Wabi-sabi and the beauty of transience

April 15, 2016

Visiting a friend’s home recently, I was impressed by its appearance: despite its owner’s sophisticated tastes, it was modest and serene.

This was due, I believe, to the way it was designed to reflect the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: the established aesthetic which praises a beauty that is incomplete and in progress.

For those who appreciate this style, there is pleasure in specifically reclaiming wood to build furniture or even walls and doors. This is not about restoration, but a deliberate appreciation that imperfections are a record of the passage of time and should be celebrated for what they can bring to the overall feel of a creation.

Moreover, artefacts are designed to be simple enough for their function to be obvious, and for the function of an object to suggest its form.

The Victoria & Albert Museum offers good examples in its Japanese collection including basketware which exemplifies wabi-sabi. The bamboo from which it is made is easily identified and close to its natural state; the technique of weaving is also obvious.

This consciousness during manufacture is also evident in some textiles such as kimono and lengths of hemp and cotton fabric made by the kasuri process, where the yarns are resist-dyed before being woven, which gives the patterns on the fabric their characteristic fuzzy edge.

Perhaps not surprisingly, wabi-sabi is becoming increasing fashionable in the design world for its zen-like calming qualities, its appreciation of tradition, and that overall sense of harmony, balance and order.

The passion for wabi-sabi, which is drawn from Buddhist teachings on the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and emptiness, has led to exciting collaborations of modern craftspeople, including a group in Kyoto called Japan Handmade which proudly draws inspiration from a 1,000-year old tradition of artisanal work.

Yet the principles behind this passion are not so different to Western sensibilities that are perhaps better known. For example, the popular Scandi tradition, of bleached wood and clutter free rooms, also prizes honesty in materials, and a sort of soulfulness which comes from the sincerity with which items are made, often by craftsmen who themselves may make a virtue out of blemishes in materials.

It is interesting to reflect, to ask why we enjoy this simplicity and honesty in our surroundings. Why do we respond so well to seeing items which are not overly perfect?

Perhaps it is because of the physical reminder that we must accept impermanence in ourselves before we can find true peace. We need to embrace changes rather than fight them or fear them.

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho said: “Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realise that nothing really belongs to them.” With this knowledge and sense of acceptance we are helped to find peace inside ourselves.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation