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Wabi-sabi and sustainable interior design

Wabi-sabi… (No, not the green horseradishy stuff that comes with your sushi…) Wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept that loosely translates as ‘finding beauty in imperfection’.


I was reminded of it last week, when I attended a talk as part of Focus 16 at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour, as part of the London Design Festival.

The talk was given by Simon Dodsworth, Senior Tutor at KLC School of Design.  The subject was Everyday Sustainability, and given my interest in this area, I went along to hear what he had to say.

Imperfect beauty

As part of the talk, he touched on the Japanese attitude to objects, where beauty is found in the imperfect and flaws are celebrated.

This concept is the afore-mentioned wabi-sabi, and I was delighted to be reminded of it: I studied Japanese for my undergraduate degree, and my year attending university in Japan sparked my interest in both aesthetics generally and our relationship with the environment.

The value of flaws

In essence, wabi-sabi does not value the new and perfectly formed.  It values items that have been used, that have developed a patina, that have a story.  A vase that is broken is put back together with the cracks highlighted in gold, as this will highlight the imperfection and make it more beautiful.  The handmade, flaws and all, is valued more than the identical factory-made replicas.  Transience is valued – blossom and Autumnal leaves, for example, are made even more beautiful by their brevity.

Using wabi-sabi in our homes

But how does the concept of wabi-sabi relate to sustainable interior design?

In short, the more we value our possessions and homes with a history, marks, scratches, dents and all, the less likely we are to replace things with something brand new and shiny.  If we ascribe value to the experience, the story, we are likely to keep everything for longer.  And thus spend less (time, money, resources) overall.

I would rather help a client to find a sofa that they’ll keep for 20 years, a dining table that they’ll pass down to their children, art that they will love until the end of their days, than set them up with the next big trend that they’ll tire of in a year or two and want to ‘upgrade’ to something new.  I like to use vintage items as well as new.  And I never pressure a client to get rid of something they love.

What do you think about wabi-sabi?  Can you relate?  What do you own that you love, despite its imperfections?

If this has sparked your interest in wabi-sabi and Japanese aesthetics, you may want to check out a short essay recommended by Simon at the talk: “In Praise of Shadows”, by Junichiro Tanazaki.





What I learnt from Kit Kemp and how it can help you get your home the way you want it

I was lucky enough to hear Kit Kemp speak a few days ago at London Design Week 2016, held each Spring and centred around the Design Centre in Chelsea Harbour. I’m told she doesn’t do many talks; this one sold out in two days but I leapt at the chance to hear her speak and managed to get a ticket.

Kit Kemp speaking to Giles Kime at London Design Week 2016. Image from @DesignCentreCH on twitter

Kit Kemp has a wonderful way of putting together colourful, fascinating rooms, and I have long admired her work. She designs the interiors for Firmdale Hotels, the hotel group she co-owns with her husband.  The group includes several hotels in London (Covent Garden Hotel, Charlotte St Hotel, Ham Yard Hotel to name but three), and one in New York (Crosby Street Hotel) with another on the way. Read more about her here. Here’s some tips I learnt from Kit that I thought I’d share with you to help you get your home the way you want it.

Start with what you love

If you start here, you can’t go too far wrong. Let what you love and your core values be the foundation of everything in your home. If you’re not sure what your values are, or what you love, keep a scrapbook, put everything in it that you come across that you like. Images, sketch things, words, photos. Any subject, not just interiors. Look back over it from time to time and the themes will appear, these themes show you what you love/value/are attracted to.  Whenever you’re looking for new things for your home, bear these values and themes in mind.

Showcase fabric on headboards

A headboard provides an ideal opportunity to show off a beautiful fabric to full effect. All too often a fabric is gathered to make curtains, or wrapped around furniture in the form of upholstery. A headboard allows you to use the fabric flat, and as you need far less of it than for curtains, it can be an economical way to use it.

Frame unusual items

Why not frame plates, shoe collections, balls, anything that you like or means something to you… Kit is a big fan of collections of items. Framing collected items pulls a collection together and adds more weight to it. Framing 3D items with a black felt background really makes the item pop.

One room at a time

Even if your whole home needs an overhaul, work on one room at a time. Spend however long you’ve got, in a short space of time, trawling for inspiration for that room only. Include at least one trip out, if you can, wandering around design districts such as Chelsea Harbour, the Kings Road, Fulham Road, Tottenham Court Road etc (or if you’re not in London, try the Home and Fabric departments in your local department store, fabric shops, furniture shops, local restaurants and hotels, textile museums…). Flick through magazines (home, fashion, gardening, anything!), Pinterest, Houzz etc. Anything you like, get a sample, snap a quick picture, take a screenshot, rip it out… Don’t analyse too much while you’re collecting, just keep going. Then sit down at home and look for the themes. Your room will start to appear. You can then build on this foundation to search for the remaining things you need, and create a unique look that you’ll love.

