The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is becoming ever more popular as an approach to interior and garden design. But what is it - and how can you bring ‘beautiful imperfection’ into your home?
Search the term #wabisabi on Instagram or Pinterest and you’ll find an extraordinary variety of images. It might be an old lock and key in an ancient door, or a close-up of a crackle glaze on a ceramic vase. It might be a child’s dress displayed against a whitewashed brick wall, or a hand-carved wooden bowl, its deep fissure secured by a single (but mindfully placed) brass staple.
So what connects these very different things and makes them all ‘wabi-sabi’? To understand that, you need to know a bit about Japanese culture...
What is wabi-sabi?
Wabi-sabi might be on trend here now but the Japanese have been happily welcoming it into their everyday lives since the 14th century. It combines two elements of Zen aesthetic:
Wabi means fresh, simple, and calming, and it can be rustic or handmade. It also includes the notion of the accidental or chance element in an object, a crack in a plank of wood, for example.
Sabi is the natural beauty that comes with time and ageing, such as the mellow patina on an old piece of furniture, or verdigris on metal. A careful repair, such as a stitch, can also be sabi.
Bringing these two words together gives us wabi-sabi - beauty in imperfection and impermanence.
Wabi-sabi in the home
Like many aesthetic concepts, wabi-sabi is one of those things where, if you’re tuned in, you ‘know it when you see it’.
The emphasis on beauty is key. Your uncle’s old Brown Betty teapot with the chipped spout probably wouldn’t pass muster, but an old finely carved picture frame that has lost some of its gilding just might.
The evolution of western interior design and furniture styles in the 21st century holds some clues. Distressed paint finishes, rough textured walls, exposed brickwork, recycled and sustainable materials, reclaimed timbers, natural fabrics, and monochromatic and earth-tone colour palettes might all be considered as wabi-sabi.
Simplicity is also at the heart of wabi-sabi. So if you’re keen to embrace it in your own home you might have to do some dedicated decluttering. But that doesn’t mean you have to chuck out all your old stuff, especially if a well-loved item displays its ageing with pride.
That much-loved and well-used desk might work well with a new piece of furniture or new flooring that remains true to its origins, with nothing to mask the grain or the colour of the wood from which it is made.
Wabi-sabi indoors and outdoors
There is nothing showy or ‘bling’ about wabi-sabi. It has a reverence for nature, and it offers us a way to bring the ever-changing natural world indoors. In doing so, we can create and foster a sense of calm in our surroundings, an antidote to the frenetic pace at which so many of us have to work and live.
The principles apply equally to outdoor space. wabi-sabi garden features might include galvanised planters, the surfaces of which will weather and alter in appearance over time. Use stones and pebbles, rather than paving slabs, to create winding pathways. Leave that old gate just as it is, rusting or greening with age, rather than replacing it or reaching for the metal paint or wood stain.
A wabi-sabi garden is the very opposite of the manicured lawns and regimented borders of so many municipal parks or country houses. Think instead of the wafting grasses and drifts of colour in Oudolf Field – the meadow garden Piet Oudolf designed for Hauser & Wirth in Somerset.
It is in complete harmony with its setting, while gently shifting and changing throughout the year; the dry seed heads of winter as important a feature as the intense colour of summer flowers. A garden for all times and all seasons, a garden to be enjoyed by all, young and old.
In a world where we are constantly expected to aim for perfection - whether that’s Instagram selfies or immaculate homes - perhaps it is no bad thing to look towards wabi-sabi and see what it has to offer. After all, what could be more human than imperfection and impermanence? How much happier would we feel if we could recognise and accept that this is where true beauty lies?
In the words of the late poet, singer and one-time Zen Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen: ‘There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.’
5 rules for bringing wabi-sabi into your home
1. Keep it real
For furniture and accessories, favour the authentic, the handmade and the artisanal. It’s good to be able to see the hand of the craftsman, and the memory of the raw materials from which an item is made.
2. Mix and don’t match
A wabi-sabi approach gives you tremendous freedom to buy and keep things you find beautiful, without worrying about trends, age or styles. Nothing needs to really match.
3. Bring the outdoors indoors
Plants and organic materials are a big part of the wabi-sabi aesthetic - nature is beautiful because it is natural, with no perfectly smooth surfaces or straight edges.
4. Declutter, but keep things you love
A Japanese aesthetic always means decluttering - but wabi-sabi is not minimalism. Whereas a minimalist removes everything that’s not practically necessary, a wabi-sabi enthusiast will happily keep a beautiful vase, even if it’s cracked and quite useless.
5. Seek beauty, not perfection
...And do it to please yourself. There’s no need to worry about creating an image of a perfect home: a wabi-sabi space is one where you feel calm, relaxed and content.