Wabi – seing beyond the mere physical and sabi – the beauty of the natural progression of time, is a simplified translation of what is also called the art of impermanence.
Wabi sabi is best understood through the Zen philosophy that has been its inspiration. With a focus on the subtleties of the natural world, stressing the importance of space or nothingness, wabi sabi promotes an alternative approach to both beauty and life itself.
Design is often better defined by what is left out than by what is put in.
The approach to design is very different from that of our culture. While the wabi sabi ideal could be a simple, worn jacket free of details in creased linen, with a surface of uneven threads, it is according to western ideals often made with lots of details, from a perfectly smooth, maybe even shiny fabric.
Unlike Hellenic-inspired ideals of beauty, wabi sabi has nothing to do with grandeur or symmetry. Instead it requires that one should observe, with utmost attention, details and nuances.
Wabi sabi is the understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect or even decayed.
The humble and subtle beauty of a Japanese garden, with its careful arrangement of stones, water and trees, brings a calm atmosphere. The observer is not invited to just sit and enjoy something that looks appealing, but is enticed to contemplate. Famous European garden designs on the other hand, are richly decorated, have a logical structure and are big and impressive.
Beauty is not solely the work done by nature, nor is it solely the work done by man. It is a symbiosis of the two.
Christian churches are magnificent, with the glorification of the greatness and omnipotence of God, while the unadorned rusticity of the Japanese tearoom is a restrained expression of the humble and simple. Rather than aim at superficial beauty, they are more interested in discovering the truth that runs beyond the realms of our day-to-day perceptions.
Beautiful women on the covers of western magazines are young. They have flawless skin, tight muscles, big breasts and lips, narrow waists… everything according to prevailing ideals. A beautiful woman from the wabi sabi perspective is the one who is genuine. Age is revered instead of being a disadvantage, since wrinkles and grey hair are a sign of transient beauty.
Everything in the universe is in flux, coming from or returning from nothing.
Whether looking at a fabric, a garment, a piece of furniture or a human being, time reveals true essence from the wabi sabi perspective. The natural wear and tear of the materials used actually adds to the beauty. The changes of texture and color provide space for the imagination. Whereas western design often uses inorganic materials to defy the natural aging process, wabi sabi embraces them.
Worn, basic blue jeans are very wabi sabi and this is probably why we love them so much. All the different nuances of blues in the denim that gets more beautiful as it wears, the very functional details… They can even be torn with threads hanging out and still be so beautiful.
In wabi sabi there is attention to detail and a desire to keep all aspects of design as simple and well balanced as possible.
There is an enormous difference in the two ways of perceiving beauty. In our culture we add things to build up what we perceive as beauty. We try to fit into the collective molds of beauty, comparing ourselves to others. As we grow older, we are seen as less and less attractive unless we do make-overs to look young.
From the wabi sabi view point, time peals off the outer layers, revealing our true beauty, our essence.
Wabi sabi honours the interplay between youth and old age, beauty and ugliness, life and death. It is the rhythm of Nature.
Maybe it is time to rediscover the intimate beauty of the impermanent and the humble. Random patterns left by the flow of Nature, small nuances of color, the curve of an opening petal or the decay of a knot in old timber show us true beauty. With this way of seing life, we can also find the innate beauty in ourselves…
Wabi sabi rocks!
Image: Riva 1920