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The art of imperfection in wabi-sabi design

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The concept of wabi-sabi comes from ancient Japanese teachings and, in its simplest form, means finding beauty in imperfection. It’s a world view drawn on from traditional Japanese aesthetics that can easily be applied to interior design and has been for many hundreds of years, becoming ever more present in western cultures. The style of wabi-sabi is always present in the interior design world; its concept transcends time and ever-changing trends.

Wabi-sabi meaning 

The two words don’t translate directly into English, but they have a lot of meaning to unpack.

  • Wabi means simplicity – to live spiritually and with humility. In terms of objects, Wabi is simple, rustic and quietly elegant.
  • Sabi means finding the beauty and serenity in age. In terms of objects, this means finding beauty in signs of age – like visible repairs, worn parts and imperfections.

What is wabisabi design? 

According to Andrew Juniper[i],

If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi”.

Unlike many forms of design, wabi-sabi embraces the ‘mistakes’ or ageing aspects of furniture, rooms and objects – celebrating the chips in plates, wrinkles in fabrics and natural imperfections in wood.

Historically, wabi-sabi was developed between the 13th and 15th centuries and was based on Japanese Zen Buddhist philosophy that nothing is perfect or complete, and beauty can be found in the decay and in the progression of time.

Why is wabi-sabi important?

The idea of honouring objects that have been worn out by life, and spaces which have been loved and lived in is so important. In a world that tends to value the new and modern more than the old and traditional, wabi-sabi allows people to go back to their roots and fully appreciate their surroundings. It’s a philosophy that many people hold very closely.

Wabi-sabi design features

Embracing wabi-sabi design means embracing a wabi-sabi mindset, too. To start, you need to see the beauty in things that aren’t perfect and build a connection with the old. Once you have mentally engaged with the concept, you should start trying to incorporate features of wabi-sabi into your home. You can begin to build your interior design palette from scratch or slowly begin to incorporate elements into each room until you have achieved the desired look.

Generally, wabi-sabi design will incorporate natural, rustic elements (Wabi) and age-worn or fixed objects (Sabi).

Utilise natural elements

Nature is, understatedly, a huge factor in wabi-sabi design. Steer clear of modern plastics and synthetic materials, and instead opt for:

  • Wooden furniture. Try to aim for solid wooden pieces which look like they have always been there.
  • Cotton and wool throws. Steer away from fluffy, dime a dozen blankets from discount shops. Source natural woven or knitted throws. They may cost more, but they’ll last for years and perfectly compliment the wabi-sabi aesthetic.
  • Clay ornaments. Clay vases and other ornaments are timeless – especially when left unpainted and unglazed.
  • You can never have too many plants in your home. This is an easy way top incorporate wabi-sabi into your dining room, living room, bedroom and bathroom. Go for potted trees and succulents at ground and table level, and trailing plants for shelves and bookcases.

There are dozens of other ways to add natural touches to the home, so get creative and keep your eyes open for inspiration – you never know where it will come from.

Second hand or inherited furniture

Furniture passed down through your family should take centre-stage if you have any. If you don’t, try bagging some second-hand treasures from charity shops, car boot sales and antique auctions.

Rather than upcycling or repainting worn pieces, embrace the natural wear and tear. For wood, sand down and use a clear wax on damaged areas to show off the gorgeous natural grain of the wood. If you need to re-upholster a piece, opt for natural-looking materials in muted tones. In keeping with the ethos of wabi-sabi, try to get any repairs done locally.

 

If you aren’t keen on second-hand pieces or don’t have time to search for the perfect piece, you can fast-track your way to achieving wabi-sabi by purchasing furniture that fits the aesthetic instead. Vintage wingback chairs and solid-oak dining tables aren’t hard to come across – but steer away from huge retailers.

Go for rustic accessories

Rustic, raw accessories will slot straight into any wabi-sabi design scheme. They work perfectly amongst reclaimed and second-hand furniture.

Choose pieced carved from soapstone or crafted with reclaimed wood. You could re-purpose collections of old objects as display pieces to be hung up or arranged on a shelf or match rustic accessories with the same colour scheme and group them.

Fix, don’t throw

The 21st century instinct when something breaks is to replace it instantly. When following wabi-sabi, you should fix what you can instead of throwing it away. Of course, this isn’t relevant for electronics and modern items, but furniture and ornaments can usually be fixed.

So, how does this work in real terms? In wabi-sabi, a smashed plate, for example, is an opportunity for art to be created. The Japanese art of ‘kintsugi’ or ‘golden joinery’ matches the wabi-sabi methodology perfectly. Kintsugi involves using gold, silver or platinum to glue the smashed plate or other pieces of crockery back together[ii] – and it has beautiful results. These plates may not be fit for use in a lot of cases, but they make brilliant display pieces.

This can be applied to many other items in your home, including furniture and material objects like blankets and cushions. Remember, signs of age are supposed to be beautiful and are a reminder of how time progresses.

Use handcrafted decorations

Wabi-sabi celebrates and encourages authenticity, which can easily be found in artisanal goods. Items that have been collected over many years and that have meaning attached to them add warmth and realness to a space much more effectively than mass-produced objects ever could.

Incorporate homemade crafts into these artisanal displays, and pick pieces which have character and memories behind them – a picture frame you bought during a special trip, or a vase that was gifted to you by a dear friend.

De-clutter your space

Rustic and warm does not have to equal clutter – in fact, cluttered spaces will damage your wabi-sabi aesthetic. Alongside embracing the old, you should be aiming for peace and tranquillity in your home, which clutter doesn’t help with. De-cluttering can be a frustrating process, start out by doing the following:

  • Throw or donate anything you really don’t need or store it elsewhere.
  • Invest in hidden storage solutions, sticking with the wabi-sabi theme. Look for wicker baskets or wooden drawers and cabinets that suit your space.
  • Stop buying things you don’t need. A good rule of thumb before making a purchase is to wait two weeks. If you still want it at the end of the two weeks, go ahead.
  • Organise your space. De-cluttering doesn’t mean getting rid of all your belongings; sometimes having a proper organisational system in place is enough.

Once decluttered, try to stick to your organisation to stop clutter accumulating. Make sure everything has a place.

Embrace your personality

Keeping a clutter-free home doesn’t mean keeping a home that is void of personality. Too few details and too many matching or coherent elements have the potential to make a space unwelcoming, or cold. You can add splashes of your personality in lots of ways, including:

  • Photographs or art work in carefully selected frames
  • Adding accessories related to your favourite hobbies
  • Using your favourite colours
  • Add warmth with blankets and throw cushions
  • Mismatch your décor

Use a muted palette

As wabi-sabi is so deeply rooted with nature, you should not use bright, distracting colours. Instead, opt for natural browns, off-whites and greys. For colourful elements, choose toned down blues, greens and yellows.

Will you embrace wabi-sabi in your home?

Whether you decide to strictly follow the design discipline and the morals surrounding it in every day life, or simply choose to embrace the art of imperfection by salvaging broken belongings – wabi-sabi is a trend that will never die out.

 


References

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Wabi-sabi. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Kintsugi. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintsugi

Sources

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintsugi

Anna Sharples

Office and marketing manager for Sloane & Sons Stylish Chairs, who sell a range of high-quality tub chairs, accent chairs and more.

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