Wabi-sabi: The Original Handmade Movement

Our continual need for the beauty in imperfection, the patina of use, and the simplicity of nature.

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At work we have been thinking on the Handmade Revolution a lot lately. You can find it in the news, regularly lauding the amount of money spent on DIY, handcrafted, even the seemingly handcrafted and you can barely make it down a city block (anywhere) without seeing a farm-to-table restaurant or bar full of Edison light bulbs.

The craft movement may have started about a decade ago but it has become mainstream with loads of brands leveraging this cultural trend to great effect. And Millennials are a fairly large driver behind this trend, which all marketers love to hear about. But as I have been reading on my own, I have come to realize that this is really a much more cyclical trend than we might have initially realized and that’s something that currently fascinates me.

In the ancient Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi (dating back ~700 years), there is a reverence for objects that have an organic quality to them. It is a philosophy that celebrates the beauty in imperfection, the patina of use, and the simplicity of nature.

image via Luisa Brimble

Wabi-sabi is rooted in Zen Buddhism and the early tea culture of Japan. In the 12th century, tea houses were built in the overly ornate and lavish style known as shoin to impress the wealthy merchant classes. Several tea masters in the 15th and 16th century are credited with introducing tea ceremony utensils and décor that were much more simple and understated, almost peasant-like, making the ritual more accessible to common people.

image via JeepWaves

After a period of war and wealth, opulence had become distasteful and wabi-sabi was a sort of revolution against all things gaudy. It is quite ironic (and familiar) that the wealthy classes also embraced this movement and saw it as a simple and luxurious reprieve from their lives. Tea houses at this time were often built in such a way that one had to duck or bow to enter, creating a sense of humility. Once inside, everyone was seen as equals and connected over tea leaving worldly concerns outside.

While wabi-sabi also led to an important and long-lasting craft movement in Japan, it’s influence has also popped up in many cultures and times. Other notable stylistic movements in the United States include the simplicity of Shaker furniture as a backlash to the wealthy, conservative Georgian architecture of the 18th century and the Arts and Crafts style in response to the ornate and stuffy Victorian parlors of the 19th century. Frank Lloyd Wright might be the most notable household name to embody the wabi-sabi aesthetic, building in harmony with the natural surroundings and even using low ceilings to connote a humble scale (much like Rikyu, an early tea master).

image via Wikipedia

In each of these movements, there seems to be an overarching trend of rebellion against excessive opulence and the needless quickening of progress (especially after the industrial revolution). Intuition tells me that these might have been times where it feels like the pace of the world quickens, greed wins the day, life can be a little scary or uncertain, and there is a ripe opening for a movement that speaks to something deeper within.

Thinking about our society now this could easily hold true for the current iteration of the wabi-sabi inspired handmade movement. Technology continues to do more and more for us, but still requires that we keep up. The pace of this is tiring for every one of us. Even when we choose to ignore it, we feel the fatigue of the constant consumption, splintered attention, and the ceaseless deadlines that take us away from ourselves. The need to connect with what’s around us may never have been greater and if Moore’s Law holds true, then this will likely grow exponentially.

The wabi-sabi philosophy has a mindfulness quality that allows for connection to one’s self and others by being present in the moment. It allows for the imperfection that technology does not. It connects us to something human when we might need it the most. There is something enduring and comforting about the philosophy that we will likely continue to return to time after time. It makes you wonder why we would ever depart from it…


Olson Zaltman

Olson Zaltman is a pioneer in the use of brain science for market research and consulting. Founded in 1997 and based in Pittsburgh, we help industry leaders - many in the Fortune 100 - understand their customers and themselves using qualitative research and insights.

    Carrie PattersonReed

    Written by

    cultural observer and storyteller — always with an eye towards what has been and what could be

    Olson Zaltman

    Olson Zaltman is a pioneer in the use of brain science for market research and consulting. Founded in 1997 and based in Pittsburgh, we help industry leaders - many in the Fortune 100 - understand their customers and themselves using qualitative research and insights.

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