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The Wabi-Sabi Way

Representing a Japanese worldview, the wabi-sabi trend of finding beauty in the humble is catching on in America. Are you ready to celebrate imperfection?

Maybe you have a chipped vase that you’re thinking of putting in your garage sale pile. Or upholstery that has seen better days. You can’t imagine finding anything you’d love more, but it is getting a little worn.

Embracing a wabi-sabi way of life could change how you feel about the things in your home that are less than perfect.

Most of us are familiar with feng shui, the ancient Chinese philosophy that dictates precise positions for furniture and accessories for a harmonious environment. Even hotter these days is wabi-sabi, a Japanese import that has more to do with how you view and embrace your environment rather than how you arrange everything in it. It's not a decorating style, like cottage or Old World, but an aesthetic that has a subtle spiritual component courtesy of its close ties to Zen Buddhism.

While some would argue the essence of wabi-sabi is almost impossible to translate, author Leonard Koren defined the term in his book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, as "a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the beauty of things modest and humble, the beauty of things unconventional." In other words, wabi-sabi is not shiny, perfect and new. Instead, it represents humble objects with a timeworn beauty — a handcarved wooden bowl, a collection of pebbles, your grandmother's faded curtains. Muted earthy colors and natural materials like rice paper, wood and stone evoke a wabi-sabi look and feeling.

An uncluttered wabi-sabi living room. Photo by Joe Coca

But weaving wabi-sabi into your home isn't about filling it up with more stuff, imperfect or not. It’s actually the opposite. Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of The Wabi-Sabi House, says it’s "all about clearing away the clutter and dreck so that we can appreciate our homes as beautiful — just the way they are." If you're not convinced that removing a few knickknacks will make you feel different about your cramped living space, Lawrence says try to set aside your judgments and longing for perfection and instead think of your home as a sanctuary, a place free of disturbance and distraction that provides comfort and peace of mind.

Lawrence sees wabi-sabi as an antidote to sleek perfectionism and materialism that is absolutely freeing. "I’m no longer a slave to my house and nor am I despairing over not having the ‘perfect’ house." Her "imperfect" house is furnished with an array of cherished family pieces, flea-market finds and handmade objects—a secretary made by her father, an old enamel desk from the '30s, a piece of pottery made by an artisan from her hometown. Since she treats her home as a sanctuary, she wants everything she brings into it to be treated as sacred—even if that means eschewing impulse purchases and bargain shopping at discount stores. Although she lives the wabi-sabi way every day, she still occasionally has to edit things out even if they are the epitome of imperfect beauty. "I've basically gone through my house and made some choices, based on the motto, 'Don't love it? Let it go.'" She once enjoyed a collection of dried flowers and herbs in her kitchen, but as the collection grew, she realized the overabundance was distracting and, in turn, detracted from the intended effect.

These mindful choices make her feel "comfortable and peaceful and whole" in her home, and as a result her guests do too. Infusing your own home with a wabi-sabi attitude won't happen overnight, but a few deliberate changes can get you started. Lawrence shares some starting points:

  • Offer everyone who comes to visit a cup of tea.
    Serve it in pretty cups with a sweet treat. If no one comes by, enjoy a cup of tea by yourself in the late afternoon. This isn’t necessarily a "look" as much as a crucial lifestyle change that will begin to bring the sense of hospitality and peace that is so important to a wabi-sabi home.
  • Keep one vase in your home filled with seasonal flowers or branches.
    Preferably from your own yard or neighborhood. This will connect you to the seasons and create a sense of place.
  • Next time you buy something for your home, stop and ask questions. Who made it? How was it made? Where does it come from? "I believe our souls really long to be surrounded by goods that remember the hands and the heart that made them," says Lawrence. "Surrounding myself with handmade artistic wares changes the energy in my space, bringing a tiny piece of each craftsperson in with it."
  • Create a treasure alcove.
    Place something you value (anything you want, from an heirloom to a stone you found while hiking) in a special place. Replace it every season, then every month, and eventually every day. Doing this will cause you to think and reflect every day (or every month) about one thing that you find truly beautiful. It will also help you develop a deep sense of presence and appreciation for the beauty that surrounds you at every moment
  • Make something — anything.
    Making household items yourself creates a deep sense of connection with your home. It can also serve as a tactile meditation that's almost impossible to find anywhere else. So paint a picture or some pottery, make a driftwood picture frame or a collage. Place it in your home where you'll see it often. Admire it--no matter what it looks like.

Prickley Pear II, a Chinese watercolor by William Preston

Preston/Hornbuckle Fine Art Gallery

If you focus on what feels right and true to you, the overall feeling of your home will be welcoming—a key element of the wabi-sabi way of life, says Lawrence. Marianne Hornbuckle and William Preston have created such a home in Santa Fe, N.M., where they live in a double-adobe house. "Our wood floors are unpolished and unrefinished. Cracks run down the thick plastered walls; nothing is square," says Hornbuckle. Everything comes together to create a home that is comfortable, unpretentious and warm, she says. The natural beauty of their home is enhanced by their artwork. The couple specializes in wabi-sabi style work, from Sumi-e (ink paintings on white paper) and Chinese watercolor to abstract monotypes (images painted on plates with etching ink, then transferred to paper with an etching press), which they sell at their Preston/Hornbuckle Fine Art gallery. Their home, like a Preston painting, is "responsive to nature, expressive in a spare, poetic way — like Zen poetry," he says.

Don’t despair if you don’t live in an authentic adobe house or aren’t surrounded by nature. Regardless of the type of home you live in, developing a wabi-sabi mindset can be done by anyone who is willing, as Lawrence puts it, "to take the time to find beauty in what seems ordinary." So clear out some clutter and give yourself some breathing room—you might decide to keep that chipped vase after all.

For more on wabi-sabi, check out these books available on Amazon.com:

Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
The Wabi-Sabi House by Robyn Griggs Lawrence
Living Wabi Sabi by Taro Gold

Jennifer Huskey is an HGTV.com decorating editor. She has not yet converted her Knoxville home to the wabi-sabi way, but she is working on it.

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