The joy of wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that encapsulates the ideas of impermanence and imperfection. So it’s completely unlike Western ideals such as the golden ratio that require mathematical exactness. Wabi-sabi is appreciated with another part of the brain.

Some clothing manufacturers feel the need to label garments that are hand-knitted or made of some kinds of silk with little tags pointing out that oddities or apparent imperfections are characteristics of the fabric or the process, not flaws. This is a good example of wabi-sabi (the characteristics, not the rather condescending tags …). Of course, many people appreciate that hand-made items have a charm and value no machine-made perfection can match.

Raku vaseA classic wabi-sabi object is a raku vase that develops its own unique characteristics as it cools, owing to the raku process.

In his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren describes the qualities of wabi-sabi:

  • The suggestions of natural process
  • Irregular
  • Intimate
  • Unpretentious
  • Earthy
  • Murky
  • Simple

The effects of the natural process of decay, as shown in weathered wood or rusted metal, are valued.

We probably all have a favourite garment that becomes more precious as it ages: a cosy sweater, maybe, or jeans that are well-worn to just the right degree of softness and shabbiness. A wooden table that is the right size, has some family-inflicted scratches and has the patina of age, has wabi-sabi; a new glass and steel one doesn’t. We may have an object like an old coffee mug that is valuable because of the memories associated with it and because it is the perfect size and shape to fit the hand, so that drinking the first coffee of the morning from it becomes a ritual and a meditation on all the other mornings.

I like to extend the wabi-sabi of objects to that of people. Wabi-sabi is a wonderful counter to our Western obsession with youthful perfection. All those bland Hollywood clones are so sadly meaningless compared to an older face with its lines of character and experience. The aging process can be appreciated as not just natural and inevitable but, from the wabi-sabi point of view, beautifying.

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