At the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan this month, Vancouver- and Berlin-based product designer Omer Arbel will launch a new company called OAO Works by premiering a candle made by pouring hot beeswax into a rotating drum with ice. The piece’s root-like tendrils are so delicate that it can only be shipped frozen inside a block of ice. “The piece arrives, the ice melts and then a person lights the candle, then the wax melts,” says Arbel. “It’s this beautiful iterative process of transforming a material.”
It seems inevitable that the Salone crowd will comment on how wabi-sabi Arbel’s piece is, though that wasn’t really the designer’s intention. In fact, Arbel only learned the term recently from a book on the re-emerging aesthetic philosophy given to him by a friend. “I read it and it’s like everything I’ve ever thought about and done all my life,” says Arbel. “[It was] a moment of revelation.”
Step aside, hygge, wabi-sabi is poised to be the design trend of 2018, displacing the Danish philosophy that dominated lifestyle journalism last year with an equally down-to-earth (though less plush) look born centuries ago in Japan. While “hygge focuses on coziness and comfort as a source of joy, wabi-sabi is about embracing and celebrating imperfection,” says Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy’s in-house trend expert. In an era of Instagram filters and flawlessness, “as a real human, with a real life and, occasionally, a really messy apartment, I’m ready for a change,” says Johnson. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”
Simply put, to embrace a wabi-sabi mindset means seeking and finding beauty in the natural cycles of growth, decay and death, and celebrating everything that is impermanent and incomplete. Wabi-sabi emerged around the mid-15th century, when Zen monk Murata Shuko and tea master Sen no Rikyu introduced the aesthetics of simplicity into the previously opulent tea ceremony. “It was an attempt to escape the influence of Continental (Chinese) culture and bring to light unique Japanese values within wabi (austere beauty or elegant rusticity) and simplicity,” explains designer Kenya Hara, art director and executive board member of the Japanese design brand Muji, in his book Designing Design.
The tea room became the epitome of wabi-sabi. Instead of the red walls, gold decorations and ornamental ivory spoons esteemed in China, the Japanese equivalent emerged as a simple, small and empty space outfitted with natural elements such as tatami mats, carved bamboo spoons and raku bowls made by local artisans. If dishware and utensils broke, they would be lovingly pieced back together in a way that emphasized the beauty of the repair. According to Hara, the extreme simplicity of the aesthetic was meant to evoke contemplation and attention to detail.
Once you understand the philosophy and history behind wabi-sabi, it’s interesting to learn how few contemporary designers who embrace the aesthetic identify their work as such. “It seems difficult to say that Muji is wabi-sabi,” says Toru Akita, president of Muji Canada, citing the company’s manufacture of products that can be kept and used for a long time, contrasting to the idea of impermanence. “However, maybe we can link Muji to the wabi-sabi idea of incompleteness,” he says. “Muji’s products are sometimes said to be empty, as they are meant to be used by each person according to their own needs.”
Arbel rejects the descriptor “organic” for his work, but there’s no denying his designs are born of the sort of contingencies inherent to natural processes. “So even if we were to try, we wouldn’t be able to reproduce any of the works in exactly the same way,” says Arbel.
This might be the most difficult aspect of wabi-sabi to grapple with – it isn’t something inherent in objects but a dynamic process of attention and appreciation through use. In other words, rather than investing in wrinkled sheets to add a little wabi-sabi to your home, think about how you maintain what you already own. When you have fewer possessions, “then the relationship between you and things becomes redefined – there’s more equality,” explains Leonard Koren, author of the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers and its followup, Wabi-Sabi: More Thoughts. “I have to take good care of it, pay attention to it and respect it. That’s really the substrate of wabi-sabi.”
If you are interested in making a wabi-sabiesque purchase, Ikea’s new Industriell collection in collaboration with Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek incorporates the idea of “intentional mistakes.” Wooden furniture with rough textures, wobbly shaped pottery and printed linen textiles are, the company says, meant to celebrate uniqueness and imperfection.
In Canada, many product designers are adopting the principles of wabi-sabi, both purposefully and reflexively, in their own work. Vancouver-based ceramic artist Grace Lee embraces imperfection and the limits of hand production in the making of bowls and dishes for the enjoyment of a shared meal. “Being a ceramic artist, I think you definitely have to accept that change will happen and will be part of the final product, the final form,” she says.
Likewise, Shane Krepakevich of Toronto’s Mercury Bureau invites impermanence and the natural life cycles of materials into his work. His latest series of compositional vases, unveiled during the Toronto Design Offsite Festival in January, make room for various groupings of greens and blooms, which Krepakevich says emulate the day-to-day shifts in the form of a cut flower or bouquet. “The beauty of each arrangement is found in the individual moment and in what follows.”
Arbel agrees that, as a designer, there’s something creatively liberating about variation, a quality inherent to wabi-sabi. “As soon as you make that decision, that you don’t care if the items are identical to each other – in fact, you love that each one has got its own particulars – a lot of doors open,” he says.
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