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Trend Report: Wabi-Sabi Japanese Design

Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 13 min read
Wabi-sabi is design based on imperfection and impermanence. As far as design movements go, Wabi-sabi is unique and even somewhat odd (at least by western standards), as it values the aesthetics of design to be rough around the edges and incomplete. In this way, it’s a paradox since it values beauty in the imperfect, which is in marked contrast to what we think of when we associate design with visual attractiveness. This design style emphasizes a different kind of beauty, though, one which holds values like simplicity, minimalism, and austerity in high regard. Let’s take a deeper look at this design trend by examining its history, noteworthy examples, and characteristics.

What is the Philosophy of Wabi-Sabi?

While rooted in design, Wabi-sabi espouses a specific philosophy on how to approach life and the environment around you. Perhaps the best source for its definition lies with Leonard Koren, the American aesthetics expert and artist. It was his 1994 book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, that really put this design style on the map, at least in the west. According to Koren, Wabi-sabi is: “The most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty, and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.” In other words, this trend has significantly shaped what the Japanese consider in their culture to be the ideals of aesthetics and design. What makes it so fascinating as a style is the paradox that minimalism and roughness—to the extremes of asymmetry and austerity—are some of its defining values. Talk about truly being able to find beauty in imperfection! Philosophically, it also touches on some Buddhist concepts like the impermanence of life, suffering, and emptiness—which is where it really gets interesting. Buddhism’s goal is to escape the torturous cycle of suffering and rebirth and, by doing so, reach Nirvana or the ultimate release from this meaningless cycle. By embracing this outlook, Wabi-sabi and its designers are therefore able to feel right at home with an imperfect or asymmetrical design. After all, since everything fails to last forever, chasing perfection only brings suffering from the unattainable, and concepts only represent a fleeting moment of reality, then why go through all the trouble of perfecting any design in the first place? That’s why the less-is-more approach is highly valued here, too. When you see a canvas, your home, or the environment as being temporary, you’re likelier to go with a simpler design scheme because things will change. They will always change. More insight into this philosophy is gleaned when we look at the translation of the two words that make up this design trend. Wabi used to mean the lonesomeness that a person feels when living in nature and away from society. Today, it means the rustic simplicity one sees with certain manmade objects or things in the natural world. Curiously, wabi also refers to idiosyncrasies and oddities in objects that are put there through the product design process, which increase the uniqueness of said objects. Sabi is more straightforward: it means the beauty or tranquility that arises from an object aging, when the visible signs of its impermanence are more obvious than ever on its exterior. Have a look at some of the attractive Wabi-sabi digital assets featured in our marketplace to see if you can pick out these influences within them. Here, you’ll find everything from graphics and fonts to add-ons, photos and bundles, all for your use in your next design project:

