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Wabi-Sabi: A Design Aesthetic That Honors the Imperfections of Age

Often called "Japanese rustic," it sees beauty in the nuances of change

By John Stark | May 16, 2012

Wabi-sabi is a centuries-old Japanese design aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection and the changes that come with age. If this sounds like it could apply to all of us as we grow older, you’re right — it's an apt metaphor. But wabi-sabi usually refers to objects. From the wabi-sabi perspective, when an object is left to age naturally, it becomes more beautiful. Rust and corrosion are a good thing. 
 
Often described as "Japanese rustic," the aesthetic is a reaction – though not a judgmental one – to the sleek and the slick, the polished and the impersonal. In this respect, Wabi-sabi represents the antithesis of prevailing Western notions of beauty. It runs counter to the contemporary taste for iPhones and glass and chrome furniture. But don't think of it as shabby chic: Wabi-sabi is not concerned with fashion.
 
In his 1994 book, "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers,” architect Leonard Koren traces the wabi-sabi tradition to the first "minimalist-style" Japanese teahouse, which was designed by tea master Sen no Rikyu in the second half of the 16th century, a time of continuous warfare. "It was in the midst of this cultural flux that Rikyu secured his most enduring aesthetic triumph: to unequivocally place crude, anonymous, indigenous Japanese and Korean folkcraft - things wabi-sabi - on the same artistic level, or even higher than, perfect Chinese treasures." Although Rikyu's new design aesthetic was ignored for more than 100 years, its emphasis on modesty and natural form eventually came into synch with the simplifying of the tea ceremony.    
 
You do not have to be a Japanese aesthetic or tea master to incorporate wabi-sabi design into your own life and home. There is plenty of wabi-sabi to be found in your own backyard, if you know how to look for it. Think earth tones, and natural shapes. Bear in mind that wabi-sabi objects marry well with things of classical beauty. After all, a strong contrast makes objects stand out.
 
For an object to be wabi-sabi, it must have been modified by the hand of man. Hauling a fallen tree trunk into your house and treating it as an element of décor is not wabi-sabi. But if you were to make a chair out of that tree trunk, incorporating its burls and rough edges into the design, that would be wabi-sabi.
 
Remember, too, that wabi-sabi is not just about exteriors. It's about our personal connection to things, and preserving the memory of the person to whom an object once belonged.
 
And because wabi-sabi measures beauty in the nuances of change, it reflects our own flaws and organic natures. So evoke the spirit of wabi-sabi the next time you look in the mirror and bemoan your wrinkles. Sen No Rikyu would say these imperfections make you what you are: perfect.