Text size:    

Inspired Nondesign

Decidedly imperfect, the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi crosses cultural lines, respecting the value of open space and encouraging the discovery of beauty in the ordinary

Simple and unfettered, the wabi-sabi approach to home design is accessible, inviting and seemingly effortless. Image courtesy of Jenny Elia Pfeiffer

First, Japanese manga and anime inspired thousands of Americans to learn more about the nation's culture, and even its language. Then, the outlandish stylings of “Harajuku Girls” became part of pop culture lexicon after singer Gwen Stefani penned a paean to Tokyo’s Lolitas.

And, still, the Japanese design moment continues as popular Japanese stores unveil New York flagships. One year after opening, Uniqlo is crammed with fashionistas running their eyes and hands over the neatly folded, sky-high stacks of $99 cashmere sweaters, all carefully arranged by hue.

This fall, Muji, which specializes in minimalist housewares, hit New York’s streets in a move much anticipated by Japan-watchers and design aficionados alike.

Admired for its fresh takes on ordinary objects, this retailer uses mantras like “elegance in plainness” and “richness in reduction” – phrases that represent a quintessential Japanese aesthetic. The look has little to do with tatami mats and shoji screens, but instead it makes itself felt in the spareness and attention to detail found in such familiar cultural touchstones as haiku, bonsai and the tea ceremony.

It’s an aesthetic – call it Zen, if you must – that’s increasingly found in contemporary American homes.

“There’s a natural sympathy between modern and traditional Japanese design,” says architect Lara Dutto of Emeryville, Calif., who discovered this firsthand while remodeling a bland 1970s home for a California couple interested in paring down while opening up.

By moving walls, introducing natural materials like polished rock and ipe wood, blending outdoor and indoor spaces, and using lightness and flexibility as governing design principles, Dutto says an unintended Japanese flavor evolved.

“We did more removing than adding,” Dutto says. “We kept asking: ‘Is this essential? What’s its purpose?’ We left space in the corners, space around the furniture. I kept telling the clients: ‘It’s OK that there’s nothing here, it makes everything shine.’”

Rooms in the California home are divided by hanging glass panels that let light through and can be moved to showcase different parts of the rooms. “We tried to stay away from hard boundaries,” says Dutto, “It’s a modern take on the sliding paper doors used in Japanese homes, although we didn’t consciously set out with that in mind.”

Others have also stumbled upon the “rightness” of this aesthetic. Writer Robyn Griggs Lawrence remembers researching a home in Maine for “Natural Home” magazine. “The house didn’t look Japanese at all,” she recalls, ”but the owner suddenly pointed out that her home, with its flea-market finds and its adaptive reuse of found objects, was all very wabi-sabi. I said, ‘wobby what?’,” Lawrence continues, laughing. After traveling to Japan and authoring “The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty” (Clarkson Potter, 2004), Lawrence is a convert. “Wabi-sabi encourages us to find beauty in things that are more rustic, less refined.

“There’s a simplicity and lack of pretension there, and a willingness to accept imperfection,” she adds. “When I met with a tea master in Japan, he told me about a barn he’d seen in Pennsylvania that to him was a thousand times more wabi-sabi than something that tried too hard to be ‘Japanese,’” she says. “The key is to try to achieve a natural extension of the place in which you find yourself.”

Image courtesy of “The Wabi-Sabi House”/Joe Coca

Wabi-sabi (“wabi” usually refers to a sense of melancholy, an appreciation for quiet beauty, while “sabi” literally means “rust” but in this context suggests “patina”) is but one element of Japanese design. Other tenets, all connected to the core of Zen philosophy, include “a response to the need to husband scarce resources, and the placing of high value on products of the natural world,” says Azby Brown, author of “The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space” (Kodansha International, 2005).

Brown, who serves as the director of Tokyo’s Future Design Institute and lives in nearby Yokohama, says the ability to do wondrous things with tiny spaces is perhaps the most important characteristic of Japanese design. To really “turn Japanese,” you have to become adept at “visualizing space as a three-dimensional volume,” he says, as well as “find the best compact furniture, appliances and storage available, live without a lot of items, and select materials and colors that help living spaces feel less cluttered and cramped.”

Because lack of space is such a dominating factor in Japanese interior design, Americans who wish to instill their homes with a similar aesthetic should begin by “defining who they are and what means the most to them,” Brown says.

Open space and clean lines fit into any room’s décor, whether a rustic, homey living room or a sleek, polished kitchen. Image courtesy of Jenny Elia Pfeiffer

“It's a learning process,” echoes designer Dutto, “an emotional project that was all about letting go.” But, as with her clients, once people see “the way,” they seldom go back.


wabi-sabi 101

Keep Your Eyes Open

“Try to always have one vase filled with something that you found very close to home,” says Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of “The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty” (Clarkson Potter, 2004). “It makes you look harder for beauty and forces you to connect with your immediate surroundings.”

Notice The Small Things

“Think about the objects you use every day,” suggests Lawrence. “I used to drink out of a logoed cup I'd gotten from somewhere, but now I have this great, heavy mug my son gave me for my birthday. Remind yourself that even useful things can be beautiful.”

Separate Without Barriers

“Make use of sheer curtains, slight changes in floor levels, distinct changes in lighting, color and materials,” offers Azby Brown, author of “The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space” (Kodansha International, 2005).


“Yes, there's never enough storage,” says Brown, “but it doesn't all have to be easily accessible. Hunt for places you can use: under the floor, under stair treads, behind bookcases, in crawl spaces.”

Go Organic

Avoid shiny, uniform materials, suggests Andrew Juniper in “Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence” (Tuttle Publishing, 2003). Instead, use “materials that clearly show the passage of time,” he writes.

Be Spacey

“Space and the discipline required to maintain it is a key aspect of the Japanese aesthetic ideals,” writes Juniper. Include significant areas of “nothing” in interiors (and gardens), and limit accent pieces, making sure that what few you have are given ample space around them, he recommends.

could not select :Table 'contentdirect.templates' doesn't exist