The History of Wabi-Sabi

Its origin lies in Buddhist influences, both philosophical and artistic, that came to Japan from China. Over time, though, Wabi-sabi became a decidedly Japanese way of design and looking at the world. In the 12th century, Buddhist monk Eisai came to Japan from China, bringing with him the Zen Buddhist principles of a hard life: communion with nature, austerity, isolation, and meditation. This discipline was thought to bring enlightenment. Each meditation session was a long practice, so to help fellow monks actually stay awake during meditation, Eisai showed them how to process tea leaves into hot beverages. After his death, however, the tea ceremony in Japan became corrupt with the wealthy turning this humble practice into elaborate and ostentatious displays of richness. Then, slowly but surely, a rebellion against this abuse of the tea ceremony began to take hold, first through tea master Murato Juko, the inventor of the Japanese tea ceremony called the “Way of the Tea” (chanoyu in Japanese), who started using absurdly simple utensils in ceremonies. For example, he would use:
  • Locally made utensils like jars and bowls
  • Unglazed stoneware
  • Simpler Japanese tea-ceremony accessories with the flashier Chinese-made ones for a striking contrast
He was outdone by his successor, Takeno Joo, who incorporated even more mundane, ordinary items into the tea ceremony. Joo would use:
  • Wooden pilgrims’ food bowls
  • Stoneware buckets (typically used to die silk) for water jars
  • Unadorned celadon pottery
This all culminated in his disciple, Sen no Rikyu, completely reforming the tea ceremony in the name of Wabi-sabi. Alive in the 16th century, Rikyu rejected the elaborate and excessive Chinese-made accessories for tea ceremonies that were popular at the time. Instead, he favored the simpler and rustic Japanese-made items for tea ceremonies. In so doing, he developed and popularized Wabi-sabi (though he didn’t invent it because the concept was already in existence) by bringing it into this hugely important Japanese ceremony. His tea ceremony was based on the use of extremely minimalist utensils and environments; because this was a radical departure from the norm, it was revolutionary when he did it. Rikyu’s tea ceremony consisted of the following:
  • Bamboo utensils, vases, and baskets
  • Common bowls created by Japanese craftsmen
  • Very small tea huts based on farmer’s huts with thatched roofs, mud walls, and naturally shaped wood elements
  • Low entryways for the huts that forced guests to bow, thereby forcing them to practice humility
Rikyu’s approach to the tea ceremony is a metaphor for what Wabi-sabi truly is: a reaction to or even rejection of the lavish excesses of rich materials and ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation. You want a modern-day example that serves as an ideal analogy to this? It’s almost like Apple’s rejection of the excesses of skeuomorphism a few years ago and their  embrace of everything flat design. From this seminal point, this design style took off in Japan. Even the Japanese nobility, with all their wealth and power, began to comprehend the concept of emptiness and honor imperfection in their quest for eventual enlightenment. This design trend was actually born out of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony, simply because its philosophy of minimalism gave Japanese designers a solid foundation and inspiration to incorporate this message into many other applications. Now that you understand the philosophy and roots of Wabi-sabi, let’s look at its traits.

The Characteristics of Wabi-Sabi Design

If you had to choose a phrase to sum up this design style in a nutshell, it would be flawed beauty. Whether it’s that perfect model with a scar on her face or that otherwise fine vase with a crack in it, it’s all about celebrating imperfection. You know you’re looking at a Wabi-sabi design if you see:
  • Roughhewn finishes (not merely unpolished, but those which recall almost a rural and countryside aesthetic)
  • Simplicity and minimalism
  • Asymmetry
  • Imbalance
  • Plain, neutral, and earthy colors (anything that’s not vibrant)
  • Unsophisticated textures
  • Chipped or nicked exteriors (for housewares like bowls and utensils)
  • Natural or organic influences
  • Disharmony
The trick with this school of design is being able to study and appreciate the aesthetic long enough to really pick out the discordant elements that contribute to its overall beauty. That may be challenging, however, if you’re used to the flashiness of design excesses like skeuomorphism.

Examples of Wabi-Sabi

Here are some fundamental examples of Wabi-sabi, so you can appreciate this design style across a number of different applications.

Graphic Design

Natural and organic influences are huge in Wabi-sabi. This includes anything from wood, leaves, flowers and related flora to elements that exhibit the wear and tear of time and nature, like rock, sand, dirt, and gravel. Wabi-sabi graphic design can take the shape and form of using wood for corporate branding, as Japanese-inspired steakhouse Fat Cow has done. It uses the wood theme as its primary communication medium for menus and business cards, which includes everything from the fine, grainy textures of this material to its rustic and earthy color. Packaging design, too, can pop out at the observer with subtle beauty when done up in this style. How a brand designs its packaging is a form of communication that should advance the brand in the eyes of the consumer. Japanese skincare line warew (appropriately translated to “Japanese style”) uses:
  • Copious white space to enhance minimalism
  • Neutral colors like white for a plainer look
  • Austerity in design (an absence of design elements aside from two colors and a small, hand-mirror logo)
Because of this brand’s strikingly simple and unadorned design, it makes for quite the refreshing impression on consumers who are inundated with design excess. Another area where graphic design makes an impact is with invitations since they have to convey the right tone and feel to get people to respond. An invitation with a Wabi-sabi feel is just the right ticket to get guests to attend an important event with enthusiasm. Check out this invitation—cleverly offered as a gift box—to the Pavilia Hill Party, a luxurious Hong Kong residence. Not only is the exterior design simplistic with a white background and a whispy, script font, but the inside features nature themes in the form of flowers and an additional surprise: the story of tea master Sen no Rikyu, to give anyone who receives the invitation an unexpected crash course in Wabi-sabi.

