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

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


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Decorate with lanterns.

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The wabi-sabi eye looks for individuality and uniqueness in objects. These vintage, mismatched lanterns have been hung from tree branches over a door.
vintage door knocker

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The many hands that have used this old door knocker have left its metal surface worn and its painted coat chipped. The wabi-sabi aesthetic makes no attempt at touch-up or repair. To do so, is to negate the object's history.
vintage child's toy airplane

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The wabi-sabi aesthetic is often referred to as Japanese rustic because it embraces corrosion. This metal child's airplane was found on the floor of a damp basement in Boston. Because of the plane's condition, you won't see it in an antique store or on e-bay. Wabi-sabi isn't about trendy.
Collectible artisan vases.

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After World War II, these mundane, American-made Arts & Crafts vases were relegated to attics and trash bins. The passage of time has muted their colors, putting a wabi-sabi glaze on them. This eclectic assortment of vases holds a collection of vintage hair and shaving brushes on a bathroom shelf.
Old duck toys.

©Hopkins/Baumann

Even children's toys can be wabi-sabi. Here, time has subdued the shiny colors and smooth materials of these vintage ducks. Devolution has given them an emotional depth that addresses our own feelings of passing time and innocence lost.
Old flower pots.

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Wabi-sabi embraces rough, earthy textures, as found in this small, outdoor figure and broken flower pot. They've been left outside to further decay. Placed together, they appear to be supporting one another in their wabi-sabi journey.
Collectible garden tools.

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This lawn sprinkler's design has been kept to a functional minimum, which is in line with the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Here it's used as a centerpiece on a dining room table. With wabi-sabi, there are no prescribed formulas. When decorating, think beyond predictability.
Hand-crafted dining utensils.

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Wabi-sabi objects are not arty, though they are often artisan. In these hand-carved, wooden salad utensils, function follows form. The pieces appear to have evolved in an unforced, natural way. Wabi-sabi favors earth tones and muted colors.
Collectible tools

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Wabi-sabi's disregard for conventional beauty can be found in these crude oil cans. The large one was found along a railroad track in upstate New York. The other two belonged to their owner's late father. Wabi-sabi objects bring their history with them, which can be personal and emotional.
Outdoor furniture made from trees.

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The Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston tries to provide new life for downed trees. Artful, utilitarian and transformative, these outdoor chairs were carved from the trunks of old beech trees. Poems of e.e. cummings, who's buried in the cemetery, are etched into the bronze-plated seats.
Antique drinking glasses.

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The wabi-sabi aesthetic is not about regular or uniform shapes. It's about design elements that are balanced in a way that look completely natural and unforced. Each of these mismatched vintage glasses speaks to wabi-sabi's appreciation of asymmetry and irregularity.
Antique vase with flowers.

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The many cracks in this ceramic vase speak to the aesthetic pleasure that lie beyond our conventional ideas of beauty and perfection. By seeing the vase's damages, we admire its strengths, which are to be cherished. We also see and accept its eventual finality.
Vintage furniture

©Hopkins/Baumann

Wabi-sabi and contemporary styles go well together, such as this weathered farm chair and shiny modern desk. If your entire house were nothing but imperfect-looking wabi-sabi objects, you wouldn't see them. You need contrast to set them off.
Antique clay bowl.

©Hopkins/Baumann

Wabi-sabi looks to nature for its forms and metaphors. What insect better represents this aesthetic than a butterfly with its phantasmagorical capacity to change? These monarchs fell from the sky during a sudden cold front over Long Island. They were gathered, and placed in an earthy, ceramic bowl.
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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.
 
 

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