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Japanese Design Aesthetic: Wabi-Sabi

Photo credit: 2D2f on deviantart

Japan has an extensive artistic history. Through isolationism, its buddhist history through China, and its own religion Shintoism, the aesthetic qualities and elements of Japanese art have flourished and evolved in an entirely unique way.

These aesthetics have been practiced and developed through the many different art forms here in Japan: ikebana, pottery, woodblock printing and architecture, to name a few.

In this article, we’ll look not at the individual art mediums as described above, but one artistic “emotion” that’s been alive in Japan for centuries. Behold, an overly simplistic introduction to the concept of…

Wabi-Sabi

Park benches in black and white

photo credit: dcjohn on flickr

Wabi-Sabi is a feeling.

It’s transience.
It’s melancholy.
It’s loneliness.

These feelings could be brought about by the following characteristics.

  • simplicity
  • negative space
  • imbalance
  • uneven or rough elements

What is it?

A Japanese rice bowl
Using wabi-sabi in design is not just about applying simple techniques like negative space or offsetting an image. It’s an extremely specific emotion or feeling that the Japanese like to say only they can feel. In order to successfully portray wabi-sabi in your designs, you’ll need to find a means of eliciting a sense of sadness in your customers. They must look at it and feel loneliness or melancholy. While this may seem negative, it’s not at all. Wabi-sabi is successful only when the viewer feels a sense of contentment in such situations.

Successful wabi-sabi is said to portray three primary things:

  • a sense that the object/thing is unfinished
  • a sense that nothing lasts forever
  • a sense that nothing is perfect

How can you relate?

A bike trapped in a tree
image credit: The Sierra Club

Do you have something really old from your childhood?
What state is it in, what condition?

I own a stuffed bear that I got when I was two years old.
It used to have a bow-tie. It no longer does.
It used to have a dark brown nose. Now it’s chipped, scratched and wearing away.
It used to be light brown. Now it’s stained from dirt.

To me, that bear is more beautiful than any other stuffed animal despite its worn condition: it’s simple existence as a fleeting element in a vast world of impermanence.

It may be torn, it may be ragged, it may have seen the wear and tear of the years and of nature. It may be missing original elements, but in its lack of perfection, it’s beauty is undeniable. This is the simple emotion behind wabi-sabi.

However, I have a deep connection to this bear because of its role in my life over time. Because of this, it’s impossible to claim wabi-sabi as the aesthetic is not based on a “time-developed” emotional connection, but rather the sad contentment and immediate beauty of it. This considered, the emotion felt, despite its physical state, is true and genuine. Therein lies a glimmer of wabi-sabi.

Try it out!

After the next rainfall, make note of the way one drop slides down the window pane, recruiting other droplets on its way and ruining the peaceful still that existed before.

Make note of the way an autumn leaf is torn from its branch by a frail wind and how it flutters helplessly and lifelessly to the ground.

If you’re in Japan, go to the countryside in late August and look at the way the pre-harvested rice stalks roll with the breeze: like a real sea covered in emeralds. One month later, it will be nothing but a shallow, muddy pond.

See It For Yourself

Here a few modern day versions of what could be considered the wabi-sabi mindset in action:
Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now
14,000 Things to be Happy About: a book by Barbara Ann Kipfer.