Wabi-Sabi is a very complex design philosophy. It is an aesthetic style, it is a way of life, and it is both journey and destination. While it is the most definitive form of the Japanese design aesthetic and philosophy, there is no way to define it. By defining it, the essence of Wabi-Sabi is lost, and one can only gesticulate at what it is through metaphors and similes. This is not surprising, considering how Wabi-Sabi is based off Buddhist principles. In particular, they are based off the principle of the “Three Marks of Existence”, that is, impermanence, non-self and suffering. While I would like to delve into that, I feel that it would take up a whole article on its own just to explain what these principles are and stand for.
“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”. quotes Princess Leia of Star Wars, and that is exactly what is means to define Wabi-Sabi.
As mentioned, Wabi-Sabi can be described with metaphors, and through these metaphors, one can realise how vastly complex Wabi-Sabi is. In Leonard Koren’s book, “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.”, there are very interesting comparisons drawn against Modernism, which while stylistically, similar, is vastly different.
Wabi-Sabi, like Modernism, applies to all man-made things and they are both minimalist and abstract. Both Modernism and Wabi-Sabi are easily identifiable, with Modernism being clean and perfect, while Wabi-Sabi being uneven and imperfect. Both, however, are minimal and simple. Their differences, however, sets them worlds apart. If Modernism is a logical worldview, then Wabi-Sabi is about an intuitive worldview.
Wabi-Sabi can be likened to a clay bowl. Open, unfinished and with the content being more important than the vessel, Wabi-Sabi embraces what is is to be, rather than defining what is is to be. It is the hut in the forest that is in harmony with nature, it is the wind in the trees, the clouds in the sky, life itself is Wabi-Sabi.