What is wabi-sabi? – All about meaning, philosophy and fitting DIY tutorials
Are you wondering what wabi-sabi even is? It is the antithesis to the Western striving for perfection and materialism. Instead, this aesthetic world view focuses on imperfect objects and natural beauty. In this way, wabi-sabi could be considered “the art of imperfection”, and it is now impacting art and the cultural scene in the West.
The wabi-sabi philosophy celebrates the imperfect, the impermanent and the mundane. Stress, consumption, pressure to perform, the urge for perfection and self-optimization are what set the tone in the Western world. Those who take the wabi-sabi philosophy to heart, however, live in harmony with nature and all its imperfection.
The heart of wabi-sabi comes from the tenets of Buddhism. Thus, the three marks of existence – impermanence, suffering and not-self – are applicable to all phenomena. In its very name, “wabi-sabi” refers to this impermanence. Initially, the individual words had a negative connotation. “Wabi” could thus be translated as “loneliness”, and “sabi” as “being old”, “withering”. Nowadays, both terms are given a more positive interpretation, hence their being equated with “tranquility” and “grace in aging”. Now, the term “wabi-sabi” refers to the appreciation of aging and the beauty of simple, imperfect things. In contrast thereto, the striving for material possessions and absolute perfection are seen as catalysts of dissatisfaction with one’s life.
The philosophy of wabi-sabi has been practiced for centuries in Japan, but now it is also making a name for itself on the art and design scene in the West. One can find the concept not only in the world of architecture, but also in the world of art and interior design. In these contexts, wabi-sabi is establishing itself as a new trend, just like with vintage or shabby chic.
The Japanese concept calls for a change of perspective: Instead of trying to surround yourself solely with ornaments of perfection, you should learn to appreciate the imperfect. This attitude is also reflected in the wabi-sabi style, which is making forays into interior design, art and architecture. What is it though that sets the wabi-sabi style apart in the various domains?
Wabi-sabi in the arts:
The aesthetic principle is taking the world of art and photography by storm. Those who adhere to this philosophy look for beauty in the imperfect and then to capture and celebrate this in their pictures. Some images convey a feeling of melancholy and grapple with the decay and impermanence, which permeates all of life. In art, wabi-sabi often refers to the portrayal of objects and nature, whereas other works of art exhibit organic or abstract forms which lack any notion of symmetry. As concerns the use of colour, wabi-sabi art always features an inclination toward natural shades such as whites, beiges, greens, browns and blues.
In our tutorial, we show you how to put together the individual elements of wabi-sabi to create an abstract work of art. Wabi-sabi art is never about perfect execution; instead, it’s about leveraging the exciting and the unexpected to surprise those who behold it. This means that there isn’t a rule or template that your masterpiece needs to follow 100%. Thanks to our guide, you can conjure up a design object with its own unique feel in no time:
Or try your hand at a mixed media motif, where various structures, textures and colour compositions come to the fore.
Architecture à la wabi-sabi:
The Japanese design aesthetic is also finding its way into architecture and bringing about a new acceptance of the fleeting nature of life. By using natural materials and colours and paring everything down to the bare essentials, the aim is to create spaces of contentment, balance, and tranquility. This typically involves materials such as wood, concrete, marble or earthenware.
Wabi-sabi as an interior style:
Wabi-sabi has taken the world of interior design by storm. Here, too, designers look to natural materials such as earthenware or wood. With the passing of time, these materials undergo a natural change and thus represent the natural decay and the inexorable aging process. When these interior pieces are integrated with sophistication into one’s own living concept, one comes to appreciate them even when they’ve lost their initial novelty and perfection.
The wabi-sabi furnishing trend follows a few rules, which we outline for you below. That said, they apply not only to the interior area, but also to any form of art you want to create à la wabi-sabi.
