Wabi-sabi – the Japanese philosophy of beauty in imperfection

Wabi-sabi is the latest wellness trend that is shaping design and interiors and is centred around finding beauty in imperfection.

What is wabi-sabi?

Something of an antithesis, and quite possibly the antidote to modern living, the word ‘Wabi’ translates to mean understated elegance through simple and authentic natural design, while ‘Sabi’ means appreciating the beauty in the imperfections that come with age.

Wabi-sabi is about as far away from botox and Love Island as a concept can be. It’s about the wonky, the simplistic and cherishing the things you have and not yearning for the new and the shiny – so even if you fall in love with this concept, don’t be tempted to rush out and buy a mass-produced and homogenous bowl – that’s just not wabi-sabi.

An ancient Buddhist teaching

Wabi-sabi has its origins in ancient Buddhist teachings, and has evolved somewhat over the years.

The concept is said to have arisen from Japanese tea ceremonies which are defined by the attention to preparation, precision, discipline and respect. The utensils used however are the embodiment of simplicity and frugality – typically hand-made or crafted and unique in their imperfections. The reverence for the transient, the unique, the modest and the authentic are therefore the defining characteristics of this design and life concept.

In his book, Wabi Sabi Simple, Richard Powell writes:

“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

Wabi-sabi - feature image

How to achieve the look

From a design perspective, wabi-sabi is about personalising your space with things that have meaning – such as photos, and things that are hand crafted, handed down, or that bear the hallmarks and scars of living. As a result, we are seeing designers creating room sets using the simple and the understated and that house rustic and natural materials such as wood, clay and linen.

By ottmarliebert.com from Santa Fe, Turtle Island (White Pink Bowl) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The characteristics that have come to embody wabi-sabi include:
⦁ rustic
⦁ asymmetry
⦁ roughness
⦁ simplicity
⦁ frugality
⦁ modesty
⦁ naturalness
⦁ integrity

The Hagi-ware associated with the Japanese tea ceremony offers good examples of this. Bowls and utensils are not symmetrical and the colours are unrefined and simple, and typically faded demonstrating the effect of usage over time.

Wabi-sabi in the home

Distressed and faded are key design effects being used to achieve this look.

Mismatched is at the heart of the modern take on wabi-sabi, as are natural textures and textiles which bring a greater sense of purpose. Clutter-free is also a key part of creating natural simplicity.

Stony and earthy tones with simple understated patterns embody the inner peace that comes from the wabi-sabi philosophy.

A counter-trend to mass production and mass consumerism

With life moving at a relentless pace and digital technology being maximised as a marketing tool that pervades our consciousness on a 24/7 basis, it’s hardly surprising that this counter-trend has been embraced with open arms. And while imperfection is not something traditionally associated with a Westbury, wabi-sabi’s philosophical roots in appreciating natural objects and authenticity amid the importance of perfection and precision of the Japanese tea ceremony, make wabi-sabi a concept that resonates quite deeply with the Westbury ethos for working with the natural and creating long-lasting objects of simple elegance that can be enjoyed for a lifetime.