Wabi Sabi for today’s designers

Several years ago, while travelling in California, I had the pleasure of experiencing a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. My host one evening had recently returned from a trip to rural China, one of many in past years. A trip to indulge his passion for tea, and the ceremony and artistry encompassing it. Eager to share his stories, we sat for hours into the night, poring over photographs and soaking up tales of plantations deep in the mountains of China.

The following morning, I was invited to stay and drink tea. The tea room — a simple, plainly decorated affair, housed at its centre a large and aged wooden table, scratched, gnarled and rounded through years of use. Morning sunlight shone through dusty windows on bare floorboards, casting a hazy, golden glow over the space. Pots, cups, plates and tea-trays rested quietly on simple shelving. Each of them unique, formed by skilled hands. Simply shaped to fulfil their purpose, yet carrying the tiny traces and imperfections only a handcrafted object can possess. Most bore little-to-no decoration, save for the cracks, speckles and colour variations imparted by their production.

We sat across from each other in complete silence. An array of trays, cups, pots and hand tools lay ready on the tabletop between us. Water was slowly heated, tea broken and steeped before pouring into cups for drinking. Every movement practiced and deliberate — a quiet form of theatre; meditation in motion.

Small, shallow and delicate — the vessels held room for a small mouthful of earth coloured liquid. Tea was sipped in meditative silence, attention directed to the warm, complex and delicate flavours. It’s hard to recall a time I have experienced taste so richly, such was the calm sense of focus placed on this small cup of tea. Mind entirely in the present moment, senses narrowed and heightened on a singular experience.

Years later, I came across a term which I think summed up the beauty I felt in that experience. Two words from Japan — wabi-sabi.


This essay is a personal investigation into wabi-sabi, a concept that’s intrigued me I’ve since chancing upon it several years ago. Wabi-sabi is, essentially, an idea of beauty originating in the Zen monasteries of traditional Japan. “It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. A beauty of things modest and humble. A beauty of things unconventional”.

A rough definition

Wabi-sabi is a philosophy and aesthetic sensibility born out of traditional Japanese culture. It could be argued to be the Japanese equivalent to the Greek ideals of beauty which have spread for millennia and become the norm across the western world. Really though, defining wabi-sabi as an aesthetic would be doing it a disservice. To many Japanese, wabi-sabi is closer to a way of being. A philosophy. Its aesthetic characteristics are simply the physical manifestation of this.

The words wabi and sabi, go back long into Japanese history. Their meanings have evolved much over time, but have existed as we know them today since around the 14th Century.

As they are understood today, wabi refers to the philosophical, spiritual path of simplification. To cutting out the unnecessary. Sabi — the effects of time passing, eternal change and transience, the impermanent nature of all things.

The two words originated in different places, with these different meanings. Over centuries, their meanings have blurred together. Nowadays, the Japanese use them interchangeably. When one says wabi, they could equally mean sabi. Today most refer to them together, as wabi-sabi.

History

It is said the first appreciation of ‘wabi-sabi’ qualities in the physical came from Buddhist monks in the Zen monasteries of Japan. Underfunded by the state, they lived in relative poverty. When entertaining guests, they could not afford art or decorations, so had to use what was available to them. Natural objects — bamboo or wildflowers in place of ornate, imported Chinese decorations. In doing so, the monks were forced to focus on the simple beauty of natural things: The cracks in a bamboo vase, subtle nuances of colour, random patterns left by the flow of nature.

Whilst the supposed birthplace for wabi-sabi was the monastery — it was outside those walls in a different kind of spiritual settlement, the tea house, where the concept truly found its footing and developed into the form we know today.

In traditional Japanese culture, the tea ceremony is considered almost religious practice . It’s referred to by many as not just a ceremony, but Tea-ism — an approach to living in alignment with Zen and the Tao.

Ceremonies are an exercise in forced simplicity. Today, many ‘classic’ examples of wabi-sabi in objects are in the ceramics and tools crafted for the tea ceremony. Wabi-sabi and ‘tea-ism’ are so philosophically and historically intertwined, to take one from the other would be to remove the essence of either.

The difficulty in ‘understanding’ wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a difficult subject to articulate. Marcel Theroux aptly shows this in the opening scene of his documentary In search of wabi-sabi, by asking shoppers on a busy Tokyo street the question, “what is wabi-sabi?”. Answers vary wildly from the broad and indistinct ‘Japanese art’, to the more philosophical, ‘to enjoy a simple life’. The most telling response comes from an older lady who, when posed the question, looks taken aback and replies in exasperation, ‘you can’t just find it!’.

