When Imperfect is Just Perfect

I recently read a post by HGTV’s John Gidding (Design On a Dime and Curb Appeal The Block) on the Japanese concept called Wabi Sabi http://ht.ly/23VO4.  The authors of the post point out that Westerners tend to project the concept in a visual or tactile manner while the Asian interpretation is more philosophical.  “Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it.”  Just the same, I found this definition on Wikipedia:  “Wabi sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the suggestion of natural processes.” 

I thought (for the most part) the Wikipedia definition suggested a Western point of view.  When it comes to Eastern philosophy as it has been related to interior design as I’ve known it  —which really amounts to Feng Shui.  I always thought of Feng Shui as so much bupkiss BS like Tarot Cards and Ouija Boards and that many of its tenants had accidental coincidences with fundamentally taught design elements and principals that somehow managed to validate its authenticity when applied to interior design.

A comment that David Bromstad (HGTV’s Color Splash Miami) made on last-night’s episode really struck me that he “got it.”  I would love to know if David is familiar with wabi sabi but wouldn’t at all be surprised if he was.  Though I can’t remember his exact words, the gist of it was that when you use materials in a design that are cohesive it their context but dissimilar enough to not be “matchy matchy”, you get a sense that the pieces in the room are collected over time rather than staged like a model home.  It gives the space a lived-in feeling.  I think where his design failed wabi-sabi sensibility was in the reality that the “grass” in the space was actually plastic.  It might have looked real, but just knowing this lawn would last in a landfill for the next million years or so throws the whole design out of the running.

Though this article is several years old now (written for FoxNews.com by Jennifer D’Angelo in April 2003), “Wabi Sabi, the New Feng Shui”  was spot on in predicting its influence that has been manifested in our present design aesthetic –in particular to the practice of “green design” as we now refer to it:  

Wabi sabi is a catchall phrase that combines the notions of wabi (things that are fresh and simple) and sabi (things that have beauty stemming from age). Rooted in ancient Japanese Shinto, wabi sabi celebrates the soft and fleeting beauty of the natural world.  "Wabi sabi is the beauty of the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete," said Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers Poets & Philosophers. "It’s solace in the less gorgeous way of life, more simple and frugal values."

"Magazines like Natural Home and Real Simple are using matte paper instead of glossy — that quality of restraint is very wabi sabi," she said. "In cars, the new gold is matte, not metallic, and there’s a resurgence of muted greens. In the exterior colors of homes, people are getting away from the beiges and the stark whites and moving into more grayed-out cement colors."

Inside the home, wabi sabi is reshaping the way we eat, according to Kitchens.com editor Kate Schwartz. "The kitchen is becoming a more relaxed, comfortable, less manmade-looking space. It’s not all stainless steel appliances," she said. "Flowing countertops reference the natural world. …Cabinetry is looking more and more like furniture, with different legs and moldings on it." Koren emphasized that wabi sabi has its roots in nature-revering Shinto — making the use of recycled materials a good example of the aesthetic.

It’s no big stretch to see how wabi sabi has influenced our tastes today.. and because it’s “green” has made it an easy transition.  Think of bamboo and cork in their many renditions of floor covering, cabinetry, wall coverings –just to name a few.  Products being manufactured from recycled products are becoming the norm rather than novelty.  Items that come to my mind are recycled glass and rubber that have made their ways into countertops, road surfaces –even replacing bark mulch.  Aesthetic appeal is giving way to the “natural” appearance of materials such as matt-finished countertops in concrete and natural stone over highly polished granite. Even man-made quartz products are now touting soft matt finishes and eco-friendly manufacturing processes.  Plastic laminate and solid surface acrylic countertop materials are now available with patterns that suggest the natural “movement” of stone.  Plumbing fixtures are often oil-rubbed bronze and satin finishes, specified over polished metals.  The fabrics in our clothing may have a lot of polyester content (petroleum based), but manufacturers strive to give it the hand and appearance of natural fibers in order to be marketable these days (like super suede, faux silks and linens).  When was the last time you saw a double-knit anything?  Makes me wonder the popularity of lycra knits though that are 100 percent polyester!

What is disheartening to me are the many “posers” available to give the appearance of natural products that we so easily buy into to get the look without the expense, work, or whatever… thinking of David’s plastic grass for example.  I went to an open house yesterday that was being shown by the homeowner/remodeler himself.  At first glance, the home was stunning and well executed.  Upon further investigation, I began to notice a few things.  There were so many recessed pot lights in the living room that the ceiling looked like green Swiss cheese.  There was an oversized pass-through fireplace –smack in the middle of the living room (because a dividing wall had been removed creating a large room with an oversized fireplace placed right in the middle) covered with a fake stacked-stone concrete facing material that made it even larger and more out-of-scale.  The coup de grâce was the flooring material which was “a high-end laminate” product that looked as if it could pass for engineered wood.  Just knowing it was fake was a deal breaker for me.  Finally, there was a beautifully hand-painted wall mural in the living room.  The homeowner said it was a composite of their honeymoon photos in Italy done by a local mural artist…. hmmm.  Good luck selling that, I though to my self –though I’m sure he will but I’m sure he’ll never recoup the dollars he’s invested (not to mention all the hard work).  I asked if he was working with a realtor.  He told me no, that he was trying to save a little money.  Looks like he would have been wise to hire an interior designer as well, but that’s a different blog post.


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