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Japanese Interior Design & The Art Of Wabi-Sabi

This ancient art of design fosters a love of the imperfect.
Roxanne Robinson Oct 27, 2020
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Who couldn't use a little Zen in their lives and homes these days? The peaceful and calm mood that meditating delivers can be also be achieved by practicing wabi-sabi in both your life and dwelling. A traditional Japanese aesthetic, the philosophy embraces imperfection, especially in the natural world. The practice promises to deliver harmony and tranquility to one's life and space. No wonder folks are clamoring to get on board.

The concept is rooted in an aspect of Buddhist teachings that stresses impermanence, suffering, and non-self/nirvana. The word wabi originally referred to the isolation of living alone in nature, and sabi meant chill or withered. After the 14th century wabi-sabi developed into a more positive idea: that embracing imperfection and cherishing the simple things leads to an existence that is at ease with the world.

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Western society has been pushing ideals of perfectionism for decades. Imagine letting go of some of that effort. Perhaps a side effect of being "woke," today's generation is looking to ease up on some of the past's loftier and more regimented goals. So how does one go about achieving this in their life?

"Golden girl of wellness" Candice Kumai, author of Kintsugi Wellness, grew up in the States but visited Japan from the age of 5, according to an article on Today.com. Returning as an adult, Kumai began practicing the art consciously and realized she was unconsciously doing this same exercise during her childhood visits there.

Kumai asserts that wabi-sabi is an art form beyond the aesthetic virtue of being simple, unpretentious, and aged with a rustic or weathered quality. These principles are ones that someone can apply to themselves, not just objects. In her book, which breaks down several Zen philosophies, she suggests four key practices to achieving wabi-sabi in your life.

First, go outside: Commune with nature and its many imperfections that collectively exude beauty on the earth. Second, stop comparing yourself to others. The beauty of imperfection is that no two beings are alike nor live the same life. Wabi-sabi allows you to be content with the life you have and what’s in it. Third, as in Marie Kondo, simplify your life (though Kondo’s methods are attributed to the Shinto religion). Fourth, and this is super topical today: Practice self-love. Learn to appreciate yourself the way you are. Then apply the same mindset to your space, with the ability to toss what’s not quite right.

Acupuncture, though unrelated, is one way some of those principles apply to our bodies. ORA, a newly opened luxury acupuncture practice in New York City’s NoHo, focuses on that practice. ORA’s aim is to deliver efficient relaxation to busy clients and educate them on the benefits of acupuncture and Eastern medicine by manifesting them within a well-considered modern space.

The ORA space, designed by Rockwell Partners, is breathtaking and lets one pause. It also borrows some wabi-sabi ideals. The imperfection concept of the wabi-sabi practice aligns with the concepts of sustainability and zero-waste, both of which are increasingly important to the newest generation of city dwellers. A simple design trick of leaving an exposed wall opposite a modern new wall is a prime example.

"The philosophy and rituals combined with richness in texture and tactility helps give layers to the space that reveal a sense of discovery that keeps clients coming back,” explains Amp Thongtawach, a designer on the ORA project. Lighting, especially with lanterns, gives direction and control to the light levels in the room, keeping the overall treatment calm and uninterrupted.

Considering the events of the last eight months, finding a sense of calm has never been more important. Working from home has made our environments physical, emotional, and mental. ”Wellness should be an integral part. Getting the right atmosphere requires much consideration during the design phase,” Thongtawach maintains, adding, “In general we want people to feel relaxed, calm, and positively inspired wherever they are.”

2020 has certainly given us an opportunity to pause and reflect on our sanctuary and life priorities. Revisiting wabi-sabi, which suggests a return to a simpler life devoid of the quest for perfection, seems to be just what the doctor ordered.

Roxanne Robinson
Roxanne Robinson is an award-winning Paris-based American journalist covering luxury and fashion industries with over 25 years of experience. I spent over 18 years at WWD, covering sportswear, accessories and fine jewelry. My career witnessed the shift from print media to the digital age. I gained expert knowledge of the design world, wholesale and retail markets as well as the marketing that supports them. I met endless creatives and business people who create luxury from inception to POS with the consumer. My work has appeared in Forbes.com, BoF, The Hollywood Reporter, CRFashionbook.com, The Jewelry Journal as well in-house publications and websites at Bally, Pomellato, Au Depart and Editorialist.com among others.
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