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The phrase wabi-sabi is not only untranslatable, but it is also considered indefinable in Japanese culture. Wabi, roughly translated as “subdue natural beauty” with a hint of austerity to the word, and sabi, which roughly means “beauty stems from the passing of time” were combined to form one of today’s most influential Japanese culture that is increasingly widespread. The concept has been practised for centuries in Japan, however, there are a number of international architects and designers that have taken an interest in the concept, applying them in their work.

Impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. These words do not typically bring one’s mind to a beautiful design. Author Richard Powell wrote in his book Wabi Sabi Simple: Create Beauty, Value Imperfection, Live Deeply,wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. These concepts are rooted to the three marks of existence in Buddhist teaching, translated as: Impermanence, suffering, and emptiness / absence of self-nature.

Why has the philosophy garnered so much attention?

Wabi-sabi has garnered attention, initially to those who have the opportunity to visit Japan and gain first-hand experiences in the mindset and unpretentious spatial experience. The philosophy leaves something incomplete for the mind’s imagination. What some may see as empty and overly minimalist, the calmness of a space that is designed mindfully provides a refreshing aesthetic to today’s abundance of material items in our lives. Many people buy, accumulate, use an item once and repeat the process again; at some point, the mind craves simplicity to find a clutter-free and meaning to where we live, work and play. The unfinished quality and spatial quality when one approaches an architecture or design project influenced by wabi-sabi can be felt, even through photographs that circulate the internet today.

The Principles and How Others Apply It To Their Design Work

Looking at wabi-sabi from a traditional and Zen philosophy perspective, there are seven principles to attain wabi-sabi:

  • Simplicity / kanso
  • Asymmetry / fukinsei
  • Understated beauty / shibumi
  • Naturalness without pretense / shizen
  • Subtle grace / yugen
  • Freeness / datsuzoku
  • Tranquility / seijaku

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto. Photo by Von Chua.

Drawing from my personal experience of visiting Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, Japan, upon reflection, I subconsciously thought about all the above principles. The dry landscape sits in a 2,670 square feet (248 square meters) rectangle, with fifteen stones of varying sizes carefully placed. As I visited a number of tourist spots in Kyoto, this Zen temple was the most simple, most graceful, most tranquil, and yet most memorable as I remember sitting on the natural wooden veranda facing the garden. The white gravel surrounding the fifteen stones are raked daily by the monks, I could sit there reading the gravel lines all day.

John Pawson, British architectural designer, spent time in Japan in his twenties. He was in the studio of the Shiro Kuramata, a Japanese designer, where Pawson was quoted “mostly trying not to get in the way”. If you know Pawson’s work, one may describe it as minimalism, however, one can also say that his time in Japan formed a strong influence in his work until today. In one of his recent projects, his own country house in the Cotswold, a beautifully restored Grade II listed farm building  (Grade II listed is a heritage buildings of special interest; over 91% of all listed buildings in the United Kingdom are in this class) exhibits the principles of wabi-sabi. This is also supported by his keen eyes for light and dark, photographing his time in this country home which is always a highlight when I scroll through my Instagram account. See them at @johnpawson.

Axel Vervoordt who owns a renowned art gallery, arts and antiques trading organization, with an interior design department has a deep interest in wabi-sabi. In one of his lectures, he mentioned that “time is an artist” which means a lot coming from his background as an art collector since he was 14. Showcasing the beauty of imperfection through his honest display of his lifestyle and design that incorporates the philosophy. In his book Wabi Inspirations, Vervoordt talks about timelessness with tradition, elegance in natural materials, and nobility without sophistication, which are his take and inspiration of the wabi-sabi philosophy. When one looks at his interior work, including a section in his own home dedicated to the philosophy, the strength lies in the authenticity of the space. There is a sense of a space being grounded, unwavered by design trends or signature styles, but being there as it should be and building on what one already have.

The philosophy of wabi-sabi is not about a certain style, but rather a mindset. There are principles but there are no set rules. The mindset of living in a satisfied manner, living modestly, and living in the moment. The philosophy encourages us to look at the bright side in our daily lives, celebrating the way things are rather than how they should be.

Besides John Pawson and Axel Vervoordt who applied the philosophy in their home, Ukrainian architect Sergey Makhno was also influenced by wabi-sabi and brought the same Japanese aesthetics to his penthouse apartment. Combined with local tradition and construction method, the walls are finished in clay in a technique used for old Ukrainian houses, applying the wabi-sabi principles with existing resources to build his version of a wabi-sabi space. Again, this project builds on what one has in its local resources, an approach that Vervoordt also applies in his work.

The Perfectly Imperfect Space

In the decoration of homes, the philosophy roughly translates and realises as pared down possessions to a necessity and beauty level. This does not mean depriving yourself from material possessions, but rather owning items that you like to use in your life, admire, and bring you joy. A true wabi-sabi lifestyle such as those seen in John Pawson, Axel Vervoordt and Sergey Makhno’s homes involves a heightened curation of what one decides to own.

 Wabi-sabi interiors typically utilise natural materials that lends an air of perishability coupled with an enveloping atmosphere. Materials worn from wear, strong attention to nature, as well as the contrast between light and dark. Colours that exist in the natural world such as browns, greens, blacks, and greys tend to appear in wabi-sabi inspired projects. The lack of embellishment and open space creates a mysterious quality and tranquillity that is rare to find today. Much like a misty day, the mysterious quality steers your brain into an unknown world.

The aesthetics of wabi-sabi incorporates simplicity, modesty, asymmetry, appreciation of elegance in natural materials, and imperfection. As an architect, I have often seeked inspiration from Mies van der Rohe’s work. One of the phrases the architect spoke about is “less is more”. There is no direct evidence of Mies van der Rohe being inspired by wabi-sabi, but in this modern day, where possessions, information, etc is in abundance, the philosophies of wabi-sabi highlights the idea of less is more. An imperfectly perfect space realised with the resources available to you, speaks more to me than a perfectly perfect space that may have lost its local culture by forgetting local resources, spending a disproportionate amount to achieve architecture that can be placed anywhere in the world, or disregarding the impact of unconsidered construction methods to the environment.

If you have any questions or would like to further discuss about wabi-sabi, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com.