This conundrum, in fairness, is not exclusive to wabi-sabi. In the study of Zen, for example, it is believed that any true understanding must come from within, through individual experience. It cannot simply be learned through theoretical study. Zen masters guide pupils down their own paths of discovery, each working towards personal ‘Buddhahood’, or ‘enlightenment’.

To the Japanese, language is only considered a partial element of communication. Conversation is more ‘emotional exchange’ than logical discussion with emphasis placed on ‘wordless understanding’. “It is not the voice which communicates, but the whole body, including the eyes, smile, hair, gestures and clothing. The aim is to use language to achieve perfect communication with the minimal number of signs, as in the tiny verse form of haiku”—MacFarlane.

This view of communication stands in contrast to our own in the west. Our desire for clarity, information and straight-talk is an integral part of the way we see the world. The elusive and paradoxical form of communication used by the East can often leave us Westerners stumped and missing the point.

The best Japanese writers on wabi-sabi therefore tend not to explore it objectively, instead enveloping the reader in a feeling of the thing, through rich descriptive language and storytelling. Two of the most-cited wabi-sabi texts, Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and Kakuzō’s The Book of Tea, make no actual mention of the term and speak in indirect, almost lyrical prose. It is important for us to see this not as an avoidance of the subject. Apparent indirectness and obfuscation are common practice among Eastern philosophies.

Wabi-sabi today

In modern Japan

For centuries, wabi-sabi has been a vital part of the Japanese identity (Theroux 2009). Unfortunately, in recent decades it appears to have largely fallen prey to Japan’s rapid development and technological growth. Japan’s development sees no sign of letting up and one has to question how the naturally introvert wabi-sabi might retain its place in Japanese culture among the bright lights and brashness of western influenced development.

So with Japanese wabi-sabi in its current endangered state, might it find a more successful future elsewhere? As Juniper suggests (2003:30), perhaps its best chance of survival might be in the developed west — as generations here become increasingly disenfranchised with the promises of materialism and ‘progress’, many are seeking a more meaningful alternative.

It’s clear then many of us in the west feel drawn to wabi-sabi’s proposition. At its heart is a different ideal of beauty, in many ways the antithesis to the artificial, surface-deep western ideals of beauty. Wabi-sabi promises a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with the physical world.


Wabi-sabi for the modern designer

Wabi-sabi is most obviously present in things handmade, aged, and physical. Traditional techniques, natural materials. But for designers, who work every day on print and digital — mechanical and mass-produced by their nature, how can we still be influenced by wabi-sabi?

To investigate this question, I will use this final section to extract and explore some of the ‘core ideas’ from within wabi-sabi — presenting them as actionable directives with examples of their use in modern-day design and creative practice.


I. Design for emptiness

Vacuum is all-potent because all containing. — Kakuzō

Sit awhile in a natural setting — quieten, if you can, your brain’s chatter. Perhaps the first thing you might notice is a deep, all-encompassing sensation of peace. Nature is a quiet companion. You might sit among ocean waves crashing on rocky cliffs, or the midst of a violent thunderstorm, yet despite a cacophony of sound the only voice to be heard can be that of your own consciousness. Nature is a neutral entity. No agenda to push, indifferent to human presence. As you sit and observe the scene before you — you may feel joy at its beauty, sadness at a memory kindled, fear at a danger before you, but these feelings will have come from within.

Compare this to the environment that we in the ‘developed world’ surround ourselves with. Consumer goods and marketing messages vie to infiltrate our consciousness, each pushing their own agenda and battling for attention. Products and brands sell themselves as vehicles for self-expression . Out of the box they come charged with a strong sense of identity and a message to push onto others. Little room is left for the consumer to impart any of their own meaning.

Japanese designer Kenya Hara has long been an advocate for an alternative to this. He calls the concept ‘emptiness’. That is, in a communications context, “advertising that does not present a lucid message, but in effect, offers an empty vessel to the audience”, a space for them to supply the meaning themselves. As a concept this can be difficult to get one’s head around. We’re used to the purpose of communication being to actively ‘speak’ to the consumer, whereas Hara here is proposing the opposite.

To further explain the idea, he draws upon the example of Japan’s national flag.

The red circle in the centre carries no meaning. It’s just a geometric figure. People supply the meaning. […a symbol of war, peace, sun, blood, spirit…] All these interpretations are equally valid. The interpretation depends on the interpreter. Because it is not aligned with any one interpretation, this national flag functions well. The simple, red circle is an empty vessel.

In the product design context, Hara often draws on the example of two knives: one German, one Japanese. “The [German] Henckels has a wonderful design; you merely pick it up and the grip settles perfectly in your hand. It’s well considered ergonomically and I count it as one of the high points of western rationality. Compared to this, the handle of the Yanagiba knife is just a stick. But you can hold it anywhere. Both where and how to hold it are up to the chef. This plain handle is receptive to all of the chef’s exceptional techniques. This is emptiness.”

