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Design Book Club: Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

It is a beauty of things modest and humble.

It is a beauty of things unconventional.

Perhaps the best way to start this review is with those first, three lines of the book. To find wabi-sabi, as it suggests further, is to pare something down to the essence without removing the poetry.

The book introduces this aesthetic philosophy beginning with the history of the humble Japanese tea ritual from which it derives. The author notes that his first introduction to wabi-sabi had such an impact as it resolved his “artistic dilemma about how to create beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts.” To put it into material terms, it almost inevitably means that a cracked, hand made, clay pot may be more wabi-sabi than a machine cut, polished diamond ring.

A simple hut which hosts the traditional tea ceremony.

Pottery that represents wabi-wabi

We are then taken on a journey through the five pillars of the ‘wabi-sabi universe’.

1. Material qualities stand for the look and feel of things and are listed as “unpretentious, irregular, earthy, murky, intimate, simple and suggesting natural process”.
2. ‎Spiritual values: finding truth in observation of nature, greatness of overlooked details and finding beauty in ugliness.
3. ‎State of mind refers to emotional wellbeing, asks for acceptance of the inevitable and an appreciation of the cosmic order.
4. ‎The metaphysical basis of existence claims that things are always devolving in to or evolving from nothingness, very relevant to product lifecycles, where materials might be dug up, used, recycled, broken down, buried etc but they are always on a journey of their own.
5. Moral (behavioural) precepts ask us to get rid of all that is unnecessary and focus on the intrinsic, ignoring the material hierarchy.

One could say that wabi-sabi objects permeate a different type of value to others. Their truth lies in their lack of material value and the state of wabi-sabi being present only as long as the object is appreciated as such.

The book also provides us with some other interesting lessons. Two of our particular favourites, which need no further explanation were:

“Those who don’t know say, those who say don’t know”

“Repetition is the essence of tradition”

Though the concept of wabi-sabi may seem intimidating to understand at first glance, it’s well worth for designers to dive in to as a creative philosophy.

At Nairobi Design Week we love books in all formats. Design Book Club is an opportunity to share insights on some of our favourite creative reads around the world. Join us as we explore bestsellers and hidden gems and use the hashtag #DesignBookClub to join the conversation.

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