April 2, 2005
Are you ready to wabi-sabi? No, it’s not a dance, rock group or type of sushi. It’s a scaleddown approach to home decor that is amassing a loyal following.
Think of it as shabby chic meets Zen Buddhism to create a space that is warm, serene and nurturing, says Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of "The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty."
The idea of wabi-sabi is that less is more. But we’re not talking cold, sleek minimalism.
"There’s a warm, meditative quality to the look," says Lawrence, editor-in-chief of Natural Home magazine. "People who like brand new, sparkling and everything perfect might not like it."
It is getting rid of clutter and items you don’t absolutely love or need. It is good riddance to the decor excesses and perfectionism of the 1990s, the pre-fab matching furniture, the machine-made vinyls and plastics, the mass-produced items that weigh down your spirit and your environment.
It’s much more than a furniture or decor style, though. It’s about paying attention to ourselves and what we bring into our environment, whether it is furniture, paint — even noise, mood and attitude.
The wabi-sabi aesthetic is reflected in flea market finds and warm hardwood floors, winter branches and earth colors, offering tea to guests or sipping coffee from a mug you made yourself.
"We are finding that people are turning their backs on today’s disposable culture and are very hungry for serenity and simplicity," says Christy Bartlett, director of Urasenke Foundation San Francisco, which provides tea ceremony education. Wabi-sabi derives, in part, from the intricate philosophy inherent in the tea ceremony.
Wabi means humble. Its root word in Japanese means "to rust," Bartlett says. Sabi means "beauty in the natural progression of time." Thus, she says, wabi-sabi focuses on respecting and having gratitude for objects in one’s environment, of seeing inner beauty in the ordinary.
"In its essence, wabi-sabi means appreciating the imperfect, the primitive, the patina and ‘aching beauty’ that comes with aging," Bartlett says.
Wabi-sabi has its roots in subdued fifth-century Japanese poetry. Later, in 14thcentury Japan, it was embraced as a way to escape war and the excesses of the day. Rustic tea huts filled with simple, artisan-made utensils became retreats for tea drinking. Samurai warriors had to leave their swords at the door. The aesthetics of wabi-sabi were also expressed in flower arranging, bonsai, ceramics, archery, music and theater.
Wabi-sabi principles have been embraced in the United States by students of zen, tea ceremonies, flower arranging and other Japanese arts. But it was Leonard Koren, a California architect, who introduced the concept to a wider audience in 1994 in his book "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers." It has become more mainstream in the past year or so as decorators have begun emphasizing simplicity in home furnishings.
Lawrence embraced the wabi-sabi philosophy after hearing about it several years ago on a photo shoot in Maine for Natural Home. The home’s owner grew her own vegetables in summer, canned them in fall and spent winters in a cozy chair by the fire.
Lawrence admired the home’s well-worn furniture, mismatched dining room chairs and a rusty gate that was used as a wall hanging. The woman told her "It’s so wabi-sabi." The host explained the concept and gave her a copy of Koren’s book.
Today, her favorite wabisabi item in her ’50s-style ranch house is a set of beat-up French doors that she found in a salvage yard to replace a sliding glass door in her sun room. She also loves a dining room shelf filled with sepiatoned family photos and old bottles she says make her feel "peaceful."
Lawrence says the response to her articles and books on wabi- sabi has been amazing. "People really want to slow down, simplify their lives and find peace."
Julie Lawton, owner of Spirit Furniture at The Shops at Briargate, Colo., says wabisabi is a breath of fresh air in decor.
"I hope it signals the end of the shotgun approach of putting things in a room with no regard to harmony and balance," says Lawton, who likes simplicity in her furnishings and urges her customers to pare down their decor.
Still, wabi-sabi might be a difficult concept for many Americans, Lawrence says, because "not having lots of stuff is not the American dream."
She says one way to begin integrating wabi-sabi into one’s home and life is to clear the clutter and resist filling every space. Colors should be subtle, ornaments should be simple.
"Wabi does not mean slobby," Lawrence says. An unmade bed is an unmade bed, and dirt is dirt.
Personal private space is important. In most homes, children have their own rooms, but adults are expected to share a bedroom. She suggests carving out a small nook for reading or morning coffee. It could be as simple as a comfy chair tucked in a corner.
Cutting noise pollution also helps create a wabi-sabi lifestyle. Good noise is the sound of children’s laughter, rain on windows, running water, music. Bad noise is the clanking of nonquiet appliances and the incessant blaring of TVs, stereos, and computers.
But Lawrence admits to owning a 55-inch flat screen television her husband purchased. "I told him that would brand me as a wabi-sabi fake," she laughs. "But it’s cozy to curl up and watch movies."
Getting started with wabi-sabi
Some ways to introduce wabi-sabi into your life:
Wash dishes by hand one day a week. It allows time to think — or not think.
Pay attention to your daily bread. The food should be healthy, in season and available locally so you can connect to the earth cycles and the place where you live. Buy at farmers’ markets, and ask store produce managers where items came from.
Next time you sweep the floor, consider it a meditation and use a broom, not a vacuum cleaner.
When invited to someone’s house, bring a small, nonextravagant gift such as homemade jam or apples from your tree to let hosts know they are appreciated.
Offer your guests something sweet and a cup of tea served in pretty cups. Or enjoy a cup yourself in the late afternoon. Keep a vase filled with simple seasonal flowers in your home.