By: Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez, Plant Scientist & Writer
Have you heard of wabi sabi garden design? The wabi sabi aesthetic grew out of Buddhist philosophy in Japan, and involves an appreciation for the forms and changes of natural landscapes. Wabi sabi gardening allows the gardener and visitors to explore the beautiful ways nature changes manmade objects and landscapes.
Wabi sabi can be defined as “beauty in imperfection” and can incorporate asymmetry, incompleteness, impermanence, and simplicity. In addition to gardens, wabi sabi influences many other aspects of Japanese art and culture, such as the tea ceremony and pottery making, and it is also seen as a way of life.
A garden based around wabi sabi incorporates natural and manmade elements in a way that allows visitors to appreciate their humble and imperfect forms. This typically involves using not only plants but also stones and weathered manmade objects as design elements.
One way to incorporate wabi sabi garden design is to choose plants and objects that will change over time as the seasons change and the elements go to work on them. Adding plants that provide natural textures in different seasons, like a tree with textured or peeling bark, is a great way to do this. Other ideas include allowing plants to go to seed and display their seed pods during the fall and winter, and allowing dry leaves to fall and remain on the ground under a small tree.
Wabi sabi in gardens can be a way of imitating natural environments in a cared-for garden. To explore natural changes in your wabi sabi garden, plant perennials and self-seeding plants that will establish their own corners of the garden over the course of years.
Place stones in locations that will not receive foot traffic so that moss and lichens will grow over them.
Repurposing old manmade objects is another part of wabi sabi garden design. For example, you can place iron objects that will rust over time, such as old gardening tools and gates, around your garden.
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Design: Shanty Wijaya, ALLPRACE homes, Photo: Jenna Peffley, Styling: Kirsten Blazek/@a1000xBetter
If you've been noticing an uptick in spaces with a wabi-sabi aesthetic lately, you're not imagining it—it's absolutely having a moment. Though the technically untranslatable term has been compared to other far-flung vocab favorites like Hygge, it's both more explicitly aesthetic and more philosophical than its Nordic counterpart—which may be part of why it's so tough to define or pin down.
"Wabi-sabi is having a moment right now because 2020 has been a year filled with unprecedented challenges," explains Shanty Wijaya of ALLPRACE Properties. "We're now spending much more time at home and becoming increasingly aware that change is the only constant in life. The wabi-sabi principle and design style help us instill a sense of peace and calm in our anxious minds during a challenging year, and it teaches us to find beauty in imperfection, form a deep connection to nature, and enjoy the simple pleasures in life."
Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese term that can be translated to mean "flawed beauty" or "the perfection in imperfection." It often refers to the beauty found in nature which is organic, asymmetrical or otherwise "imperfect" but still aesthetically pleasing. Though it's tricky to pin down a strict definition, the general philosophy has been taken in recent years to describe an aesthetic that emphasizes nature, the incomplete or impermanent, and a "slow living" approach.
As Wijaya is quick to note, this term is about more than just looks—but it does have a general visual style that often accompanies it.
"Wabi-sabi is not just purely an aesthetic, but it's also a way of life," she says. "Wabi-sabi is all about recognizing, accepting, and embracing life's imperfections and opting for simplicity and authenticity as a conscious choice." After recently redoing her entire home in a wabi-sabi style—an aesthetic she also refers to as "Japandi," a combination of Japanese and Scandinavian influences—Wijaya is something of an expert on achieving the delicate balance that wabi-sabi implies. Read on for her tips on how to get the style yourself, and how to know it when you see it.
Shanty Wijaya, the renowned multi-hyphenate behind ALLPRACE Properties, heads up boutique real estate renos and development in California, spanning everything from architecture to design to landscaping.
"An uncluttered, 'Zen' space is a must-have for wabi-sabi style," says Wijaya. Not only does a pared-back living area channel the sort of calm reflection wabi-sabi is meant to attain, but it helps the things you do have really shine in their uncrowded environs—so you can appreciate them (in all their imperfections) fully.
The best things in live get better with age—and they get more "perfectly imperfect", too.
"Use materials that can develop a natural patina over time," Wijaya says. "For example—wood, natural stones and 'living' finish metals can all show signs of aging beautifully, while adding character to the home."
This texture and patina is impossible to predict, so it feels uniquely flawed (in a good way)—but it can also be a meditative reflection on your habits and lifestyle, like with the worn leather of a seat cushion.
Unsurprisingly, neutrals are a key element of wabi-sabi—and of course, they pair beautifully with the natural textures you're likely to find in a home of this style.
You can create variation through using different shades of these materials, as Wijaya did: "We used lots of different stained colored wood in this house: Accoya, white oak (quarter sawn, rift sawn white oak) and pine." (It's also sometimes easier to appreciate the unique character and texture of pieces when they're in a restrained color palette, just FYI.)
