly possessions to live in an other-worldly state.
"Sabi", while closely related, is focused more towards the transience of life and the inherent beauty of change. In the BBC Four Documentary "Searching for Wabi-Sabi", an elderly Japanese woman describes herself as an example of Sabi. She is who she has always been, even as her outward appearance has changed over time. In Eastern cultures, the elderly are revered for their knowledge and wisdom and the natural aging process is seen as beautiful. It’s the process of transformation, the celebration that nothing is permanent and perfection cannot be achieved. "Wabi is a guiding principal of life, the stripping away of anything that is unnecessary. But it’s ultimately indefinable as words are not adequate when trying to understand the world," says a monk in "Searching for Wabi-Sabi".
Is Wabi-Sabi even applicable in American home design?
With buzzwords such as "rustic simplicity", "roughness", "economy", "austerity", "modesty" and "nature" floating around it, "Wabi-Sabi" feels a little Shaker in its austerity, recessionist in its economy and environmentalist in its closeness to nature. But, these ties are inherently not accurate, or at least not deep enough. The Shakers did believe in austerity and the stripping away of anything that is unnecessary, but they did not find beauty in destruction or natural decay. There was no "chippy" paint on the Shaker’s furniture. Economy is important, but it’s not about reuse, reduce, recycle, it’s a feeling closer to emptiness and total lack of need.
It seems to me that in our Western culture, Wabi-Sabi cannot really become a design style in anything but the broadest of terms. We can embrace imperfection and the patina that comes from age and use, but we cannot force it. Faux antiquing will never be Wabi-Sabi, nor will finding an old stick on the road and hanging light bulbs off of it to make a chandelier. Half painted walls and unfinished furniture are not rendered beautiful because they are imperfect and will never be Wabi-Sabi. On the other hand, a beautiful handmade vase filled with a single flower may be Wabi-Sabi. The vase is an empty vessel open to possibility, and the flower is an object of natural beauty that is on its journey between first bud to inevitable decay.