In the design world, I have heard many Westerners talk about the Japanese wabi-sabi (侘 寂) aesthetic. It’s difficult to describe many traditional Asian terms in English because not only is there no direct equivalent word, the Asian definition itself is very vague. Many times, Westerners are confused as to why Asians can’t explain something even if we are Asian. I understand that logic, but many concepts are left vague on purpose. This allows enough flexibility for individual connections and interpretations. For the concrete way of thinking, this abstract approach can be frustrating. So, even with my Japanese background, there is no real simple way to understand and explain wabi-sabi. Yes, I’m sorry, I realize I’m being very Japanese here.
As I study chado, tea ceremony, it is the first stepping stone to learning the basic aesthetic concepts of wai-sabi. The best translation of wabi I found, came from The Tea Ceremony Book, by Seno Tanaka and Senno Tanaka.
The literal translation of wabi is loneliness or desolation, and it infers the simplicity and tranquility inherent in the state of loneliness or desolation.
Sabi was not traditionally associated with wabi in tea ceremony. Sabi came from secular change, but today it is associated with the natural aging over time such as weathered wood, patina, oxidation, moss, or rust.
As I understand it, when one puts wabi-sabi together, it becomes the aesthetic appreciation of the inherent beauty of simplicity, tranquility, and aging of elements in the natural environment.
In tea ceremony, this wabi-sabi aesthetic is portrayed though the utensils. Simple and elegant, the designs are based on the minimalistic approach with “no waste”, muda ga nai. Some traditional pieces, made by renowned artists, can cost a small fortune because they require years of apprenticeship. Each piece is used with respect and care and is passed down through the generations. The Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic design remains timeless.
photo of pot from Harry’s Ghost