Wabi-sabi: There’s beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy that embraces impermanence, imperfection and emptiness. Its origins are in Zen Buddhism and it was popularised by tea master Sen no Rikyu, who integrated wabi-sabi ideas into the Japanese tea ceremony in the 16th century.

Few people can articulate a concrete definition of wabi-sabi: ambiguity is integral to the philosophy. Rather than denoting a strict code or set of values, it’s a loose formation of ideas characterised by modesty and the natural order of things.

A wabi-sabi approach to design emphasises process and endeavour over the final product, so the aesthetic value of objects becomes a bi-product rather than an end in itself. It chimes with the broader interest in mending existing possessions, basking in the imperfections and the sense of joy an object gives people.

Courier met a crop of businesses in the UK who have integrated wabi-sabi ideas into their work and the materials they choose to use.

Blenheim Forge knives

James Ross-Harris, Richard Warner and Jon Warshawsky are bladesmiths making kitchen knives from a railway arch in south-east London. Finding influence in the simplicity and rusticity of wabi-sabi, they have placed traditional Japanese methods and ideas at the heart of their manufacturing process.

The dome shaped forge was adapted from a traditional Japanese sword making design, which controls the temperature and airflow. They fuse three layers of high carbon, Hitachi blue paper and damascus steel, working the blades into shape on a blacksmith’s anvil. Each knife is handmade to order.

Jam furniture

Combining his knowledge of industrial material with mottled and unpredictable found timber, Ben Cramp has refined an aesthetic that leans heavily on the principles of wabi-sabi. Nature and wear leave marks and signs on the materials, which are nods to its former life, he says.

For Cramp those imperfections tell a story about a life before, a history he celebrates in the designs for Jam furniture, which he set up in 2013. Cramp uses timber found at reclamation sites all over Europe. Powder coated aluminium or folded steel frames transform the uneven timber into tables, stools and desks.

Wabi Sabi interior design

Andrew Juniper designs and makes wabi-sabi furniture and interiors for properties in London, Paris and New York. He builds furniture in sustainable bamboo based timber using handmade Japanese tools.

“The range of things that we make is very broad, but we always endeavour to make each piece with quality materials and kami—the Japanese word for spirit.” Each piece of furniture is handmade to order and can take up to four weeks.

Juniper says his customers cite a desire for objects that represent the passage of time, things that can be used regularly and have a consciousness passing through them.

Kuniko Kataoka pottery

The key for Kuniko Kataoka is building objects that will stand that test of time; whatever she’s making, quality and function are paramount. Like many Japanese, Kataoka believes that the passage of time is imbued in objects and can be felt by those who use them.

The wabi-sabi cups she made ten years ago carry the ‘spirit’ of each person who has used them; the significance of each transient moment is fundamental to Zen thinking.

“A celebration of life and impermanence is central to wabi-sabi, like the celebration of the cherry blossom, which goes in just a few days, in Japan it’s a fleeting moment that’s cherished,” Kataoka says.

This story was originally published by our friends at Courier.