Wabi–sabi is a Japanese world view that does not translate easily. Its often described as viewing things that are modest, worn and aged as beautiful. Ask three different Japanese language experts and 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, are deeply rooted in Buddhism and Japanese society. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t find these values outside of Japan.
A Tale of Two Venuses
If you’ve ever been to the Louvre you’ve probably seen The Venus de Milo. In a room filled with ancient Greek sculptures its the only one with a crowd around it. 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. The propaganda worked. 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. Something incomplete drives us to discover more, to imagine what it once was. 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. The Venus de Milo needs some imagination. You have 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 either. 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 adopted 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. Rather than hiding the mistake it is celebrated as a part of the history of the object.
The celebration of imperfection is typified in kintsugi. 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 pivitol moment in its history. One of the underlying principles of wabi–sabi which comes from Buddhism is 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. Faking age to create some kind of value ironically strips objects of that same value. 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 shadows and gradients and was replaced. So is great design timeless? No, like an object, every design possesses an inherent vice. It reveals the decade, atmosphere and culture in which it was created. Even Vignelli, a legendary and skillful designer, can’t avoid this deterioration forever.
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 avoids cliches, avoids trends, avoids 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 kind of beauty that is caused by 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 that has been repaired multiple times and passed through generations (The hodge-podge of patches are strikingly similar to Prince Charle’s farming 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 is as an eastern aesthetic and although it is definitely more prevalent in Japan, many in the west place value on the same principles. Prince Charles’s jacket, The Venus de Milo, The Liberty Bell. Designers, writers and artists often embrace its principles. Impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness make a designer humble, they are a guide to producing better work and they 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 Teikan
“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.”