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.




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