In the recent lecture from Kaitlyn Debiasse on designing for disability, she mentioned Wabi Sabi. Wabi Sabi is a Japanese philosophy focused on ‘accepting the imperfect and transient nature of life.’ It captures the freeing mentality that nothing is perfect or complete, and that there is a certain beauty in this more authentic attitude to life. Kaitlyn referred to the philosophy whilst showing an image of a broken ceramic pot that had been repaired but made use of the imperfections that came with the cracks and discolouration of the material. This has led me to explore where Wabi Sabi might be prominent within great design.
Wabi Sabi does not seem to be defined by a set of rules or constraints, but rather by an opposition to the use of over-complication and mass-produced perfection. I think there is an underlying connection with Wabi Sabi to natural things and natural processes. In our society we are constantly shown newer, better, faster and shinier things that capture our attention. It is seldom that we are just happy with what we have. Maybe the mentality of Wabi Sabi is something that would benefit us. It is about accepting things as they are rather than spending our time wishing they were better.
As I’m writing this, I am sat typing away with my battered and bruised water bottle sitting next to me. This water bottle goes where I go and is subject to a fair amount of hardship. It is slung around in my rucksack and it is constantly getting dropped and thrown about the place, and it carries the scars from each these mishaps. I guess this is an example of Wabi Sabi. Each dent or scratch that the bottle displays doesn’t in anyway make it less of a water bottle but adds character and uniqueness. To me they cause it to grow in appeal.
I think that design can learn from this outlook. I have spoken before on this blog about designing things to last, and designing a product that’s appearance is not hindered by its age and its use would align with the Wabi Sabi philosophy. The way that leather ages is a perfect example of this. My wallet has picked up scuffs and cracks in its leather over its lifetime and is laden with imperfections, but that is the authentic, natural aesthetic that we expect of this material.
To me, Wabi Sabi in design is an aesthetic. If you adopt that mentality into other aspects of the design, such as functionality, the product will falter or lose effectiveness. Imagine an everyday product such as a pen that doesn’t allow ink to flow smoothly. You wouldn’t accept that for what it is rather than wishing it was better, you would probably bin it and get a new one! Wabi Sabi is a tool that great design can call upon where appropriate. There are some lovely examples, particularly within interior design, where Wabi Sabi offers a stark contrast to constrained, regular design. This particular interior is designed by Pineapple Decor
Last term I designed and sold some concrete candle holders. Due to the nature of concrete, there were imperfections throughout the material, making each set unique. In hindsight I can see they had an element of the Wabi Sabi philosophy about them, and I think they were great design! (even if I might be a little biased…)