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Wabi-sabi in Interior Design: The Art of The Imperfect

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi celebrates imperfection and impermanence, and is increasingly influential in interior design. But what are the origins of wabi-sabi, and how is it being used today? Chris Lo investigates

Mecanoo's design for Futian Civic Culture Center in Shenzhen, China, features numerous sky gardens | Image courtesy of Mecanoo

The traditional Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi emphasises the virtues of accepting the transience of beauty and the inevitability of imperfection.

This school of thought has its earliest roots in Buddhist teachings, and traces its definitive origin back to Murata Shukō, a 15th-century scholar and developer of the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony, which eschewed the lavish Chinese ceramics that were in vogue at the time in favour of simpler, more earthy Japanese pottery. By minimising in this way, according to Shukō and his adherents, practitioners of this important social and cultural ceremony could focus on values such as humble reverence (kin) and calmness in the moment (Jaku).

Since wabi-sabi’s beginnings, its lessons of impermanence and imperfection have influenced many aspects of Japanese culture, from music and poetry to Zen gardens and flower arrangement.

Towards the end of the 20th century, wabi-sabi started to gain traction in the West, particularly among artists and designers, with interior designers responding to the emphasis on serene minimalism and sense of place over the extravagant quest for perfection.

American artist, designer and writer Leonard Koren helped popularise the movement outside of Japan with his book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, in which he writes: “Get rid of all that is unnecessary. Wabi-sabi means treading lightly on the planet and knowing how to appreciate whatever is encountered, no matter how trifling, whenever it is encountered.”

Or as Richard R. Powell snappily summarised in his 2004 book Wabi Sabi Simple: “Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

The paint colour Coolest White is designed to reduce absorption and emission of the sun's rays by 12% | Image courtesy of UN Studio

Wabi-sabi in interior design

It’s a complex philosophy that’s difficult to explain, as evidenced by the proliferation of slightly befuddled Western documentaries on the topic, but many of its core principles have translated into the global design community, particularly in residential interior design and decoration. The Japanese art of kintsugi sees cracked pots repaired with gold or silver resin as a way of acknowledging and even celebrating the ravages of time.

The beauty of imperfection lies at the heart of wabi-sabi’s tangle of ideas. While symmetry, clean lines and ‘completeness’ in design are dominant concepts around the world, wabi-sabi contends that perfection and completeness are illusions, and that humans should accept and find beauty in the unfinished nature of their surroundings.

NC Design & Architecture’s Imperfect Residence project in Hong Kong exemplifies the wabi-sabi approach to imperfection in interior design. Faced with a client request to design an apartment space that ages well, founder Nelson Chow and his team responded with oxidised bronze elements and textured plaster walls to create a rough-hewn look, as well as idiosyncratically-placed wooden floor panels and mismatched furniture that blends fabric, wood and metal, giving the property and instantly lived-in feel.

“ The beauty of imperfection lies at the heart of wabi-sabi’s tangle of ideas. 

“The residence inspires [users] to accept the beauty of imperfection and incompleteness, setting the residents free from the everyday,” the studio’s founder Nelson Chow told Dezeen in January.

From the central core of imperfection, wabi-sabi-inspired ideas expand to asymmetry, minimalism, reused materials and forging a connection with nature – the ultimate exemplar of imperfect beauty. The so-called ‘Wabi House’ in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, which was designed by Tadao Ando Architect & Associates and completed in 2016, is covered by a traditional thatched palapa roof and incorporates no windows, inviting the outside air into this beachfront property and across its exposed concrete floors and walls.

In London, the recently-reopened Connaught Grill incorporated touches of wabi-sabi with wooden tables and booth panels provided by Japanese-American workshop Nakashima Woodworkers, which specialises in large pieces of natural wood, flaws and all.

“There are all kinds of little surprises if you look,” the firm’s creative director Mira Nakashima told The Telegraph. “In the traditional lumber industry it would have been called a fault, but my father loved it. It makes a statement about the tree’s life and becomes [a] force of the design itself.”

FAAB's design for Pilsudski Square in Warsaw is designed to combat the heat island effect | Image courtesy of FAAB

Celeb-ification: the international wabi-sabi trend

In the last several years, awareness of wabi-sabi and its applications in interior design has spread rapidly, championed by the likes of Belgian designer and art mogul Axel Vervoordt. Today, wabi-sabi gets name-checked in such consumer design mainstays as Ikea, whose February 2020 catalogue encouragers buyers that “whether you are living in the countryside or the city, you can bring nature to the home with a bit of greenery and a wabi-sabi attitude”.

With the 21st century’s relentless connectivity, there’s more opportunity than ever for wabi-sabi’s ideas to be transmitted and reinterpreted around the world. In Ukraine, design studio Sergey Makhno Architects was heavily influenced by these ideas for the Shkrub House outside Kiev, built for the family of studio founder Sergey Makhno. The house incorporates a traditional thatched roof, and interiors stuffed with local clay objects, reused wood ceilings and rough-textured walls.

“Japan has given my country back to me,” said Makhno. “It has opened my eyes and, most importantly, my heart to the wealth I have always had – my homeland…I create Ukrainian design transmitted through the lens of the Japanese perception of beautiful.”

“ Wabi-sabi’s broad aesthetic makes it well-suited to subtle applications here and there, without needing to dominate. 

Wabi-sabi has its celebrity devotees as well, from Twitter boss Jack Dorsey to Kanye West, whose Los Angeles home, envisioned as a ‘minimal monastery’ and designed in collaboration with Vervoordt, displays wabi-sabi elements. Wabi-sabi’s broad aesthetic makes it well-suited to subtle applications here and there, without needing to dominate. The Tilden Hotel in San Francisco, which was redesigned in 2017, blends wabi-sabi’s celebration of imperfection with more modernist influences.

In many ways, the rise of wabi-sabi in interior design makes perfect sense. Its values mesh well with contemporary issues, from sustainability and minimalism to the modern urge to reconnect with nature, and it is a natural companion to the Scandinavian hygge vision of interior comfort and simplicity – so much so that ‘Japandi’ has become a merged term for this kind of harmony in design.

Wabi-sabi’s open style and earthy vision of life will likely see it retain its position as a mainstay of aesthetic design, inside and outside of Japan, for the foreseeable future.

Mecanoo's design for Futian Civic Culture Center in Shenzhen, China, features numerous sky gardens | Image courtesy of Mecanoo

Switching off the oven: A fight for survival

According to UN projections, 2.5 billion people will be living in cities by 2050 – accounting for roughly 68% of the world’s population.

This transition will predominantly take place in Africa and Asia, where few have the luxury of turning on the air conditioning or opening the window when their apartment gets too hot.

As warned by MIT, cities in these regions run the risk of becoming man-made ovens that will stretch the limits of human survival. Innovations in the field of heat island mitigation – whether they be roof gardens, white coatings or cool pavements – could prove to be vital.

Interior Design