Updated: Jul 19, 2022
Wabi-sabi is a part of Japanese Aesthetics and philosophy that focuses on the appreciation of imperfection and impermanence. Although wabi-sabi has become a way of looking at life, you can create a wabi-sabi home and a wabi-sabi garden. Appreciating the simplicity and beauty of things that are not perfect is the key to designing your wabi-sabi home and garden.
What is a wabi-sabi lifestyle?
First we need to understand the notion of abandoning perfect and seeing the beauty in original and unique items. It is a subtle elegance and sophistication that is done confidently in a non-flashy way. At ShizenStyle we like to think of this as the perfect blend between natural and contemporary. It is not purely minimalistic without function and it is not sterile without beauty, but it is a lifestyle that allows you to get rid of the non-essential items and focus on and highlight the authentic and original aspects that define your life and who you are.
What does wabi-sabi mean?
The root word wabi technically has the connotations of poor or poverty but has also taken out of the meaning of simple and humble. In this case being poor is seen as not being dependent on materialistic things like close but also wealth and power.
Sabi technically means to rust or weather but now has the meaning of aged and tranquil. Referring to the calmness and beauty that comes with something naturally taking form over time. Zen Buddhism has taken these original meetings and shaped them into the concept of the beauty of imperfection and the inevitable and beautiful decay of things over time.
Wabi-sabi Home Design
In order for this ancient Zen philosophy to become part of our modern daily lives we need to first allow ourselves the room to change and begin to embrace the little things in life that make up our long lasting memories. Whether you have a farmhouse style house, a mid-century modern, or a sleek contemporary house, there is room for wabi-sabi to be a part of your home. How you balance the rustic and the modern is half the fun in creating this timeless design style.
Although terms like wabi-sabi can be thought of as trendy, we have to remember that this has been a Zen concept for living for many decades in Japan. It is a way of decorating the home, it can be a way of designing a garden, and ultimately it can become a lifestyle that allows you to appreciate the beauty and everything, especially the unique and imperfect.
First I think we can start with thinking of the concept minimalism and getting rid of the extra clutter that we just don’t need. If you aren’t using it regularly then if you have storage for it it should be put away somewhere else however it might be a good time to evaluate whether that item really serves any purpose anymore there really is a good feeling when you can eliminate the extra things that you have that are basically baggage. It allows you to focus on the fewer things that you do keep or highlight and you will inevitably appreciate them more.
You may want to only keep out and highlight items that are in season I don’t mean just focusing on an upcoming holiday but more about what flowers or trees are in season. Choosing to keep certain color vases that would bring out the beauty of the current season is a nice way of keeping those items or putting them away when not in season.
Part of the beauty of wabi-sabi is to appreciate things as they are, which usually means there is some imperfection. When searching out items for your home a great place to start is by looking through handmade items that could act as an accent piece. Having something authentic, meaning there is no two exactly the same, allows you to begin to appreciate the small differences in things. It also is a path to appreciating hard work and recognizing someone else’s passion that was put into an item. When you think about something that has been handmade or created by someone you are more likely to take care of it by way of appreciation.
We live in a throwaway culture where the company’s manufacturer and make things that are not meant to last a long time. Cheaper materials are used and built in factories buy computers and robots, therefore we have become detached from placing value in many items. When you see mass-produced carbon copies of the same item on a wall in the store you can really only embrace so much.
Although you can have certain themes or an overall color scheme when thinking about designing a room you will rarely find perfectly matching furniture if you are looking for wabi-sabi. It is easier to focus on certain colors or textures in the home instead of trying to organize a modern shiny look. So there is a mindset change that needs to take place in order to begin to appreciate wabi-sabi, and that comes from learning to appreciate those imperfections instead of searching for perfect.
Shiny New Object Syndrome
I’m not suggesting that we all need to take up residence in a hermitage or abandon everything and live in a hut in the woods, but as this mindset starts to set in you should find yourself looking more for original rustic items as opposed to following the latest trend. Design trends come and go and when the gods decide this year’s trendy color scheme, and it’s completely opposite from last year, you will quickly see that you will be wasting a lot of time keeping up with the Joneses.
Companies do the same thing by creating cheap copies that need to be replaced every few years. I still have some of the trucks and toys that I played with when I was a little boy because companies used to build things for durability. They have realized and encouraged society’s low attention span and Foster the shiny new object syndrome. It builds a materialistic Society and encourages you to keep buying. All of the shows on HGTV and the magazines on the bookshelves, if you’re lucky enough to have a bookstore nearby anymore, survive on advertising from companies that need to keep promoting something new so they make a sale.
This goes against everything I am proposing for your new wabi-sabi lifestyle and mindset. Even if you have a newer modern house with a somewhat sleek interior you can begin to add certain items that are withered and aged. Its contrast can be a very beautiful thing and is something we’ve come to embrace at ShizenStyle. This is the whole concept of our modern rustic home and garden lifestyle. Blending the Contemporary and new with aged and rustic allows you to contrast and better appreciate both styles.