Hara argues that emptiness is a concept rooted deep in Japanese identity. The ancient Japanese believed the gods lived ‘in the midst of nature’ — everywhere and in everything at once. Emptiness was used as a device to make contact with the gods — shrines designed as empty spaces, because if emptiness equals the possibility of being filled, then the gods may find the shrine and enter it. “Power is made from the possibility and potential.”. It is evident in the design of the traditional tearoom, itself a largely empty space, free from artifice, ornament, or anything else likely to disrupt the emptiness.

Following this path to emptiness in design often leads to an aesthetic that to our minds might look plain and uninteresting. Hara sees it differently — as design liberated from style of any kind. Design that invites the interpretation of its user.

A truly ‘empty’ piece of design then might be considered one more likely to fit with the natural world around it. Empty design, like nature, ‘says’ very little, instead providing a space for your own thoughts and interpretations.

Perhaps, in their next piece of work, the designer might consider what exactly they are trying to say, and whether it might be better left unsaid.


II. Practice refined poverty

When other sects speak of Zen, the first thing that they praise is its poverty… There was a time when I owned private lands and possessed wealth, but when I compare the state of my body and mind at that time to the way it is now, with only my robes and a bowl, I realise how superior my present state is… In order to study the Way [the ‘enlightened’ state of being], you must be poor. — Dōgen

Wabi-sabi is a beauty born of poverty. Of making do with less — cherishing the delicate traces of time and nature over impressive displays of wealth. The Zen monks with whom it originated are famed for living free of any material wealth and, since the influence of master Sen no Rikyū in the 16th century, the traditional tea house has sought to be the embodiment of this ideal. The house’s structure, decoration, tools and materials all ‘intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty.’ (Kakuzō 1956: 56)

Beyond Zen, all manner of religious devotees choose to give up possessions, relationships and ties to society in the pursuit of a life spent nearer the gods. Similar sentiment can be seen in the writing of western ascetics, such as American author Henry David Thoreau, who sought, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life […] and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

But why simplicity? As Koren puts it, “Material poverty, spiritual richness are wabi-sabi bywords”. By pursuing simplicity, you cut out all that is not necessary and place full importance on the things that really matter. Less, but better.

And what makes wabi-sabi’s simplicity different? Koren describes it as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. Economy of means.

In the pursuit of wabi-sabi like simplicity — the first step of the designer should be to limit themselves to only materials that they truly need, to work within those constraints and find the most elegant solution possible. Strip things down and then use what you have.


III. Replace ambition with acceptance

In the advanced consumer society in which we live, how much is enough? Is the first of Thoreau’s questions we must take up, the most deeply subversive question you can currently pose? We’ve been carefully trained to know the answer is always: More. — Thoreau and McKibben

The economy we live in today might be called, as Yvon Chouinard, of Patagonia puts it, an economy of scarcity. “Many of us in the United States live in what is thought to be abundance, with plenty all around us, but it is only an illusion, not the real thing. The economy we live in is marked by ‘not enough.’ We once asked the owner of a successful business if he had enough money and he replied, ‘Don’t you understand? There is never enough.’” A real economy of abundance, as he explains, should be one where there is enough. “Not too much. Not too little. Enough.”

Kenya Hara echoes this sentiment when speaking on the philosophy behind Muji. “At Muji, Hara says, educating desire is about teaching people to say, ‘This will do.”

Much of this, he says, is about encouraging a sense of rationality in the consumer. Muji products are designed to appeal to this rationality, giving a “satisfaction that comes out as, this will do, rather than kindling the highly emotional responses that lead to this is what I want.”

Acceptance over ambition, saying ‘this will do’, over ‘that’s what I need’ is something at the heart of wabi-sabi. It is also perhaps one of the most important things we could take on as individuals and a society. The designer can play a significant part in designing products and communications to encourage this. Bringing us closer to Chouinard’s ‘economy of abundance’.

In an economy of abundance, there is enough. Not too much. Not too little. Enough. Most important, there is enough time for the things that matter: relationships, delicious food, art, games and rest.


IV. Work with the grain of your material

A book is a flexible mirror of the mind and body. Its overall size and proportions, the colour and texture of the paper, the sound it makes as the pages turn, and the smell of the paper, adhesive and ink, all blend with the size and form and placement of the type to reveal a little about the world in which it was made. If the book appears to be only a paper machine, produced at their own convenience by other machines, only machines will want to read it. — Bringhurst 1993:143

Every material has a grain — it’s what gives that material its identity and affordances that tell you how best to use it. Wood, web pages, paper, stone, cotton — each has an inbuilt preference for the tools and processes best suited to it. As designers, it’s our job to understand such preferences in every material we manipulate; so that each is allowed to shine, and work to its best ability.

