An ancient Japanese philosophy has found a devoted following in today's home design. Wabi-sabi, centered on impermanence and rooted in Zen Buddhism, elevates perfectly imperfect details. Loosely translated, "wabi" means simplicity, and "sabi" is an appreciation for the old and faded.
"Particularly in the West, there can be a culture to create spaces that are very seductive visually, but these projects can be missing a soulful expression," says Joshua Aidlin, architect and founder of Aidlin Darling Design in San Francisco. "For those who are aware of the Wabi-sabi philosophy, the aim in architecture and design is that there is an expression of the hand that created it."
The Wabi-sabi aesthetic can be described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Specific characteristics of Wabi-sabi design include surroundings that are simple, modest, asymmetrical and austere. Above all, there is a great appreciation of natural objects and materials, Aidlin says.
"Humans are innately imperfect, and people can have an instinctive response to seeing a space that doesn't hide the beauty of organic imperfection," he says. "There is an elegance in a humble piece of stone or wood."
While the Wabi-sabi aesthetic emphasizes the beauty of organic imperfection, this philosophy is not an endorsement for slipshod construction, Aidlin says.
"We are not talking about poor craft," he says. "Construction must still have tight tolerances and adhere to building codes. Rather, it's knowing when to let the organic and hand-quality craftsmanship come through."
Windhover, a contemplative center at Stanford University, is a public display of a natural space that engages in Wabi-sabi principles, designed by Aidlin Darling Design. The building's construction was meant to contribute to a visitor's contemplative process, as one is guided alongside the building with only glimpses of the interior revealed. Elements including weathering steel, rammed earth walls, stone, glass and water are all brought together to create a beautifully balanced atmosphere.
"The use of rammed earth walls is a process of mixing earth, concrete and aggregate to provide a stratified, tactile wall. This process of compacting the earthen mixture results in a naturally imperfect construction," Aidlin says. "The final result is a soulful and tranquil natural oasis."
Fashioning a Wabi-sabi retreat at home is about creating a place with stripped-down surfaces, natural textures and handmade objects, says Dayna Isom Johnson, trend expert with Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade items based in Brooklyn, New York.
"In life, as well as in home decorating, I firmly believe in keeping it real, which is a tall order in the age of pervasive Instagram perfection," Isom Johnson says. "With an emphasis on organic materials, softly textured fabrics and natural shapes, Wabi-sabi is all about embracing authenticity -- it's the anti-retouching."
While "Wabi-sabi" is trending online as a top search in home design, Isom Johnson has noticed the commoditization of wood with rough-hewn finishes and metals with factory-made patinas. "Wabi-sabi can be the yin to the yang of the super-modern minimalist home with highly polished surfaces that doesn't look like anyone lives there," she says. "In a home with a Wabi-sabi philosophy, we're talking about having hand-thrown ceramics, wrinkled linen sheets and gently gnarled wood."
Creating a Zen-like zone at home amongst imperfections isn't about living in cluttered chaos, Isom Johnson says. "In a Wabi-sabi home, possessions are pared down for their functionality and beauty," she says. "Objects or design attributes in a home that ascribe to the Wabi-sabi philosophy are deliberate. Showcasing an imperfection is intentional, not something achieved through neglect."
Homes with a Wabi-sabi aesthetic have natural materials that make the space hospitable and comfortable. Uncluttered, yet not overtly austere, imperfect objects make the space more inviting. A home with a color palette that mimics nature -- greens, grays, blues and earth tones -- creates a tranquil atmosphere.
In the bedroom of a home that ascribes to the Wabi-sabi philosophy, the walls may be exposed concrete, with weathered floorboards and sumptuous, wrinkled bed linens that invite rest and relaxation. In the kitchen, hand-thrown ceramic bowls and plates can be put on display and used to serve a meal. Natural design inspiration is as simple as placing a single stem in a unique, asymmetrical vase.
A treasured piece of artwork in Isom Johnson's Brooklyn apartment is a framed picture drawn by her young nephew. "I see the perfection in this childish drawing, and it's not home to me without having it on the wall," Isom Johnson says. "A Wabi-sabi approach to home honors the beauty of embracing your truest self -- and the reality of the space you live in."
Promoting the Perfectly Imperfect
-- Aidlin Darling Design, AidlinDarlingDesign.com or 415-974-5603
-- Etsy.com, search "Wabi-sabi"