One important point I want to make is that rustic doesn’t have to be dirty. In terms of fashion, wabi-sabi would relate to something that has meaning for you and could be compared to a worn pair of boots or a broken in leather jacket. Yes you can buy these items that look old and worn, but what I’m suggesting is you keep that item and you break it in yourself and overtime as it begins to age your memories with a particular item will also begin to develop.
Certain spots or stains on a pair of leather boots or scuffs on a jacket may conjure up images of a particular time that that may have happened. Being able to have a nostalgic bond with a certain item will allow you to naturally appreciate that item more. If you spent the weekend scavenger ring through a flea market or antique show can find some of the perfect worn out scarves or vases, seeing that item on display is going to have a much more special meaning for you then just picking it off of the shelf at some import chain store. It also becomes a talking point that you can bring up in conversation if people visit. If you can create meaning with an item it looks like it has been around for a very long time this is going to then pass on the meaning to someone that you explain the story about.
What Color is Wabi-sabi?
It’s very easy and tempting to think that wabi-sabi equals dark earth tones, but there really is a lot of subjectivity here. Although the whole house and the different rooms within them will flow better with an inspiration from nature you have to remember that there are a lot of colors in nature.
Green may be a dominant color with everything from bright green grass to a dark green Pine Forest you have to think about the overall mood you are trying to create in the room. Spring and Easter time have a lot of pastel and bright colors and cherry blossom pink falls on a wide variety of a pink scale. If these are the type of colors you are drawn too rest assured they are also a part of nature.
We sometimes say “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” but in Japan the concept of beauty and the word for beautiful come from a different place.”Utskushii” is the Japanese word for “beautiful,” but its original meaning comes from “something that has been loved.” This shows the connection to appreciation and Beauty in things that are worn and have been with us for a while an old cabinet for bookshelf that is soft around the edges and worn out can be considered a thing of beauty if highlight that way. It is the concept of seeing things as beautiful that have been loved.
This was the feeling we had when we moved to our new house. It was built in 1920 and has had the same owners for a very long time. We could see and feel that they had taken care of this house and there was something beautiful about that. We could see the beauty in sort of carrying on the tradition, but in our own way. It definitely needed some updating and adding some contemporary elements and appliances to the space but this only lets us highlight the history and special naturally worn areas.
Wabi-Sabi Pottery and Kintsugi
Traditionally in Japan Sen-no-Rikyu developed the concept of wabi-sabi through tea ceremony. He had a high appreciation for natural earthenware that has become a large part of the tea ceremony, which is taking the time to observe and appreciate tea cups and bowls that hold the tea. If you are interested in buying some wabi-sabi ceramics and earthen pottery I recommend these for your kitchen dinnerware. Hasami Japanese Pottery Adds to a Wabi-Sabi Look
A fourteenth-century Shogun is also attributed to a related concept of Kintsugi. One time he had some very prized and expensive pottery that needed to be repaired. After it came back to him with a bad repair job he brought it to a master Craftsman who repaired it with gold in the seams up the cracks. This reinforces the philosophy of not merely throwing something away because it’s old, unfunctional, are broken down looking. Sometimes repairing something using new techniques or new materials blended with all the materials can bring about a deeper and new appreciation for an item.
This can be seen in some TV shows about refurbishing old antiques. It is taking something that is worn out and beaten down and adding something new to it that brings it back to life. Kintsugi encourages you to embrace the flaws and even highlight the flaws, which only stand to strengthen the originality.
With beautifully repaired cracks in a vase or newly painted table legs leaving the top surface rough, You are creating something that is now original to you and both highlighting it’s past Beauty along with its new additions. So the essence this philosophy is repair something don’t replace it, you may just find a new unexpected beauty something that was almost forgotten.
Wabi-Sabi Garden Design
One very admirable aspect of Japanese Gardens is how it is actually an extension of the house. The home interior and exterior are brought together and the lines are blurred so that nature becomes a part of your everyday life. Large open picture windows or large sliding doors that can be fully opened to the outside allow you to appreciate the garden and have it become part of your interior life.Wabi-Sabi Roji Tea Garden
Japanese Garden Inspiration in Roji Tea Gardens
With wabi-sabi being an appreciation of imperfection and a respect for originality and authenticity, this leads us to a garden Style that can also adhere to these principles. The first place to start for examples of this is in the traditional Japanese garden style of Tea Gardens, or Roji. As Rikyu is credited with developing the wabi-sabi philosophy through the tea ceremony, an extension of that can be seen in his Japanese garden styles relating to the hermitage and the roji tea garden.
Japanese tea Garden Path
There is often a front gate that starts you on your journey through the garden and eventually ending up at the Tea House. This garden space is meant to be a place that separates you from the outside world and brings you to a calmer place. As you enter the main gate you will stroll along a path that may be winding stepping-stones or unique stone paved pathway, called a nobedan. Nobedan Path in Wabi-Sabi Garden
You start in the outer garden and eventually work your way to the inner garden. There may be places along the way that cause you to stop and look around or watch your feet, and all of these elements are meant to slow you down and have you pay attention to each moment and each different view that you come to. When you are nearing the teahouse you will come across a tsukubai water basin. This is an area where you are meant to lower yourself down and wash and cleanse both your hands and rinse out your mouth.
