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What is Wabi-Sabi? [Design
Posted on March 27, 2014 @ 08:18:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Yesterday I first encountered the Japanese aesthetic concept of Wabi-Sabi. It seems like a word that North American's should have in their vocabulary for a variety of reasons so I thought I would blog a bit on it today.

Wikipedia defines Wabi-Sabi as a "comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection... Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes".

According to Richard Powell, Wabi-Sabi "nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect".

The concept of Wabi-Sabi was introduced to North Americans by Leonard Koren in 1994 in the small monograph "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers" published by Stone Bridge Press. You can also read a recent article by Koren entitled The Beauty of Wabi-Sabi. Since Koren introduced the concept, it has started to take root in North America but seems to be becoming more popular in recent times.

The idea of seeing beauty in the flawed, the worn out, and the unfinished contrasts with the Western ideal of beauty which often embraces perfection as a central aspect. Because Wabi-Sabi finds beauty in the old and rusted, it has sometimes been called a poverty aesthetic, an aesthetic which is democratic and which everyone can partake of if they have the proper frame of mind to appreciate it. It is not a beauty which inheres in the object itself. It is a form of mindful appreciation of objects and what makes them authentic.

Everyone from Martha Stewart to Environmentalists wants us to embrace the old, worn, and imperfect without really having a useful aesthetic vocabulary to justify why. The idea of Wabi-Sabi can help provide a vocabulary and conceptual underpinning.

The purpose of this blog is not to sound like an authority on the concept of Wabi-Sabi as I've been aware of it for exactly one day. My research, however, leads me to believe that it is an important idea worth exploring; one that can serve a variety of useful roles in designing objects, appreciating objects, people, and projects, and in dealing with life. This is an invitation to do your own research and to develop your own conception of what Wabi-Sabi means.

The beauty of Wabi-Sabi is different than our predominant North American conception of beauty as perfection typified, for example, in a range of Apple products. If our concept of beauty were to shift in the direction of Wabi-Sabi, this could potentially have profound consequences for western consumer culture - perhaps slowing consumerism down and changing our consumer preferences.

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
- John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn.

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