In the quintessential wabi-sabi interior, you will find decorative objects with texture as well as interior spaces with irregular and organic shapes. Handmade products, in particular, are among the most popular, which is why items with an individual touch are preferred over the lifeless perfection common to large-scale manufacturing. Handmade ceramic tableware comes alongside individually crafted carpets featuring irregular patterns, a dining table and seating with natural edges. In the living room, a wooden coffee table joins the organically shaped sofa in delicate tones of cream or beige. In the bedroom, you will find a wooden bed close to the ground, a crocheted bedspread and a chest of drawers with a marble top, where the marble work has bumpy and irregular contours. Once again, we see that unique pieces made from natural materials – like none else – can truly captivate with their beauty.
Restrained, natural tones are an absolute must in the wabi-sabi style. In terms of basic colours, the most important ones include off white, cream, sand beige and taupe. One immediately notices that these are primarily warm shades. These serve the purpose of creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere despite the minimalist furnishings. The warm natural colours look softer and mimic to a greater degree the colours that also occur in nature. Furthermore, they are an ideal match for the equally soft design of the interior. Nevertheless, every now and then you can work in dabs of colour and interrupt the predominant tone-on-tone look, for example with warm hues such as pistachio or forest green, sunny yellow or milky blue. You’ve surely noticed that these tones also have natural origins. So if you want to add a colour highlight to one of your works of art while staying true to the wabi-sabi style, it makes sense to stick to the palette of colours outlined above. To see what the whole thing could look like in your apartment, check out our instructions.
The Japanese wisdom also stands for purism and simplicity, thus taking its cue from the motto “less is more”. In keeping with such, everyday objects and works of art in the wabi-sabi style are simple and timeless. Whether a piece of furniture or a decorative element in the kitchen utensil, everything follows a puristic style. Common to them all is they feature only the essential, and the focus is on the function. With wabi-sabi, a room will only be furnished as necessary and will feature lots of open spaces. Designers and interior experts call this “negative space”. That said, it’s anything but negative: These free spaces make every room and work of art look bigger, more lighter and more welcoming. You can find out how to bring the wabi-sabi style to the walls of your apartment in the following creative tip.
If you want to do wabi-sabi the right way – whether painting a picture, making a pottery vase, or furnishing your home – you should reduce cold colours to a minimum. Colours like ice blue or colder shades of grey should only be used sparingly, if at all. The same applies to particularly intense, dark tones. Colours and non-colours such as black or pure white are no-gos because they simply introduce too much contrast. They interrupt the flowing, organic optics of the wabi-sabi style.
The same applies to dark wood. Dark woods like mahogany, as well as black decorative details can be used selectively. Nevertheless, they should not be the dominant tone in a room or painting. This principle also applies when using metals such as brass or chrome. While these are welcome in Scandinavian style, their use should be both limited and deliberate for wabi-sabi in the home. In the wabi-sabi teaching, the walls should also have a lighter colour. Large, dark areas can quickly have an overwhelming effect, which is the exact opposite of what the wabi-sabi style aims to achieve.
Instead, the preference is for colour arrangements which are beautiful and harmonious, and this can be achieved with neutral and gentle shades. Pastel colours can also play a key role here and bring a soft, eye-catching addition to the Asian trend look.
With wabi-sabi, you have a worldview that champions a love of the imperfect and acceptance of our impermanence. It even challenges us to be gentler with ourselves and our environment in our everyday life. You should make yourself aware of this concept for when you undertake one of your next works of art or another DIY project: “mistakes’ or “imperfections” are part of the creative process and what make your works unique in the first place.
Richard Powell once said:
“[Wabi-sabi] nourishes everything that is authentic, since it recognises three simple truths: nothing remains, nothing is complete and nothing is perfect.”
With this attitude, you will remain open to unexpected developments in your creative process and appreciate the natural beauty of imperfect forms. For example, if you decide to try one of our DIY projects with FIMOair. In these tutorials, we will explain how with a few materials you can model a finely shaped bowl or vase in the wabi-sabi style. Thanks to the Japanese philosophy of life, you will find your new vase or bowl beautiful because it is not flawless and boring, but rather exciting and unique.