Adhering to this principle, working with the grain of your material, yields more than mere functional advantage. Doing so can lend a sense of aesthetic elegance and lightness of touch not dissimilar to that found in things wabi-sabi.

Even in materials not born of nature, there is a very real grain. As an example, let’s examine the web. Over years it may have grown and taken many forms, but underneath, things haven’t changed much. A vanilla HTML hasn’t changed much since the birth of the internet.

Strip away the surface-level styling from any page and it begins to look, essentially, the same. Black type, blue links and images. All stacked on a vertically scrolling white plane. We might see these as the web’s version of a grain — a set of preferences hard-coded at its inception. As designer Frank Chimero points out, each time we write impose markup or styling on top of this, we work against the grain of the web.

Of course, to impose a ban on styling web pages would be ludicrous, and incredibly boring. The message instead, is that as designers we should at least be aware of each step we take against the grain. Perhaps by treading more lightly, and embracing the grain as a constraint, we might arrive closer to a “technology of grace, one that lives well within its role”.


V. Embrace the scars of your process

As dusk approaches in the hinterland, a traveller ponders shelter for the night. He notices tall rushes growing everywhere, so he bundles an armful together as they stand in the field, and knots them at the top. Presto, a living grass hut. The next morning, before embarking on his journey, he unknots the rushes and presto, the hut de-constructs, disappears, and becomes a virtually indistinguishable part of the larger field of rushes again. The original wilderness seems to be restored, but minute traces of the shelter remain. A slight twist or bend in a reed here and there. There is also the memory of the hut in the mind of the traveller — and in the mind of the reader reading the description. Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealised form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness. — Koren

If asked to describe the archetypal wabi-sabi object, for most, the mind might settle on a traditional piece of Japanese tea ware. Perhaps a pot, crafted by hand, with all the small imperfections that come naturally with the process of its crafting. Such imperfections lie at the heart of the conditions for unearthing wabi-sabi. They invite an intimate human connection between the craftsman and the beholder, transcending the constraints of time and space.

Such traces and imperfections are of course often easier to achieve in a handmade object. Here it is impossible for the maker not to leave fingerprints, real or metaphorical, on the thing they are creating. In reality though, traces of design & manufacturing processes will creep into anything made . Physical, digital, man-made, machine-made, reproduced or unique.

Speaking of the web, Chimero points out, “The more I click around, the less and less I sense those fingerprints on people’s websites the way I used to”. This condition can of course though be found far beyond the screen. Today almost everything made and sold is done so as an extension of a ‘brand’ — a fictional skin to mask its own actuality, hiding the ‘fingerprints’ of its design and production. It’s exactly those fingerprints which give a sense of the person behind the work. They are the traces of the work’s greater story.

Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit is a great example of this. The reality of working with plasticine and stop-motion cameras is that the figures will never be perfectly smooth. The constant touching and tweaking involved means tiny dents and fingerprints are inevitable. With computer graphics technology today Aardman might easily ‘correct’ such blemishes but instead they’re left. They give the film a charm not achievable through traditional digital animation. A subtle hint at the dedication gone into its creation.

As designers, we could do well in learning to embrace these ‘fingerprints’ in our process. Leaving them in might actually enhance the final effect of our work, leaving traces of the human behind an otherwise faceless object.


In conclusion…

Much of wabi-sabi is about uniqueness, physicality, natural materials and processes. Whilst there is no reason it cannot be found in modern society, many of the typical materials, mediums and processes we as modern designers use make the chances of finding wabi-sabi in our work a near impossibility.

Despite this, I believe that undergoing the journey to understanding wabi-sabi can be constructive for the modern designer. It has much to teach us as designers and a society at large. The ideas within wabi-sabi pose alternatives to the stresses of a materialist society, blueprints for sustainable design. Perhaps even the suggestion of a future where humans might live more in harmony with the cycles of nature.

To recap, here are five takeaways for deisgners to consider, when striving for a touch of wabi-sabi.

  1. Design for emptiness
  2. Practice refined poverty
  3. Replace ambition with acceptance.
  4. Work with the grain of your material
  5. Embrace the scars of your process

It is not an exhaustive list, and does not hope to provide an easy route to ‘creating’ an aesthetic. My hope however, is that by employing one or two, our work might arrive somewhere a little different . A place more quietly interesting, and ultimately more in tune with the world in which it exists. Somewhere a little more wabi-sabi.

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