Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word that evokes a minimalist beauty that is imperfect, unique, understated, authentic, and deeply felt. Combining wabi and sabi merges two slightly different ideas of beauty, which are heightened by nature and imperfection.
Wabi emphasizes minimalism in beauty that is not obvious and not conventional. It might be the beauty of a crack in a table that brings back fond memories of the event thirty years ago that caused the crack, or an “imperfection” in someone’s face that makes the person more attractive. Wabi is the opposite of airbrush and polish. Airbrushing a photo destroys any wabi-traces of beauty. Wabi might mean the sparse beauty of a two-room house with a nonsymmetrical but meticulous interior, a few well-made pieces of essential furniture, with very tasteful but very little decoration.
Sabi emphasizes the beauty in the marks of aging in a person or object, or the effects of the elements. It might be an old pair of faded and patched blue-jeans. Like wabi, sabi emphasizes authenticity. So a brand-new pair of pre-faded blue-jeans would be the opposite of sabi. Sabi might be a quiet glowing smile of a 90-year-old man, the smile playing off the weathered skin and the character written on his aged face. Sabi might be in a piece of driftwood in its natural setting by the sea, but not that same piece in a giftshop.
A “perfect” example of wabi-sabi is old Persian carpets. Factory-output Persian-style carpets have geometrically even and symmetrical designs. This is not wabi-sabi. Handmade authentic Persian carpets show the uneven design inevitable with the uneven hues from hand-dipping different pieces of wool at different times into varying batches of hand-made natural dyes—then combining them to be woven and knotted together by hand over several months, possibly by the hands of several different individuals. This human expression and effort gives the final carpet an aesthetic depth that is spiritual and very wabi-sabi.
We came to expect symmetry and perfection of design during the industrial revolution’s mechanical exactness and consistent output, and even more so with computer-aided design, laser precision in factories, and geometrical balance to within a millionth of a millimeter. Colors are measured to the exact CMYK ratio. Automated perfection has deadened our appreciation for the beauty of the individuality that went into creating and producing objects. It makes us want to see humans as airbrushed and perfectly proportioned as a laser-precision factory product.
The takeaway from this entry is a suggestion: Find some good old-fashioned hidden beauty in the asymmetrical, individual, authentic, quirky, natural characteristics of people and objects. This beauty elevates authenticity, behaving in your natural way, uniqueness of appearances, appreciating diversity of talents, valuing different styles of expression.
This entry partly from my book
Potential of an Active Mind: How to Recapture the Magic of Everyday Life
© copyright Robert Rose-Coutré 2009, 2011, and 2012