Web Design

Infusing Wabi-sabi into web design is a bold move because it’s unchartered territory for so many brands. Many, especially in the west, are simply unfamiliar with this Japanese style, though they may unknowingly incorporate elements of it into their web branding due to its overlap with other design styles like Hygge graphic design, which features a lot of nature themes, too. One standout example of this Japanese style in web design is the aforementioned Fat Cow steakhouse—its branding, even on the web, is consistently wabi-inspired. From the homepage, you immediately see the organic/natural theme of wood, displayed both in color and texture. From there, once you navigate to its About page, you notice more of the austerity, neutral colors, and rustic style of Wabi-sabi in its:
  • Logos
  • Navigation menu
  • Significant emptiness in the background (read: negative space)
New York City’s Bessou Restaurant is another eatery that takes advantage of this design style to great effect. Once you land on the homepage, you’re reminded straightaway of the rough and asymmetrical design so common to Wabi-sabi. The curvy geometric shapes are almost reminiscent of Japanese pottery that’s handcrafted, unpolished, and imperfect. Once you scroll down the long, one-page design, you also notice the minimalism in the sparse colors and very tiny copy that’s used. Next is Jessica Coifman’s typographic experiment. Jessica is a French graphic designer who came up with Dispersion, an imperfect font arrangement that’s unreadable, but which incorporates the following Wabi-sabi design elements:
  • Emptiness
  • A sense of isolation thanks to the huge background
  • Neutral colors
  • A sense of impermanence due to the idea that the typographical pieces are shifting and would eventually form legible words
Finally, Internet marketing resource Digital Wabi Sabi applies this Japanese philosophy to how it provides its services to its clients. Appropriately, the site itself is designed with this Japanese style’s design principles firmly top of mind. The site layout is sparse—embracing emptiness, you might say—while its mainly sans-serif typography in the headlines and body copy further the minimalist aesthetic. Its neutral and plain color scheme help to round out the wabi aesthetic very convincingly.

Interior Design

This design style started out with product design, as you can see from the tea ceremony example above, so it makes sense to look at Wabi-sabi examples in the home as well. In interiors, that means items such as handcrafted ceramics, gently warped wood, and some wrinkled linen sheets. This school of design is all about organic and natural materials, finely textured fabrics, and shapes that epitomize the environment around us in some ways: curves, waves, jagged edges, etc. Basically, anything that smacks of imperfection. These Wabi-sabi products in the home need to be functional and usable above all else, which makes their design philosophy very similar to the Bauhaus’ aesthetic of “form follows function.” While Wabi-sabi items will look weathered and used, to an extent, but they need to work, first and foremost. Take the example of an old armoire with a drawer missing. Something like this is Wabi-sabi to a tee because it exemplifies the charm, character, and personality that things you’ve used and enjoyed innately have—and now feature that worn-out, imperfect look of this design style. To Wabi-sabi your home, avoid buying retail and from mass-market stores; instead, check out handmade products from artisans — even second-hand stores. This is where you’ll pick up more of those unique pieces that are memorable due to their unpolished finishes. If you’re looking to add a distinct touch of Wabi-sabi to your home, then pick up some Hagi ware, which is traditional Japanese pottery that epitomizes the elements of this approach to design. Pottery, like tea bowls, of this style boast features like:
  • Asymmetrical shapes
  • Wavy or curvy lines
  • Rustic appearances
  • Earth tones
  • Deliberate nicks and chips for that worn and weathered look

Philosophy Meets Design

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Wabi-sabi is its roots in philosophy. It started out as a worldview that was based on the Buddhist values of transience, suffering, and emptiness. Tangibly, this materialized in qualities like simplicity, austerity, roughness, and imperfection. From there, a design movement was born. The thing about this Japanese style is that it’s still relatively unknown and definitely not widely practiced outside of Asia. Its emphasis on simplicity and modesty have been great contributors to that! Consider infusing your next project with a touch of that wabi loneliness or isolation—and then finish it off with a bit of that sabi look of agedness. Your design will stand out in a positive way. For more design inspiration, see our interesting collection of Wabi-sabi digital assets.
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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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