The roji tea garden is built upon the wabi-sabi tradition and is meant to take you on a journey to understand that enjoying the garden is an experience. Rikyu’s idea the quintessential tea garden stemmed from the belief that it should be a minimal and natural garden. A solid green backdrop with many plantings that were evergreen and perennial is the basis for the wabi-sabi tea garden. Boulders and lanterns may be placed here and there but you need not rely on too many garden ornaments.
This is still a Japanese garden by definition so the goal is to make it appear as natural and serene as possible with the understanding that nothing happens in the Japanese garden that wasn’t planned for. Even in a wabi-sabi garden there is room for human beings creativity to show itself. The type of tsukubai you use can vary from an extremely natural boulder with a small carved out area that holds water to a very modern piece of handmade pottery. Look to these types of Japanese gardens for inspiration when you are designing your wabi-sabi garden.
Ideas For Creating Your Wabi-Sabi Garden
Although you may not have the space or the desire to create a traditional tea house garden I would look there first for inspiration to draw upon. If you happen to be in the setting to create a shade garden or a woodland garden both of these types of landscapes are the perfect backdrops for being able to create a wabi-sabi garden.
Get Inspiration From Woodland Forests
You may want to experiment with bringing in aged and withered items to be used year-round giving your garden a feeling like it has been there for many decades is one way to approach the garden. Moss can thrive in humid and moist areas and is also a sign that the area has not been disturbed. If you are able to work in moss groundcovers or moss on a log for example this will create a timeless feeling.
Sometimes using dead logs or tree stumps can also give the feeling that the garden has been here for many years. If you use stones or boulders you can put them in an area that they will not get stepped on then moss is more likely to grow on them. You may need to mist the garden in the evening, even as they do in Japan often, in order to get the moss to successfully grow.
If you would like to add some artistic garden elements you may want to stay with some type of earth tone or handmade pottery or something possibly from a farm, like an old plow or some type of steel tool that can also allow its age to shine. Using a type of copper or bronze will also oxidized and change colors over time, which could be particularly interesting in your garden. In sticking with the wabi-sabi philosophy it is probably better to avoid bold colors that are really trying to make a statement. You should strive for garden ornaments and display pieces that fit in well with the landscape seen you have created in its natural environment. If you are interested in creating a modern rustic garden please check out this article.
Wabi-Sabi Patio Furniture
Wabi-sabi patio furniture or garden furniture is another area that you might want to consider as having a dramatic impact on your overall garden landscape. You have to decide if you are going to create the type of garden that is meant to only be observed from the inside or a particular angle, if it is a garden that is meant to be more strolled through such as a long a walkway or pathway, or if it is going to be an extension of the home that may also serve some practical use. Natural Wood for your Wabi-Sabi Patio Furniture
If your wabi-sabi garden is going to have a functional use as well as an aesthetic one then you may want to consider patio furniture, a lounge area or reading area, a hammock, or whether it will be large enough to include a outdoor brick oven or BBQ area. How much space you have for are willing to give towards the guard is completely up to you, but if you are aiming for a wabi-sabi style garden you should keep that thing going when you are considering what type of patio furniture or garden items to include.
Some natural patio furniture could fit in perfectly if you had a natural wood base or unfinished wood. Stone benches can also fit in nicely it would make a nice stop along a path leading to your main garden, but you have to keep in mind that stone benches are really that comfortable and are probably not meant to be sat on for a long amount of time.
An important point to mention is that a wabi-sabi garden should not be so natural that it is indistinguishable from the wilderness. Sometimes you are tiptoeing the line between a manicured Garden and raw nature. You want people to feel calm and relaxed in your garden but you also want them to feel safe. Raw nature and the wilderness have a somewhat chaotic and unsafe feeling among them. Nature, the weather, and the animals that inhabit the wilderness are all unpredictable. Your garden space however should create a feeling of comfort, even if it is a wabi-sabi garden that might be more minimalist or austere in nature. So the garden should unmistakably be a place where nature and human being’s creativity have come together to form something imperfectly Beautiful.
In essence, when you are designing your wabi-sabi home and garden it is important to realize it is the small moments that mean the most. When you create a garden space or decorate your home you are creating an area that will facilitate a place to create memories in the future. The wabi-sabi philosophy stresses modesty and humbleness in a dignified manner. Although certain items are focused on in the home or highlighted this is the opposite of a materialistic way of life, because you are choosing to highlight something that may be rustic, withered or unfinished that it ideally has some personal meaning to you.
Shizen is another Japanese aesthetic concept of Nature and naturalness and is what we draw our name ShizenStyle from. It is blending the wabi-sabi concept and natural shizen to create a lifestyle wear the modern and the rustic coincide together beautifully. If you would like to explore more of the shizen concept in creating your own modern rustic home and garden please visit us at ShizenStyle.