March 10, 2023

Wabi Sabi Interior Design - Antique Rugs and The Art of Imperfection

Wabi Sabi design concepts are a returning trend in interior design, however, the philosophy of wabi sabi is ancient. Japanese design has long been inspiring architects and creatives around the globe, offering a timeless expression of balance and harmony. With nature as a main source of inspiration, this design style cultivates a relaxing and minimalistic feel.

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An Ancient Japanese Philosophy

Far-eastern philosophies are sometimes near-impossible to describe!

It is said that if someone asks, “What is Zen?”, and someone else replies, neither of them has the faintest idea of what it means. That’s because Zen is considered a living, breathing truth that cannot be put down in static words. It can only be experienced through action or observation instructed by the principles of Zen.

Something similar is true of wabi sabi.

The History of Wabi Sabi

Legend has it that in the 16th Century, a young boy approached a master of the Japanese tea ceremony to learn the intricacies of this subtle art. The master, in an attempt to size up the boy’s abilities, asked him to clean and rake up a dishevelled garden until it looked perfect.

The apprentice-hopeful gave the task all he had, clearing the garden out to its last twig and unwanted blade of grass. Finally, looking back at his work, he realised that the garden looked too perfect for comfort. So, before calling the master on to judge his efforts, the young boy gave a few shakes to a sakura (cherry blossom) tree, scattering its flowers amid the garden and restoring to it an element of natural imperfection that defines all things harmonious.

The young boy grew up to become famous as the Zen monk Sen Rikyū, who transformed the tea ceremony out of its former luxury and opulence into an art form based on minimalism and natural simplicity. He is also considered the forebear of wabi sabi - an approach to life rooted in the aesthetics of imperfection and impermanence.

Although there are multiple translations of the term, ‘wabi’ generally denotes a sense of rustic and flawed beauty - in things both natural and constructed. ‘Sabi’ stands for the beauty that comes with age, often embodied in the patina that grows on surfaces with time. Together, wabi sabi represents a withdrawal from the modern world’s obsession with outward glitter and its insistence on perfection.

For those who’ve come to appreciate it, wabi sabi may not be apparent, but it’s everywhere - from the fraying wood of an old window to the asymmetry of a snow-clad mountain top, the jagged scars on a millstone to the ripples distorting the moon’s reflection on water.

The Guiding Principles of Wabi Sabi

Wabi sabi is as much an ideology as it is an art form. Its most beautiful expressions can be seen in Kintsugi - the exquisite traditional Japanese art of repairing broken pottery and ceramics with lacquer dusted with precious metals or mixed with powdered gold, silver, and occasionally platinum. Wabi sabi tenets can also be found in Sashiko - classical Japanese embroidery and other sewing patterns.

All of these practices embody seven basic principles of Zen that are inherent to wabi sabi. Remember that the following are not exact translations of the Japanese root words. Rather, they are attempts to capture a complex set of ideas that define a way of looking at life.

  1. Kanso: simplicity, keeping things functional and free from clutter
  2. Funkinsei: the beauty of asymmetry.
  3. Shibumi: eloquence through understatement.
  4. Shizen: a spontaneous natural state.
  5. Yugen: mysterious and profound beauty.
  6. Datsuzoku: break from conventions, freedom from the commonplace.
  7. Seijaku: tranquillity or serenity in the midst of activity.

Taken together, these seven principles translate to an attitude of rustic simplicity, unforced elegance, and the subtle authenticity of imperfections.

Wabi Sabi in the Art of Interior Design

By definition, wabi sabi runs counter to most established norms of western art and design. It offers an escape from the rigid authority of symmetry and straight lines, the commonplace of mass-produced objet d'art, and the compulsions of stylistic conformity.

The way of wabi sabi lies in stimulating and enhancing our surroundings with natural simplicity and the beauty of things that lie just below the surface. Wabi sabi-inspired interior design, therefore, celebrates less over more, slow over fast, and content over desire.

Here are a few ideas to help you incorporate the essence of wabi sabi in your interiors:

  • Be authentic: If the regular grain of natural wood represents a standard design element, for instance, wabi sabi is captured in the unusual and deformed grains of a burl - the large, woody outgrowths on some tree trunks. Authenticity in interiors is reflected in the choice of materials, the beauty of natural colors, and the functional simplicity of furniture and fitments.
  • Use asymmetry, imbalance, and disproportion: “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature”, remarked the 19th Century Catalan architect Anthoni Gaudi. He could very well have been talking about wabi sabi when he said that. As long as it is achieved spontaneously, wabi sabi calls for a rejection of forced symmetry, balance, and proportion in favor of harmony and tranquillity.
  • Insist on organic shapes and geometry: Shapes inspired by nature and patterns that do not adhere to geometric logic are ideas integral to wabi sabi. This can often be achieved through amorphous outlines in furniture and fixtures, design elements built on fluid shapes instead of rigid rectangular or squarish designs, and hand-dyed fabrics that retain a slight irregularity of patterns.
  • Choose natural materials: Stone, wood, leather, and metal are all materials that age with grace. Most of them take on a patina with time, which brings an added layer of beauty to objects made with these materials. Similar effects can be achieved with the use of materials like bamboo, cork, linen, cotton, and clay. The objective is to have an abundance of natural materials and elements in your interior spaces.
  • Repair, revive, and reclaim: The principle most precious to wabi sabi is the inherent newness of old things. It is best captured in objects that reflect the passage of time - the idea that beauty is incrementally released as something ages and deteriorates. The marks and scars of time on objects and surroundings, as it were, find a place of prominence in wabi sabi-inspired interiors.

The Spirit of Wabi Sabi in Antique Rugs

Reclaiming the old is a central theme of wabi sabi interior design. Perhaps no other element captures this elusive ethic of beauty than antique rugs.

Imperfection, impermanence, and the marks of time - three elements of an antique rug that capture the essence of wabi sabi. These rugs are veritable time machines, transporting the intricate, hand-made craftsmanship of a bygone era into our living spaces.

The best antique rugs at Lawrence of La Brea are more than a hundred years old and from thousands of miles away. They are all you need to transform your home with the spirit of rustic elegance that is the hallmark of authentic wabi sabi.

David Nourafshan

Passionate reader | People person | The one behind Lawrence of La Brea
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