In his prime, the late Leonard Cohen used to sing to audiences of thousands, “There is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.” The idea of finding beauty in imperfection is not merely an aesthetic principle, but a way of seeing the world, a philosophy to guide you. It's also what's embodied by the ancient Japanese concept "wabi-sabi" (侘寂), rooted in Zen Buddhism, which has emerged as in recent years as a guiding light for people of all cultures.
As with many words in other languages, wabi-sabi is difficult to translate exactly into English—which is probably part of its intrigue and appeal. "It's about finding the beauty in imperfection and experiencing an awareness of the transience of things," said Food52 contributor and Japanese artist Mika Horie in her essay about wabi-sabi last month.
This might sound a little daunting, which is why it’s wise to begin the wabi-sabi on the outside and let it make its way in. A wabi-sabi home usually gives a sense of austerity and calm—so if that's what you're after, here are a few tips for applying it to your space.
1. Prioritize the use of natural materials
Implementing wabi-sabi means letting materials be the star of the show—not only in furnishings, but also the walls, tile, floors, windows, and ceilings. If you’re in a position to dictate these materials, always go for the real deal made by Mother Nature. There are quite a bit of faux stones and faux woods on the market these days that, admittedly, look pretty real at a much lower price. But they'll age about as gracefully as a Real Housewife (note: Real Housewife very different from a real housewife).
On the other hand, wabi-sabi is certainly not about buying the flashiest items on the market—it’s about respecting natural processes above the man-made, no matter the price of either. As interior designer Miles Redd puts it, “Buy the best, and you only cry once.”
2. Embrace a little imperfection
The crack is how the light gets in.
This is the crux of wabi-sabi—it's more than accepting imperfection as a necessary evil. It's about viewing imperfection as a positive, inherent aspect of beauty.
This is why buying vintage and artisan-made items will always bring about a bit of wabi-sabi, as they’re inherently worn—or inclined to gracefully show wear—through personal use. All items are transient; they never begin and end with us. A piece might have started as clay in the hands of a potter, or as piece of furniture in someone’s childhood home.
In terms of items in the home, you can’t think of wabi-sabi without bringing up the beauty of Japanese pottery. The undulating, asymmetrical, and sometimes rough surfaces of these pieces remind the user of how they were made and why it matters with each and every use. The philosophy influences the pottery and the pottery influences the philosophy.
3. Give yourself a break.
The goal of all this is to allow the beauty in these external surroundings to make their way into your life and mindset. Consider yourself a work in progress who will never reach perfection—and shouldn’t try to. In fact, focusing on perfection as the end goal will only ensure that you don’t find it, so you might as well give up the quest to free yourself up for the things that matter.
Author Taro Gold writes that “wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Including you.
The world needs you to be authentically you. Accepting yourself and your life the way they are will only inspire more people to do the same. And as a fringe benefit, you can feel perfectly justified in adding some really beautiful dishware to your kitchen cabinet.
What are your favorite guiding principles when arranging and designing your home? Tell us in the comments.