The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi finds beauty in the everyday
Wabi-sabi (not to be confused with wasabi, which is also Japanese in origin but has to do with adding a kick to your yellowtail sashimi and tuna rolls) is an ancient Japanese philosophy revering austerity, nature, the impermanent and the incomplete.
As the ever-knowledgeable Phyllis Van Doren, a longtime editor here at San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles, explains it, “Wabi-sabi is an old Japanese philosophy, not a design style. It recognizes that time and age are the sculptors of objects and materials.”
Much like cherishing the laugh lines on an aging face, wabi-sabi celebrates the journey that an object takes to reach its current state.
“To me wabi-sabi is the idea of making a space feel that it has withstood the test of time and developed its own character,” says Kelly Hinchman, design principal at Studio H Design Group. “It’s based on our space reflecting ourselves and our objects telling our story.”
Even if your home is not filled with long-loved pieces, don’t fret—the aesthetic that has morphed from the philosophy can be embraced in many ways.
“The idea of wabi-sabi can really be adapted to most styles,” says Corine Maggio, principal and design director at CM Natural Designs. “The fun is how you blend different styles while incorporating this concept.”
Trends change quickly so we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just one. “That’s why, for me, it’s more important that a space is well defined and organized [key tenets of wabi-sabi],” Kelly says.
A home that reflects the wabi-sabi viewpoint features minimalism, asymmetry, irregularity and plenty of natural materials.
“Neutral tones and handmade objects are often seen in spaces of this style,” Corine explains. “There definitely aren’t any rules—as that’s the point of wabi-sabi—but generally bright colors and overly ornate objects are not seen, though that doesn’t mean someone with a savvy eye couldn’t make it work.”
It requires careful editing of things, Phyllis says. “Simplicity is the key to interiors inspired by wabi-sabi. It recognizes the significance of the void, of non-clutter. Despite that minimalism, it is not cold…it is warm and comfortable. It is natural (not manufactured), authentic and sometimes humble.”
This and the purge from perfection are what make wabi-sabi so appealing. It means you can keep the tablecloth with the frayed edges, the vase with the chip and the scarred wooden table.
How to introduce the wabi-sabi concept in your home:
1. Declutter. Getting rid of clutter is the first step, Corine says. “And then being very deliberate and minimal about the items that are added back in.”
2. Prioritize and Personalize. Choose items to keep based on their personal significance to you.
Hold onto things you use all the time or have strong sentimental weight, Kelly says. “Toss superfluous cheap objects that make it harder for you to keep your place organized.”
“Items from travels make great wabi-sabi accessories to place on top of a stack of books or even an open kitchen shelf,” Corine says. “Mixing memory items with practical items makes a space feel personal and interesting—although, it’s even better if your memory items are also your practical items. The fewer items you have, the more precious and celebrated they become.”
3. Make it Multipurpose. Don’t be afraid to display your functional items as home decor.
If possible, use your everyday objects as accent pieces, Corine suggests. “For example, instead of having all your scarves tucked away in a closet, simplify them down and have your favorite hung by the door. Often the texture, color and pattern can add some real beauty and humanness in an imperfect and effortless way.”
Try artfully arranging woven storage baskets in the kitchen or get a textural—but natural—chunky throw to drape over your sofa.
4. Look to the Future. If you are buying new pieces in the spirit of wabi-sabi, instead of just repurposing the old, there are considerations to keep in mind:
When shopping, look for pieces made using natural materials that age well. “Go for furnishings that are beautiful and express your unique style and way of living,” Kelly says. “Going for a handmade look with a strong, long-lasting finish is the contrast that defines wabi-sabi.”
Look for wood furniture that is authentically distressed, not one that was intentionally crafted to look aged; natural fabrics such as burlap, rough cottons, slubby silks and linens—these all fit the aesthetic, Phyllis assures. She notes that fine ceramic pieces that have been carefully repaired, but that do not hide the repair, work as well.
Kelly agrees and even seeks out scarred pottery. “One of our favorite styles of pottery is created through a technique called Kintsugi, in which broken pieces of pottery are repaired by filling in cracks with gold and silver lacquer—the result is stunning!” she says.