What Is Wabi-Sabi?

My designs for Dogwood & Hastings embrace the concept of imperfection and natural textures and materials. (Photo: Starre Vartan).

What if, instead of fighting imperfection, you welcomed it into your life?

How would your day change? How would your stress levels change? How would your self-perception change? How would you change?

These aren't just abstract questions, but, believe it or not, the foundation of a very old way of thinking. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi means "impermanent, imperfect and incomplete." It derives from the Buddhist way of looking at the world, which has a foundation in nonattachment, and takes its cues from the natural world and authenticity, from the handmade and the worn.

Wabi-sabi was popularized in 15th-century Japan as a reaction to ornamentation, excess and lavishness, and a similar aesthetic is an undercurrent in all types of design today. Currently, it's a reaction to the sleek perfection of technology, of the cookie-cutter house, the bland design of corporate logos.

Picture, for example, a formal living room from the 1940s or '50s in a design magazine — typically the chairs are set up symmetrically, colors and shapes are highly ordered and idealized. Now picture one from today; there are usually mismatched pillows, asymmetrical furniture, and maybe even pattern-on-pattern textiles or rugs. The handmade wooden chair, the slightly faded vintage cowboy boots, the natural fall of a flower head in a vase, the lovingly worn leather bag is what wabi-sabi is all about.

As a designer, I think of it as the anti-Internet; my print designs (see main image above) are literally based on found natural patterns and the messiness and non-straight lines of natural ephemera, from clouds to streams to branches to flowers.

A plate with cracks, like the one above, is wabi-sabi, and I think it's more attractive than one without texture. I love that implied history and evidence of many meals there for all to see, instead of a static visual, all of a sudden it has depth, evidence of humanity.

wabi-sabi in the kitchen

Produce (and cooking blogs) are the ultimate in wabi-sabi — all those pretty shots of cut tomatoes of various shapes and sizes, drips of olive oil, stray beans or herbs next to the cookpot? That shows us that part of the beauty of cooking is in the preparation, not just the eating.

Wabi-sabi can be extended out of the visual world. What if you practiced being OK with a messy kitchen, or left your car parked a little crooked in your driveway? What if you made dinner with the random things left in the fridge? How about letting your garden go to seed and enjoying that natural process? What if you took a new route home or embraced your wrinkles? Signs of aging are definitely wabi-sabi — they are natural, and they show a well-lived life in your face.

If nothing else wabi-sabi takes the pressure off, and at best it can lead you to a more mindful, slower, and contemplative view of the world around you.

If embraced, this concept of loving things for what they are can lead to less consumption, and for more appreciation of the stories that old things have, rather than the blankness that new things shine out into the world.

If we can learn to love the things that already exist, for all their chips and cracks, their patinas, their crooked lines or tactile evidence of being made by someone's hands instead of a machine, from being made from natural materials that vary rather than perfect plastic, we wouldn't need to make new stuff, reducing our consumption (and its concurrent energy use and inevitable waste), cutting our budgets, and saving some great stories for future generations.