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Wabi-Sabi Design: The luxury of imperfection

Wabi-Sabi Design: The luxury of imperfection

The new luxury is all about finding beauty in simplicity and transience. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi combines natural inspirations and a neutral palette with a nod to the beauty in the imperfection of daily life. Unlike minimalism, which seeks to streamline and eliminate

The new luxury is all about finding beauty in simplicity and transience. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi combines natural inspirations and a neutral palette with a nod to the beauty in the imperfection of daily life. Unlike minimalism, which seeks to streamline and eliminate clutter, wabi-sabi celebrates the knot in the wood or the wrinkle in the linen.

What is Wabi-Sabi Design

The concept of Wabi-sabi developed from Zen Buddhist philosophy sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries and has three founding principles: that nothing is ever permanent, perfect or complete. The teachings show that life is best enjoyed when we accept these imperfections. Beauty is found in the balance between the harmony and tranquillity of wabi and sabi, the fleeting nature of time and decay. Everything is perfectly imperfect.

The words wabi and sabi were originally two separate words and cannot really be translated into English. The closest translation would have been “wabi” referring to the loneliness of living in nature and “sabi” meaning lean or withered. Through the passage of time, the words were brought together to represent a traditional Japanese aesthetic ideal that understood emptiness and imperfection as steps along the path to enlightenment. And so wabi-sabi style as we know it now was created, usually condensed into one concept as “wisdom in natural simplicity”. 

The Characteristics of Wabi Sabi

It’s often referred to in popular culture as the broken ceramics that are mended back together with gold known as ‘kintsugi’, but there is so much more to this concept. 

The design aesthetic of wabi-sabi can often be found in most Japanese art. Japanese designers and interior design trends looking to apply the same positive psychology take into account the basic principles of wabi-sabi. These characteristics include asymmetry, texture and roughness, modesty and simplicity, and austerity. 

Historically the most common representation of wabi-sabi in architecture is thought to be the tea house. With a simple design and basic construction, the tea house clearly showcases the concept of wabi-sabi, with a focus on imperfect materials and the joy of sharing tea with another person. Sen no Rikyū, one of the earliest known tea masters, changed the traditional tea house from opulent and luxurious to a simpler and more balanced design, embracing imperfections.  

The use of time-worn objects and natural materials is key to attaining that balance and applying the Wabi-sabi philosophy correctly. Wabi-sabi interiors are elegant, sparse and imperfect, yet deliver a very modern take on luxury interior design that finds its inspiration in the colours and textures of nature. 

An Age-Old Wisdom

Wabi-sabi is miles away from the curated warmth of hygge or the pared-back perfection of minimalism. Interior design that embraces the wabi-sabi aesthetic is about respecting the authenticity of objects and materials above all. This means valuing objects for their history and uniqueness, rather than for their perfection.

You can introduce the concept of impermanence by placing a vase of flowers on a rustic table. Alternatively, you can use elements that are imperfect and have been weathered by age, which will add warmth and character.

Luxury materials like wood, stone, leather and metal are embraced for the way that they age and stain, rust and wear. Avoid mass-produced and embrace handmade ceramics for their simplicity and authenticity. Play with surface finishes that mimic crumbling plaster or weathered concrete. The blend of simplicity and sophistication produces a luxury interior design that substitutes warmth, character and beauty for ostentatious displays of symmetry and wealth.

Applying Wabi-Sabi in Contemporary Spaces

Axel Vervoordt, the Belgian designer who has popularised wabi-sabi design in the west with his stunning designs for the Greenwich Hotel Tribeca, says that a properly executed wabi-sabi interior design should look poor but be expensive and of high quality. Creating such an effortless aesthetic takes time, care and meticulous attention to detail – it took Vervoordt and his team years to source the diverse and unique objects for the hotel’s interiors.

Turn to nature for a harmonious neutral palette of browns, greys, greiges, greens, whites and creams that reflect the natural materials that ground your interior design scheme. This palette creates interiors that are serene and harmonious, where natural light and the interplay of muted colours create a sense of comfortable and enveloping luxury. It’s an aesthetic that works with the natural pastels of a Scandinavian scheme or the fired earth tones of the Mediterranean.

In a wabi-sabi interior, less is always more. Invest in quality objects that have a sense of history or that continue to perform well, despite being old, play into this desire.

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Interior Style Hunter

Having trained as an Interior Designer and Interior Stylist at Central Saint Martins in London in 2014/15 and followed up with training from KLC School of Design. I set up the Interior Style Hunter as a way to share my passion and knowledge of interior design with the aim of helping you to be more confident in creating beautiful spaces for yourself.

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