Wabi-sabi stems from an appreciation of nature, so it's only natural to make organic life a centerpiece of your space, inside and out. Around the interior, houseplants and artfully arranged flowers (see another Japanese term, Ikebana, for inspiration) are the perfect way to channel wabi-sabi.
"Bring nature inside by having lots of oversized windows with beautiful views of your garden, and incorporate hanging plants and greenery inside the house as well," Wijaya suggests. Externally, opt for organic shapes over super-manicured lawns—the way the mosses on this footpath are designed to grow around the stone naturally is a perfect example (and nothing short of genius).
What does a design aesthetic that emphasizes and prioritizes self-care look like? This might just be it.
"I love this design style because it truly supports a healthy, meaningful, lifestyle," says Wijaya. "It teaches us to find beauty in imperfection and form a deep connection to nature while enjoying the simple pleasures of life."
Those pleasures could be soaking in a hot tub, gazing out the window, or even cooking—so let your own interests and the ways you envision your best life guide you. (But any design that lets you spend more time outside is probably a smart start.)
"When implementing wabi-sabi style, originality is key," Wijaya says. "Opt for handmade, vintage, bespoke, or reclaimed pieces when decorating, rather than mass produced items. For example, for this kitchen's countertops, we repurposed beautiful rough-hewn reclaimed solid French oak doors that were refinished with a dark stain. The countertop has imperfections that speak to the age of the wood and creates depth and interest. The wood will continue to change over time as it interacts with its environment and will age beautifully."
Result: one-of-a-kind style that deepens as it ages.
To embrace the airy aesthetic of wabi-sabi, it's not enough to go clutter-free—but open sightlines and clean design lines can definitely help you get the look. Clean, minimalist design is something both influences in Wijaya's "Japandi" style can appreciate, since in fact, clean lines are a calling card of both Scandinavian and Japanese furnishings.
"Both Japanese and Scandinavian design aesthetics focus on simplicity, natural elements, comfort and sustainability. Incorporate clean lines, an abundance of natural light, and ventilation into your design," she says, to help bring wabi-sabi style to life in your space.
Scale is usually a secondary consideration when it comes to design styles, but wabi-sabi does seem to be most at home with low-profile, slight furniture pieces that complement an "East meets West" mentality.
"Get down to earth by choosing simple and low profile pieces of furniture in natural, muted, and earthy colors," Wijaya advises. Low-to-the-ground pieces can also help give off the effect of added "breathing room" in high-ceilinged spaces, which can feel very soothing.
I will not attempt to explain wabi sabi. Instead, I will try to express in a visual language what it means to me. For knowledgeable and authoritative explanations don’t just do a quick Internet search. Look to the writings of people with infinitely more mastery of the subject. (See ‘Bibliography’ below.) I do, however, want two add two observations, which I feel are important:
Wabi sabi is something that is felt rather than factually defined.
The terms imperfect and natural appear in practically every definition of wabi sabi. This creates a conundrum. Perfection as we often perceive it is an entirely human-made, i.e. artificial concept. Nature, however, with all its perceived imperfections (e.g. plants not “at their best” all year, a crooked branch, leaves falling in the autumn, grass only lovely when it is freshly cut, weeds and insect “pests”, etc.) is, in fact, the most ingenious form of balance and perfection.
In the context of nature, for instance, it is not a case of finding beauty in imperfection but realising that imperfection is, in fact, perfection. Alternatively, you could argue that perfection follows (is created through) imperfection in much the same way that order follows chaos and will develop into chaos again. There is no such thing as a balanced state everything oscillates between its extremes.
In the coastal Northwest, our climate and position on the Pacific Rim give us a natural affinity with Asian design philosophy and lifestyles, which can also apply to our gardens. Japanese culture, in particular, has lent us its mastery of garden design and practices. If we delve deep enough, we will meet the concept of wabi-sabi.
Although wabi-sabi has no rigid rules, three broad principles, derived from observing nature, help define it: impermanent, incomplete, imperfect.
Nothing lasts nothing is finished nothing is perfect.
Sounds rather bleak at first reading! But the notion of letting go of expectations of permanence, completeness, and perfection, and appreciating what we have right now (instead of always anticipating the next thing) can be quite liberating.
Wabi-sabi is not a style that we can simply apply to our space and show off. It's more of a perspective for observing and embracing dynamic and aging objects and environments. As with many Zen-related concepts, it is rather hard to pin down for we Westerners who love definition and classification. In fact, some say that we diminish its understanding by talking about it too much.
This article, then, proves my guilt let’s try to define it.
Wabi connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, or understated elegance.
Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age.
There are seven aesthetic principles often mentioned for achieving wabi-sabi:
Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity
Shizen: natural, without pretense (i.e., authentic)
Yugen: subtly profound grace, not obvious
Datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free
The concept originates, in part, from tea masters in 16th-Century Japan reacting to the popularity of expensive, mass-produced, imported porcelain teapots and bowls. The masters advocated a preference for locally crafted dishes with their flaws and humble appearance. The more flawed and weathered, the more the dishes were revered. Gradually, the concept was applied to other entities — clothing, furnishings, the tea house itself, and eventually the garden.