Don’t be afraid of failure

This piece of advice applies to so much more than just interior design! Rarely is failure so catastrophic that recovery is impossible. If you don’t try daring things, you are unlikely to end up with a remarkable room or home… (Or a remarkable experience… holiday… life…). Try it, if it doesn’t work, learn from it and move on.

Some excellent tips here. Thank you, Kit, for an inspirational, entertaining and colourful talk, and for your generous advice from which we can all benefit.

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London Design Festival 2013: my highlights

LDFOver the past week or so, I was able to get to a few design shows as part of London Design Festival 2013, so today on the blog I thought I’d share my highlights with you.

Had a great time at Design Junction, probably my favourite show.  I really liked John Green‘s furniture, particularly the Embrace side table / bookshelf / coffee table.  It’s not new, but it’s a clever piece of furniture that’s stylish, versatile and sustainably produced.

noble and woodNoble and Wood‘s modernist style pieces caught my eye, particularly the Cloud console with its interchangeable leather tops, and the Saddle magazine racks.

I popped into the V&A to see ao textiles‘ demonstration of natural dye techniques on their sustainable textiles.  Beautiful colours and patterns.

100% Design was a bit of a disappointment for me, to be honest.  Not much of interest for me personally and the Eco part of the show didn’t seem particularly eco, with many of the brands not demonstrating any eco credentials at all.  However, I did like Tom Vousden‘s furniture and Ilias Ernst‘s Timber lighting.

And onto Decorex.  Held this year for the first time at Kensington Palace, it was spacious, easy to get to, and full of stunning decoration and design ideas.

CuriousaAbsolutely loved these pendants from Curiosa and Curiosa.  Retailing from around £3,000 each, they’re unlikely to be a feature in many homes any time soon, but the handblown glass from Devon and the combination of colours had a mesmerising quality that was beautiful.  And more simple lights are available at a much more affordable price.

Hibou Home have a very cute collection of wallpaper and fabrics for children’s rooms – something a lot more on my radar these days than it used to be!

bluebellgrayBluebell Gray were exhibiting for the first time – some stunning Scottish fabrics.  They were showcasing their colourful painterly shapes.

I had a great chat with Mylands paint, learning about how they make their paint, and why they are different from Farrow & Ball and Little Greene.  Convinced me to try them out next time.

Finally, I heard an interesting panel discussion in the Seminar Theatre: Sustainable Luxury – a contradictory concept.  Can luxury ever be sustainable, or does luxury exclude sustainability by definition?  The debate grew quite heated at times, with Oliver Heath (eco-architect and designer) and Rebecca Whittington (co-founder of The Scarlet Hotel, an eco hotel in Cornwall) arguing that we need to start to think about luxury differently – space, light and beauty are all luxuries in this world and these can be sustainable.

This was fiercely contradicted by Cheryl Gurner of luxury bathrooms manufacturer Bathrooms International, who stated that her clients, at the top end of the market, couldn’t care less about sustainability, and that if it wasn’t rare, endangered or precious, it wasn’t a luxury.  She argued that it’s up to the designer to bring sustainability into top end projects by convincing the client to use, for example, a grey water system, or to make sure that when items were replaced, they were reused or recycled appropriately.  That part of the market will not compromise on finish, look and experience so eco is only going to be selected if it sweeps the board with the end result, irrespective of its eco credentials.  She concluded that designers can – and should – influence, but they can’t impose.

Joe Burns of Oliver Burns (property development) was somewhere in the middle, arguing that, whilst his business was built on the concept of ‘thoughtful luxury’, it was difficult to be the eco warrier when up against all the legislation attached to premium properties, which are often listed, in conservation areas and generally restricted.  No solar panels and air source heat pumps allowed.  However, they give consideration to all the options, all the way down the chain, to come up with a solution that is thoughtful and eco-aware – along the lines of how I work.

Oliver Heath went on to comment that contractors are the weak link in the chain, and I must say that this has been my experience too.  The contractors are the ones that rip out the old and put in the new, so what they do with what they take out, and the products they’re happy to use to create the new, are key parts of the whole puzzle.

The panel agreed that sustainable design needs to be marketed as an improvement, not a sacrifice, and that the industry needs to share knowledge and experiences, rather than scolding each other and consumers for not making the perfect product or the perfect choice.  As I wrote recently, there is no right answer,  you have to just make an informed choice, balancing what’s important to you with the big picture.

What do you think about sustainable luxury?  Did you visit any events in London Design Festival?  Let me know in the comments.

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