The translation of wabi is "lonely", in current usage it means: "a taste for the simple and the quiet" and incorporates rustic beauty, such as patterns found in straw, bamboo, clay, or stone. It refers to both that which is made by nature and that which is made by man. Sabi refers to the patina of age, the concept that changes due to use may make an object more beautiful and valuable. This incorporates an appreciation of the cycles of life and careful, artful mending of damage. The person credited with first combining the words wabi and sabi into a phrase is the poet Matsuo Bashō. Bashō is most famous for inventing the haiku poetry form.
Some examples of what can be considered Wabi-Sabi:
Reverence and respect
Nature and nature’s cycles
The incomplete and unideal
Find peace in change
Living in the moment
However, ask a Japanese person about the meaning of the term Wabi-Sabi, and you will probably be met with silence. There is no simple explanation or definition of this phrase, it is just so intimately interwoven with the Japanese culture that it doesn’t have to be explained in words. Westerners tend to associate wabi-sabi with physical characteristics – imperfection, crudeness, an aged and weathered look, etc. Although wabi-sabi may encompass these qualities, these characteristics are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi-sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi-sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it. For that reason, I will not make any more attempts to explain the concept for you. Just look at the pictures, and read some of the texts I’ve linked to at the end of this post, and try to get a feeling for what it means.
As I was reading the latest issue of Swedish Elle Interiör, I finally got the full story of how this philosophy actually got started. The ideas are ancient, but got a bigger breakthrough in the 16th century when Tea Master and monk Sen no Rikyu reformed the Japanese tea ceremony. As a reaction to the current extravagant ideals with exclusive china, he developed a new thought. The tea ceremony was to be an opportunity to withdraw from the world, in simplicity. It was to be performed in a simple hut with a door so small that everyone – high and low – would have to humbly bow to enter. Rikyu prescribed that the tools used should be plain and rustic, and commissioned special tea bowls to be made for the ceremony. These were the origin for the raku glazing method which is usually translated to mean "the joy of leisure time"or "ease".
Here is a short list of some other books and online resources for more info on Wabi-Sabi (some are in Swedish, but just use Google Translate):
Living Wabi-Sabi by Taro Gold
Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
Wabi-Sabi – Den hållbara livsstilen, a short text by Agneta Nyholm Winqvist, author and founder of Nordic School of Feng Shui, with a list of examples of what is Wabi-Sabi and what is not
A text on Wabi-Sabi on the site of online shop Chai Home
Decorating the Wabi-Sabi way on Apartment Therapy
Wabi-Sabi’s simplicity on 37signals.com
A little bit about Wabi-Sabi on wabisabi.ca
Wabi-sabi, Learning to See the Invisible, by Tim Wong, Ph.D. & Akiko Hirano, Ph.D.
What is Wabi-Sabi, by architect Tadao Ando
For photos in the wabi-sabi style, check out the Wabi Sabi Suki Flickr group
I hoped you enjoyed this little lesson about my favourite sense of aesthetics!