Raku-style tea bowl from Kyoto, 18th-19th Century
Wabi and Sabi are very difficult concepts to understand for not only people from other countries but also the Japanese people. This video shows it very well. I hope this video will help you understand Wabi and Sabi.
“Wabi” and “Sabi” are terms describing the sense of beauty in Japan. In general, they refer to simplicity and serenity. Originally, Wabi and Sabi were two different concepts. Wabi and Sabi comprise a sensibility heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. They are essentials which we must understand to achieve enlightment. Enlightenment in Zen means “all living things realize the inherent buddha nature they possess.” “Buddha nature” is a sacred nature which forms the basis for becoming buddhas. In Zen philosophy there are seven aesthetic principles, as below, for achieving Wabi and Sabi.
01 Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity, imperfection
It is thought in Zen that symmetry, regularity, or perfection has an end, while asymmetry, irregularity, or imperfection has no end. Zen dislikes satisfaction, so Zen values fukinsei.
02 Kanso: simplicity
Zen has no taste for superficial complexities of life. Life itself is simple enough, but when it is analyzed by the intellect, it presents unparalleled intricacies. Therefore, Zen values simplicity.
03 Kokō: wizened austerity
Zen values beauty which emanates from the inside of something old, and doesn’t relate to the exterior.
04 Shizen: naturalness
Zen values the quality of being natural, or being based on natural principles, and of innocent naivete.
05 Yūgen: subtly profound grace, not obvious
For further details, see “Yūgen.”
06 Datsuzoku: the condition of being free from worldly desires
The Zen sect tends to dislike metaphysical questions, such as what the Zen sect is. This is because the answer to such a question should be to be aware, by oneself individually, through enlightenment reached by mediation. What is taught by others goes against the true intention of the Zen sect, to return to the inner nature, since one’s consciousness has already faced outside instead of inside. The other reason is that the Zen sect avoids establishing general ideas or judgements because it regards these as “biased views” or “obsessions” based on our self-serving interpretations. The Zen sect encourages us to make judgements only after reaching a free mental state, liberated from biased views through mediation. These will be non-biased judgements.
07 Seijaku: tranquility
It is thought in Zen that a tranquil, passive, mind is needed to accept whatever is given.
The meaning of Wabi, the noun form of the verb “wabu,” is better understood from its adjective form “Wabishii” (wretched) that is, it means “an inferior state as opposed to splendor.” In other words, it means a “humble like state” or a “simple look” nowadays. In the extreme, it may mean a “poor look” or “poverty.” Originally it was not a good concept. However, through the influence of the Zen sect, it became to be regarded favorably and to be taken as having a form of beauty.
“Wabi” really means “poverty,” or, negatively,” not to be in the fashionable society.” To be poor, that is, not to be dependent on worldly things ―wealth, power, and reputation― and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position: this is what essentially constitutes Wabi.
Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance.
Sabi is the noun form of the verb “sabu,” and originally means the state of deterioration over the passage of time (secular distortion). Now, it means “a quiet and tranquil condition.” Originally it was not a favorable concept however, in “Tsurezuregusa” (Essays in Idleness), there was a description of Sabi, meaning to deeply appreciate an antique book, and it has been verified that, around this time, the meaning of discovering the beauty of an antiquated state arose. During the Muromachi period, Sabi became treasured as important, especially in the world of haikai (seventeen-syllable verse), and was incorporated into the Nou music, and was systematized into theory. In haiku, since Matsuo Bashō, it has become the central sense of beauty however, seldom did MATSUO himself talk or write directly about the elegant simplicity of Sabi. The elegant simplicity of Sabi in haikai is a common characteristic, especially among old things and elderly persons, it emanates from the inside of something old, and is an internal beauty. A typical example is a stone upon which moss grows. Stones that no one moves grow moss on the surface, and become green in the humid climate of Japan. The Japanese people used Sabi to resemble something coming out from the inside of the stone. Sabi is deeply related to antiquarianism (taste for collecting items), because it is an attitude of seeking beauty from an antiquated state. For instance, while there are different features seen in British antiques, there are also some things in common. While the elegant simplicity of Sabi places more emphasis on the action of nature, antiques in the West emphasize their historical aespects.
The meaning of Sabi also includes tranquility. It is thought in Japan that a tranquil, passive, mind is needed to accept whatever is given. It is a state of mind known as “munen” or “musō,” no-thought or no-reflection. This does not mean, however, merely to be without thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc. It means to let our natural faculties act in a consciousness free from thoughts, reflections, or affections of any kind. This state of mind is also known as egolessness (“muga” or non-atman), in which you cherish no egoistic thoughts, no consciousness of your own attainments. It is thought that, if we have this mind, we can attain spiritual enlightenment. As mentioned above, tranquility is a very important factor in Sabi (the sense of beauty in Japan).