Wabi–sabi is a Japanese world view that is difficult to articulate. It’s broadly described as a perspective that values the beauty in the modest, worn and aged, although if you ask three different Japanese language experts you can expect three different explanations.
“A beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
This is Leonard Koren’s definition, the man who helped to popularise the term in the west. He believes wabi–sabi was as influential to the Japanese aesthetic as the Greek values of symmetry and geometry were to the western aesthetic. These values of imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness, has deep roots in Buddhism and Japanese society. However, despite its distinctly Japanese character, these values can be perceived in Western art and culture.
A Tale of Two Venuses
If you’ve ever been to the Louvre you’ve probably seen The Venus de Milo. In a room crowded with ancient Greek sculptures its the only one gathering a crowd of admirers. In 1815 the French had to return one of their greatest sculptures — The Venus de Medici — back to Italy where Napoleon had stolen it from. This sparked a campaign by the French to promote another statue in its place, The Venus de Milo. This propaganda was so effective that It is now among the most famous statues in the world.
Why is the Venus de Milo now more highly regarded then the statue that once overshadowed it? They are both statues of Aphrodite, both Hellenistic marbles, both from the same time period. At least part of the attraction is that it is incomplete, driving us to imagine what the finished statue would have looked like. The artist Basquiat used to write words on his paintings then scribble them out. When asked why he replied:
“I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
Deliberately making words difficult to read forces you to look a little closer, lean in, think. The Venus de’ Medici is beautiful but requires no effort on the part of the viewer. The Venus de Milo requires imagination, you need to think about it: to project how her arms were once positioned, the plinth that once stood in front of her. Its imperfection is its attraction. This statue is not alone in possessing this quality, would The Leaning Tower of Pisa be so well known without its lean? Many objects and buildings are famous for their flaws, their age, their imperfections.
The Liberty Bell is a symbol of American freedom. It was replicated many times and adapted as a symbol at various stages by the Abolitionists, Suffragettes, and The Civil Rights Movement. Without the large crack that runs through its center it would look much like many other bells, but rather than a hidden mistake it is celebrated as integral to the history of the object.
The celebration of imperfection is typified in the Japanese art kintsugi. In this process, when repairing broken pottery, rather than trying to hide the mend, the cracks are instead highlighted with lacquer and gold dust. Kintsugi celebrates the object breaking as a pivotal moment in its history. One of the underlying principles of wabi–sabi comes from Buddhism: the acceptance of change and the inevitability of death. Even mountains rise and fall.
Imagine that the ocean represents potential. Each person, object, and thing is a wave rising from it and returning to it. There are no permanent waves, there are no perfect waves, there are no complete waves. Every wave rises and falls.
Every object has an inherent vice that eats away at it, everything is slowly chipped away by external forces. It is how we deal with degradation that is vital. Do we attempt to hide the change or celebrate it like kintsugi? There is an authenticity to wear that cannot be recreated. Sometimes we try to fake it — buying ripped jeans, distressed furniture, notebooks with fake leather patinas, but faking age to create some kind of character ironically strips objects of that same character. Everything will eventually degrade. Stone erodes, metal rusts, ink eats away at paper.
The great designer Massimo Vignelli is known for his design maxims: “If you do it right, it will last forever.”; “We like design to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless.” In 1967 Vignelli was tasked with creating the identity for American Airlines, he crafted a beautiful brand.
Vignelli’s design stood for decades but, in 2013 the “timeless” design fell to the tide of shadows and gradients and was replaced. So is great design timeless? No, like an object, every design possesses an inherent vice. It is a product of the zeitgeist: the decade, atmosphere and culture in which it was created. Even Vignelli, a designer legendary for his skill, was not immune. Every wave rises and falls.
This may seem bleak but this example teaches the virtue of endurance. Imagine how work will be perceived in a year from now, a decade from now, 40 years from now. This mindset disregards clichés, trends, and poor craftsmanship. It focuses attention on design that is innovative, maintainable, useful, and honest — design that will endure.
Wabi–Sabi isn’t a term used commonly in Japan. Marcel Theroux was met by blank stares, poor answers and vague descriptions when he asked Japanese to explain the term. Wabi–sabi became popular as a concept in the west but is actually two distinct words that together describe an aesthetic that is more intangible.
“Wabi” is the beauty of imperfection. A machine made bowl is perfect, but soul-less. A handmade bowl has subtle asymmetry revealing the craftsmanship involved in its creation. The writer Haruki Murakami in his latest novel perfectly illustrates the concept of wabi while discussing the differences between a husband and wife’s pottery:
“Compared to Edvard’s style, Eri’s was far simpler, hardly reaching the finely wrought subtlety of her husband’s creations. Overall there was a lush, fleshy feel to her pieces, the rims slightly warped, and a lack of any refined, focused beauty. But her pottery also had an unusual warmth that brought a sense of comfort and solace. The slight irregularities and rough texture provided a quiet sense of calm, like the feeling of touching natural fabric, or sitting on a porch watching the clouds go by.”
“Sabi” is the quality of age, deterioration, and the passage of time. However, while something may age or deteriorate there is still the suggestion that it remains fundamentally the same. A tea-bowl is still a tea-bowl despite becoming worn, a person is still a person despite wrinkles. We place value on objects not just because of their age but because they represent a tie to others, those who have come before us. The object becomes a bridge that links us to their past owners. Teapots still used for the same purpose decades later, family heirlooms passing through generations, zen gardens being maintained centuries later. I think this is the intangible in wabi–sabi that makes it notoriously difficult to explain.
This is a type of peasant boro jacket called a noragi. Each jacket is a striking patchwork of hemp and cotton repaired countless times and passed through generations ( The hodge-podge of patches share a similarity to the English Prince Charle’s ragged rain jacket ). Follow one of these jacket’s seams and you can trace a family’s history. The boro jacket is wabi–sabi typified — an object aged, worn, repaired and passed through many hands.
Wabi–sabi remains a strongly eastern aesthetic at home in Japan, but if you look closely many in the west place value on the same principles. It can be found in something as mundane as a lovingly battered pair of denim jeans, or something as grand as The Venus de Milo. An appreciation of impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness should make a designer humble, and ultimately guide them to producing better work, these qualities are not limited by borders.
19 April 2015
“As I look afar I see neither cherry blossoms nor tinted leaves;
Only a modest hut on the coast in the dusk of autumn nightfall”
—Fujiwara no Teika
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.”