‘Wabi-Sabi’ – A Japanese Aesthetic

a quiet movement that's time has arrived

Mix-rarefattoAxel Vervoordt


As last year ended, I began to contemplate what the New Year might hold, and I had the opportunity to focus on a design aesthetic that has been of interest to me, yet I did not know it’s name.  Upon investigation I discovered it’s called Wabi-Sabi, a queer term yet so insightful and thought-provoking that it attracted me immediately.  Among the extraordinary designers who I looked to for inspiration on the subject, Axel Vervoordt stands apart as the true devotee of the aesthetic.   It is because of him that I have become a disciple.

This is not an influence to be trivialized or simplified as we Americans so often do.  It is a quiet yet disciplined sensibility, which I feel strongly about in these changing times.   At its core, the aesthetic seeks to become comfortable with, and to embrace, the things that we have often chosen to dismiss and dispose of in the past.  It’s a distinct departure from typical modern design.  The style summons us to work with existing pieces, or to consider recycled items for their historic merit.  The core philosophy speaks to the belief in sustainability.  Why not rescue a time-worn piece of furniture that still maintains its allure?   History is an illusive spirit wishing to be revealed and expressed.  When asked if an 18th century enfilade should have the marble top re-polished, Wabi-Sabi enthusiasts stand up and adamantly say no, the patina is part of its legacy.

villa medici copyVilla Medici

I have found over the past few years that I gravitate to finishes that start out imperfect, not pristine, that may already have patina upon arrival.  The sensibility is comforting and safe in my opinion.  Not having to worry if someone were to put down a drinking glass and leave a ring!   Damn it I maintain, patina is evidence of history in the making.

Wabi-Sabi is certainly more complex an influence that all of this, but it’s a primer to a conversation we should all have with ourselves and our clients from time to time.   I will not attempt to define and clarify these two distinct terms, which when used together refer to a specific design aesthetic.

chale_aspen_oppenheim_04Ski Chalet by Chad Oppenheim

To have respect for the humble and imperfect is a wonderful release from the tension that we must avoid as we relate to our interiors.  We should allow rooms to grow, fade, and age gracefully.  The crafted items that show the intent of the artisan and the feel of his hand are important to this principle.  Austere materials used to make serene yet splendid environments from everyday materials that maintain their character are key to Wabi-Sabi.  This is not an aesthetic that you can literally purchase out of a crate.  One has to understand that like when planting a garden, patience is key to seeing your labor of love mature and flourish; and also to wither in parts.   It is all part of nature – to be revered as relevant.

image_21618A Wabi-Sabi inspired bed by Donna Karan

I leave you with the challenge of rethinking how we live and how we specify on our projects.  We are here to educate and to nurture our beliefs to our trusting clients.

I see it as our duty to grow and to change with the times aesthetically and spiritually.  There is no better time than now to rethink our attraction to acquiring perfection when it becomes flawed immediately.  We need to show more respect for our surroundings and ourselves.

Wabi-Sabi is not a new phenomenon in the design world, people have embraced it for years.  If you’re interested in some first hand Japanese reflections on the subject, you’re sure to enjoy this link.  What I suggest is you consider if your design hand might fit in this aesthetic glove.  For your research a “must have” reference would be Belgian antiquarian and designer Axel Vervoordt’s book, “Wabi Inspirations” as he shares his latest sensibility for the home.  It will prove to be an invaluable addition to any well-appointed design library.


Wabi Inspirations

14 thoughts on “‘Wabi-Sabi’ – A Japanese Aesthetic”

  1. The first time I came across the term was in reading The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962). I’ve worked with a lot of designers over the years. Few have understood this concept. I’m not sure it’s something that can be learned.

  2. I enjoyed your article- this is my design aesthetic since my niche ias an interior designer is period design. It would be very hard to polish the top of an 18th C. enfilade since an enfilade is “a suite of rooms formally aligned with one another” (Wikipedia). In the photo of the Villa Medici, the door placement suggests that if opened, we’d see an enfilade of rooms beyond through similarly placed doorways. It’s such a wonderful effect that’s still used in good modern design when doorways are aligned with windows and other openings to enhance vistas.

    1. hi Candace,

      the word enfilade also refers to a sideboard of dining buffet furniture piece. Typically French or continental it is a piece of furniture with many doors. I am fully versed in the architectural meaning of the term as well. See we all can learn something new! thanks for reading my article. I hope you took away some valuable information. enfilade sideboard

  3. Great article. I am a designer of handcrafted wallpaper and Wabi-Sabi has been my philosophy from the begining even though I had no name for it. Thanks. Debra Lyons, lyonswallpaper.com

    1. Debra, that’s exactly what I had experienced…..becoming aware of an influence yet not knowing it’s history….well, knowledge is certainly power! Writing for the blog has expanded my horizons leaps and bounds and I endeavor to help my readers do the same. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

    1. With age comes wisdom and maturity. We learn to hone and refine our craft to serve a higher level of intellect or at least we should!
      thanks as always for your support!

  4. Wonderful article and so timely at the beginning of the New Year. I try to practice this with clients and educate them. There does seem to be an embracing of the philosophy. Good for all parts of life!

    1. Thank you Michelle! I appreciate the positive feedback. You and I are then already ahead of the game. Yes, I feel that there is an heightened awareness of the Wabi-Sabi principle.

    1. Jim, thanks for reading my article. I suppose that I was aware but not cognizant of the philosophy fro some years but it has now been thrust in front of me and at a most fortuitous time in my life.
      I appreciate the additional link. I do hope my readers see it and will avail themselves of the reference.

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