Friday, March 13, 2009

Design: wabi sabi mommi

My sister and I both arrived into adulthood near-obsessed with Asian culture. I blame our mother for her love of Japanese design and Greene & Greene buildings, and my father for innocently giving me a copy of the Tao Te Ching when I was twelve, and his old college materials from what I can only guess was a Sumi class. The love of all things aesthetically pleasing (not coincidentally most of them Asian in origin) was so ingrained in me by adulthood that I forgot to even think of it, and my love became part of the wallpaper of my being.
But as I have eased myself into a comfortable(ish) understanding of my new 'motherhood' role, many of my studies have quietly resurfaced, and I find myself making peace with everyday, every moment with the deep-down Zen I had all but forgotten.

a wabi sabi bowl

It is truly a gift to live so closely with a child. I am remembering again what living in only the present is all about. The delightful child-sized messes around the house, the joy of beautiful food prepared according to baby time (which seems to stretch into infinity), the imperfection that can't be helped is all priceless. At first, it all drove me batty.
Then I remembered the Japanese philosophy I love most of all: Wabi Sabi. I am too much a Westerner to explain the concept accurately, but I will sum it up like this: Its roots in Zen Buddhism, wabi sabi is about the perfection of impermanence and imperfection. There are many sources for further study, like here, for starters. The moment I started to remember wabi sabi, I began to love the beautiful chaos of motherhood.
First, I de-cluttered. Then I de-cluttered again. If 'it' isn't truly important or necessary, it gets recycled, donated or trashed. Then I started eating simply, and consciously, remembering this old Zen teaching: When alone, eat as though you are entertaining guests, When entertaining guests, eat as though you are alone. I began to better understand that all of our battered belongings are beautiful with evidence of their years of usefulness, and I began to feel that way about myself, too.

The below interior shots are cited on apartment therapy as 'wabi sabi'
While I agree they might have been inspired by the philosophy, I side with
"You can't buy wabi sabi at Pottery Barn"

True wabi sabi in action
Japanese tea house with leaves

again, beautiful on its own, but too sterile and new to truly be wabi sabi:

Closer (and I am being generous here because I think this is a cool-a** mantle piece), but no cha

this garden corner is wabi sabi without trying to be (therefore making it even more wabi sabi)

classic examples of wabi sabi cha cups

from "The true spirit of wabi sabi":
made me smile

More classic examples:

A roundup of the basic concepts:

The bowl is hollow, open and free shaped antithesis The box is rectilinear, precise and contained
Simple and sparing (It's what you leave out that counts) antithesis Cluttered and full
Non demanding beauty antithesis Quintessential supreme rule to aesthetics
Non utility, non-purpose, sustaining empty meaning antithesis Survival of function and utility to uses
Solicits into sensory expansion of possibilities antithesis Desolate sensory with excessive definition
Comforts uncertainly & unconventionality antithesis Intolerant with ambiguity or contradictions, requires strong definitions in order to withhold substance
Seemingly Crude (Primordial and natural materials) antithesis Ostensibly slick (New artificial manufactured materials)
Earthy, Intimate and warm antithesis Sterile and hygienic
Unpretentious and obscured antithesis Pretentious, ornate, gaudy & flashy
To everything there is a season to change antithesis Strained for everlasting
Favors degradation and attrition (Free to change) antithesis Requires maintenance and excessive attention
Diminish to evolve to nothing (Dissolved) antithesis Requires restoration, fixing and reviving
Revives naturally through change in time antithesis Revamp/replace or change in pace to exhaustive trends
Weathering/contamination generates rich expression antithesis Purity is divine, decay is weak
Imperfect and incomplete antithesis Strains improvement and perfectionism

Quoting the novelist Natsume Soseki [1867-1916]):
When I was in England, I was once laughed at because I invited someone for snow-viewing. At another time I described how deeply the feelings of Japanese are affected by the moon, and my listeners were only puzzled... I was invited to Scotland to stay at a palatial house. One day, when the master and I took a walk in the garden, I noted that the paths between the rows of trees were all thickly covered with moss. I offered a compliment, saying that these paths had magnificently acquired a look of age. Whereupon my host replied that he soon intended to get a gardener to scrape all this moss away.

Leonard Koren:
Get rid of all that is unnecessary. Wabi-sabi means treading lightly on the planet and knowing how to appreciate whatever is encountered, no matter how trifling, whenever it is encountered. "Material poverty, spiritual richness" are wabi-sabi bywords. In other words, wabi-sabi tells us to stop our preoccupation with success — wealth, status, power and luxury — and enjoy the unencumbered life.

Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom from things.

"Greatness" exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular and enduring. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.

Things wabi-sabi are unpretentious, unstudied and inevitable looking. They do not blare out "I am important" or demand to be the centre of attention. They are understated and unassuming, yet not without presence or quiet authority. Things wabi-sabi easily coexist with the rest of their environment.

Things wabi-sabi are appreciated only during direct contact and use; they are never locked away in a museum. Things wabi-sabi have no need for the reassurance of status or the validation of market culture. They have no need for documentation of provenance.

Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.)

One of my favorite personal 'wabi sabi mommi' moments:
Living with my child everyday; seeing her wonder, her natural ability to live only in the moment, and her joy, has reinforced my old lessons on Zen and wabi sabi. Each day I am happier as I pare down to that which is essential, and therefore, truly beautiful.

Which moments of your day, and which objects, bring you back to your center?


  1. Gorgeous post - and what a wonderful lifestyle to pass down to baby. I'm seriously considering finding this book! Might be just what I need right now. Thanks!

  2. Il wabi -sabi è diventato da tempo la mia filosofia di vita ...mi ha dato serenità e la capacità di coglire la bellezza nelle cose e azioni minime. Less is more. Un caro saluto Ornella



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