Wabi-Sabi: Beauty On A Budget

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By Mark Lundegren

DSC_0661-Edit~2Whether we are designers, building owners, or renting space, we all have a waiting, frequently overlooked, and remarkably flexible way to stretch our construction and furnishing budgets.

This nearly universal opportunity – literally to create money and materials from thin air – is waiting in front of all of our eyes. Or rather, it is waiting behind our eyes, in the way we use our eyes to look at the world.

The creativity-requiring but resource-leveraging design tool we have in mind is called Wabi-Sabi, which is a Japanese phrase roughly meaning naturally-aged. The term was coined to embody a design tradition that emerged from and is often favored by Japanese Zen culture, reflecting and embodying its special emphasis on attentive life. Importantly, however, this part aesthetic and part philosophical sensibility can be seen as a re-naturalized design or artistic outlook that has re-occurred in various forms across many human cultures and settings.

wabi-sabi cup

Naturally Elegant Wabi-Sabi Tea-Cup

If you are not familiar with Wabi-Sabi, the elegant but decidedly irregular tea-cup above will give you an immediate feel for and introduction to this old and important artistic tradition. It clearly highlights the Wabi-Sabi school’s special emphasis on seeing beauty in things that are natural and aged.

Over time, Wabi-Sabi art and design has become highly elaborated and, with this elaboration, sometimes quite expensive. But this needn’t be the case. In reality, beautiful and disheveled – or beautifully disheveled – and useful Wabi-Sabi objects are usually all around us, are often free or nearly free, and generally can be fashioned with just a bit of curiosity and creativity. All it really takes is an acquired and re-naturalized taste or artistic sense – one that sees natural objects and natural aging as beautiful.

As an example, consider the tree sections below, turned into table-stools using materials often available without cost and requiring just a bit of ingenuity from us. They show the Wabi-Sabi tradition at work in simple and highly accessible terms, and should make you think that many forms of seeming waste and debris, in and out of nature, are waiting Wabi-Sabi design objects or materials.

This opportunity for low-cost and satisfying Wabi-Sabi inspired design is undoubtedly and demonstrably true, as long as we are willing to bring our natural attentiveness and creativity to the world around us. In practice, this means a new openness to examining and using discarded items, natural materials, and created objects that might be re-purposed in new ways.

Tree Stump Tables

Lovely & Low-Cost Tree Section Tables Or Stools

This last idea of re-purposing materials is a crucial point and we want to underscore that using the Wabi-Sabi sensibility as a design tool can extend far beyond seeing beauty and utility in objects that are in the midst of natural aging and decay. Wabi-Sabi sensing can inspire bold, active, and original new designs as well, ones that take advantage of our potential for resourceful and low-cost innovation amidst everyday life.

As before, this potential for innovative and budget-stretching design begins by embracing and becoming progressively informed by Wabi-Sabi’s central idea that things needn’t be new, symmetrical, matching, or even completely thought-out and enduring, to be beautiful, endearing, and useful in a particular time and place.

Consider the hanging sofa-bed below, which appears to have come at the cost of a few meters of rope and a handful of sturdy planks to support a futon in mid-air. This intriguing and easily repeated design takes advantage of the sturdy roofs that are an obvious design resource floating over nearly every one of our heads.

As you can see, this simple, innovative, and low-cost design creates an artful and inviting piece of furniture that is anything but pedestrian, and one that is equally useful whether we want to sleep, sit, or rock. And the design might be easily and progressively improved upon in a Wabi-Sabi way, for example by using slightly thicker, more textured, and/or more variegated cords.

wabi-sabi bed

The Extraordinary From The Seemingly Ordinary

We hope this important and waiting opportunity to use a more natural sensibility in our lives and designs – one revealing that we and our surroundings can be beautiful and useful without being new, straight, and unblemished – will inspire new design ideas and creativity in you, and perhaps extend your design budgets and plans in ways you had not imagined possible.

As always, we invite your comments on innovative building practices and our opportunities to promote more functional, natural, and beautiful modern buildings.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

Tell others about ArchaNatura…encourage modern natural design!

Photos: Wabi-Sabi Cup, Tree Stump Tables, Wabi-Sabi Bed


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