What is wabi-sabi?

Wabi-sabi apartment

Perhaps you’ve heard of Japandi and you might know this style is built around two key ideas: hygge and wabi-sabi. But while hygge is familiar to most of us, the *other* half of Japandi’s founding principles is often not.

Wabi-sabi is, very simply said, the beauty of imperfect things – but it’s not only a look. It’s as much an aesthetic as it is a philosophy and even a feeling. In short: something deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.

We’ll do our best to dive a little deeper into this style…

wabi‐sabi
Linen table runner in Charcoal, from around £27.13 (AUD $47.95), Linen Barn.

Where does wabi-sabi come from?

The concept is rooted in Zen Buddhism and can be traced back to a tea master and philosopher. Sen no Rikyū, born in 1522 (I said deeply ingrained, didn’t I?) majorly shaped Japanese tea ceremonies.

Specifically, he had a strong influence on the wabi-cha ceremony style. Sounds familiar, right? At the time, tea ceremonies using expensive Chinese tableware were very popular.

Wabi-cha was a sort of counter movement, valuing local wares and a simpler styles. Sen no Rikyu wasn’t the only figure, but generally people consider him to be the most influential. You might also hear mentions of Murata Jukō and Takeno Jōō.

Tempo Arraba shower tray
Tempo Arraba shower tray, from £650, shown with panel in Arraba, from £176, and Omnia shower column, from £1200, Acquabella.

But what does it mean?

Wabi-sabi is often described as the thought of finding beauty in every imperfection in nature. It can be a chip in a well-loved mug, or maybe the slowly ageing wood of the doors in your home.

It’s appreciating the natural beauty of raw materials, as opposed to trying to achieve perfection. Unsurprising, then, that wabi-sabi is based on the three marks of existence, a key Buddhist teaching.

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These three marks are impermanence, suffering, and emptiness or absence of self-nature. Some sources also call suffering ‘unsatisfactoriness’.

wabi-sabi
Memory RI doors in Old Forest Oak, from £14,400 for a kitchen, Rotpunkt.

Much like other concepts – think German gemütlichkeit, Yiddish nakhes, or Korean jeong – wabi-sabi is more of a feeling tied to its cultural background. But if you were to express it, it could also be a cracked teapot, or a slightly distorted cup.

In fact, you’ll often find Japanese pottery to be not quite even. That’s wabi-sabi in action – each object being irregular is essential for its charm.

How can I create a wabi-sabi look in my home?

By now, you probably have at least a small idea. For a concept so hard to explain (and believe me, I struggled), the basis is surprisingly easy – but also very open, because there’s no hard and fast way to achieving this look.

The key is to choose objects wisely. Be deliberate about your décor choices and, if you’re unsure, take some extra time to think aspects through.

Varier Actuculum chairs
Varier Actuculum chairs, from £729 each, and Skovby circular table SM33, £2095, Back in Action.

I’ve spoken about natural beauty and the absence of perfection, so raw materials are the way to go.

Choose untreated wood, in all colours, and watch it age beautifully the longer you own and use it. Make sure you opt for furniture designed to last, so you can actually see it mature with you – accepting the life cycle of things is a key idea of wabi-sabi.

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Linen is a great fabric, too, as it softens with washing and may lose a bit of its colour, too. And if it ever stains, well, it’s time to accept it… and continue using it. Remember, imperfection is the beauty when it comes to wabi-sabi.

In the same vein, it’s time to forget about symmetry. Not everything has to be 100% accurate or straight. Embrace what’s real and realistic instead. Make your bed every morning – but don’t try to make it spotless like in a hotel. Done is better than perfect.

wabi‐sabi
Caro fabric double bed bed in grey, £329.99, Furniture and Choice.

Anything else I need to know?

As I mentioned life cycles: not everything has to be new. In fact, it’d be very fitting to build pieces you already own into your scheme. You might have a trinket your child made when they were little, or a cotton blanket that’s been with your family for years and is soft from use. Or maybe your favourite vase has a crack? Well, it’s perfect.

Cottage pale tiles
Cottage Pale ceramic tiles, £46.50 per sq m, Porcelain Superstore.

Items like this can give your scheme that perfect feel of personality and mindfulness. There’s no harm in romanticising everyday items or a routine – quite the opposite.

Wabi-sabi encourages it and because of this creates a cosy, welcoming atmosphere you just want to sink into.

Featured image: This project in Casablanca was designed by Caffe Latte.

Now you know what wabi-sabi is, why not read our features on Japandi, hygge and Scandi?

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