Photographed by Mark Robinson inside Junichiro Tanazaki’s Home in Kobe, Japan
The word ‘Wabi Sabi’ has become synonymous with ‘rustic’ or ‘imperfection’. Ask any Japanese person to explain this set of words and you’re most likely to receive a blank stare in return.
Wabi roughly translates as the ‘taste for the simple and quiet’ and sabi means ‘rust or patina’. In my eyes Wabi Sabi is more of a philosophy. Of course, you could call a certain style Wabi Sabi, a farmhouse with shadows and a rustic patina comes to mind, but there’s also a concept associated and it requires a deeper understanding of Japanese culture.
Even though most of us will probably never attain the true meaning of Wabi Sabi I wanted to share my top 5 books that have helped me to learn more about this mysterious concept and hopefully will help you on your journey too.
1 / In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
Famed Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki is best known for his book ‘The Makioka Sisters’ that follows four sisters and the declining fortunes of a traditional Japanese family. Tanizaki was known for his vivid and risqué imagination that can put off even some of the most avid readers.
‘In Praise of Shadows’ is lesser-known, which is a shame considering the gems that can be found inside. Tanizaki’s writing on lacquerware was particularly masterful as he explains how the shine on Japanese lacquerware goes hand in hand with the deep dark shadows found in traditional Japanese rooms. Interesting to note that Japanese lacquer artists are now choosing matte tones, no doubt linked to the newer style of lighting in most homes.
This whole book highlights many of things Westerners are missing when it comes to unlocking the meaning behind the austere and simple. Some references are tongue in cheek and have a comedic tone, and even though the book is compact it’s one of my favourite reads. You can breeze through this and enjoy it many times over.
2 / Wabi-sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
Published in 2008 is this classic by Leonard Koren that breaks down many of the key concepts for us creatives. Although not as deep as some of the Japanese titles, especially if you read ‘In Praise of Shadows’ that can be broken down until the cows come home, it’s still a great book to read as there’s bitesize pieces of wisdom scattered inside.
I’ve always thought it would be great to sit in and see the western interpretation battled out against that of the Japanese. I’m sure there will be some conflicting opinions and would further push this concept in a new direction
Leonard Koren’s ‘Wabi-Sabi – Further Thoughts’ is a perfect to complement to the first as it caps off some of the unfinished points. Both are worthy of a spot on your bookshelf. The first I’ve lent out to many friends who were hoping for an introduction on the subject.
3 / WA: The Essence of Japanese Design by Stefania Piotti
‘WA: The Essence of Japanese Design’ might not specifically target the rusticity or shadows of the Wabi Sabi philosophy, but it definitely documents the unique transition that has taken place in Japanese design throughout the years. With the categories broken down by material, the book is not only a well crafted piece of art, inside features tons of design ideas and showcases some of the key concepts surrounding natural forms and natural materials that were taken from the past and bought forward.
These books are becoming much rarer and I’m lucky to have one in my collection. If you can get hold of one you’re definitely in for a winner as this book will give you a better idea of the shapes and material choices used by these talented designers and craftsmen to convey a similar air to that of the wabi sabi aesthetic.
4 / The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo
Another one for those looking to search deeper, spiritually more than aesthetically. This book is a must have for anyone who has an interest in Taoism, Zen, or Japanese culture and the relation these subjects have to the West.
The book features chapters on art appreciation and flower arrangement, and the influence of Teaism on those particular arts, among others. A groundbreaking book for me as I spotted many things that seem to be referenced in the early modernist movement. We partly have Frank Lloyd Wright to thank for that! Search through his homes and find all the references to his trips to Japan. It’s also no secret that he had a massive woodblock print collection by Japanese artists. Amazing how these concepts and philosophies of the past still inform our modern world.
5 / The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty
Some might recognise the beautiful modernist designs of Sori Yanagi, but unless you’re in the craft world you may not know about his dad, Soetsu Yanagi, who was one of the founders of the Mingei movement in Japan.
Mingei can roughly be construed as the Japanese equivalent to the Arts and Crafts movement with a heavy Buddhist influence. Mingei refers to art of the people. The singular, often unknown craftsman, is held in high regard as one who has dropped his ego in the pursuit of function.
Although this book can come across as a little elitist, it’s an amazing breakdown of Japanese aesthetics and has constantly fascinated me. Parts of this book will stay with me forever as I move forward in learning about more about craft, design, and how the two worlds collide.
Building the Japanese House Today by Peggy Landers Rao ⟶
A nice book showing a selection of interiors and open spaces. Not much philosophy, but you will definitely pick up the vibe of the Japanese home and can maybe implement these ideas in to your own.
Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings ⟶
Wordy and in-depth, but gives you a full overview of the traditional Japanese home in detail. Very much for the geeks amongst us!
Kenya Hara: Designing Japan: A Future Built on Aesthetics ⟶
By looking forward we can also reference the past. Kenya Hara is one of my favourite authors and this book offers a foundation course on the essence of Japanese aesthetics.
Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism ⟶
If you want to strip back to get to core of something try out this book on minimalism by Fumio Sasaki. Definitely a wildcard but one that might help you get to the root of this kind of philosophy.
OEN Issue 1 & 2 ⟶
A shameless plug of my own work. The OEN publication feature Japanese design heavily and explores topics surrounding craft, design, art, and architecture. We visit these makers in the field and learn more about their work.
Wabi Sabi Inspiration
OEN’s Wabi Sabi Pinterest Board ⟶
The OEN Pinterest board is constantly updating with new imagery that we’ve assigned to our own interpretation of the wabi sabi style. We hope you will follow along for the ride!
Pragmata Gallery in Tokyo ⟶
Petros Titonakis owns the beautiful Pragmata Gallery that features this wonderful rustic style. A Greek’s interpretation on the wabi sabi style that’s also gone down well with the Japanese locals.
Shigemori Mirei Garden Museum in Kyoto ⟶
This museum is for those Japanese garden lovers. Shigemori Mirei is known for his modern garden design that’s totally unique. This particular place has a wonderful atmosphere that will further your exploration in to the world of wabi sabi.
Sumiya and the Shimabara District in Kyoto ⟶
Slightly off the beaten path but I love this old district in Kyoto. Make sure you visit Sumiya, an old residence where Geisha or Geiko performed. This architecture is the last surviving example of ‘Ageya’ architecture from the Edo period. Very rare indeed and another space where everything might click together for you.
I’m not confessing to know everything about wabi sabi. Unfortunately no one does. But through my extensive travels in Japan I’ve been lucky enough to put many experience and influences together. I hope this article provides you a source that you can refer back to as you continue your own journey. I will certainly keep you updated the more that I come across!
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