It’s easy to get carried away by the promise of perfection; clean, precise, sterile, it’s an aesthetic that has shaped our idea of what should be beautiful and pleasing, instead of what is pure, natural, and naturally imperfect. That’s known as Wabi-Sabi, a traditional Japanese worldview that challenges all that is glistening and perfect—and it’s slowly making its way from centuries-old monasteries to the homes and the work of some of today’s leading minds in art, design, and technology. But what is it exactly?
The Three Marks of Existence
The Wabi-Sabi philosophy was founded on three major Buddhist principles, called the teaching of the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and emptiness. These marks are a reminder that nothing ever lasts, nothing is ever finished, and nothing is ever perfect. While the concept of Wabi-Sabi may seem a bit melancholic, Wabi-Sabi presents a useful, sensible way to approach existence, in our lives and in our work.
Wabi-Sabi originated from Japanese tea ceremonies in the 15th and 16th centuries. Tea-drinking gatherings became focused on simplicity, and tea masters began infusing them with the spirit of rustic solitude, including old iron teapots, cracked teacups, and earth-toned decor. Many modern Japanese tea vessels are still fashioned in the same rough, yet simple aesthetic. Though it became the aesthetic du jour of the upper class in recent years, the Japanese’s “perfectly imperfect” view to life has been the major inspiration behind their designs.
A Modern Creative Philosophy
The Wabi-Sabi principle wouldn’t have become so popular in the western world without the works of aesthetic expert Leonard Koren, whose 1994 book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers has become a cult classic on the creative circuit. In the book, Koren presents the idea of “the beauty of things modest and humble and beauty of things unconventional,” and presents creatives with the idea that they should “get rid of all that is unnecessary.”
Twitter Co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey once stated in Wired that: “One of my favorite design aesthetics is Wabi-Sabi, which I learned a lot from and try to use in all my works.” Dorsey, who later went on to found the mobile payment company Square, says that Wabi-Sabi is at the core of his product design philosophy; a principle based on providing a simple yet lived-in quality that pleases and engages users on a profound level.
For musician and culture icon Kanye West, on the other hand, Wabi-Sabi is a holistic source of his creative endeavors. In a recent interview with David Letterman on his new Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, West boasted, “I think I use art as a superpower to protect myself in a capitalistic world and also, I can use it to make money. That’s what this house is: Wabi-Sabi vibes.”
West and Architect Axel Vervoordt designed the palatial estate, which has been patterned in a minimal design following an inspiration derived from the age-old Japanese “wisdom in natural simplicity” principle.
the beauty is in the imperfection(s)— ye (@kanyewest) April 19, 2018
In his words, West uses art as a superpower to protect himself in a capitalistic world. He sees art—especially as portrayed by the Wabi-Sabi—as a way to navigate through society. He sees architecture as a means of communicating to humanity, an understanding of proportion and spaces, and the way it affects the mind. In turn, he uses this to fuel his creative energy.
Even Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing guru and host of the Netflix hit Tidying Up with Marie Kondo claims that Wabi-Sabi is a core principle to her “tidying up” method as a way to “experience beauty in simplicity and calmness.” Her approach to minimalism creates the opportunity to “spark joy”—the central theme of her trademark KonMari tidying method: if a sweater doesn’t spark joy, then thank it for serving its purpose and let it go.
Remove All That is Unnecessary
The Wabi-Sabi principle is paradoxical, contrasting popularly held thoughts when the design is associated with visual attractiveness. It espouses a specific philosophy on how to approach life and the world around us, which, in the age of the iPhone and pixel-perfect screen resolutions, can be a natural escape from perfectionism and a seemingly endless culture of consumption.
As a principle to be applied to the modern designer’s toolkit, Wabi-Sabi embraces authenticity while promoting simplicity; it can bring out the beauty in minimalist designs rather than those that are overly-flashy, balanced, and complex.
Seeing through the lens of Wabi-Sabi, we understand that beauty is ordinary—a simple place devoid of clutter, disturbance, and distraction. This is a path that is clean and minimal, free from the complexities and confusion of chaos. And in a world that has become both increasingly chaotic and seduced by perfectionism, it’s no wonder why some creative minds are going back to remove all that is not necessary.