Wabi Sabi – Beauty in Imperfection
When we operated our Darling Harbour shop we naturally had customers from all over the world and observed that Japanese customers would consistently choose the pepper mill with the knot in it, or the salad servers with the splash of light sapwood on the edge, in other words the ‘imperfect’ piece that other customers would pass over. Except to them, it was not imperfect but embodied the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi which is also why they frequently went for the rough Ironbark coasters and the burl bowls with their random figuring, cracks and holes.
The Japanese concept of wabi sabi is a fascinating one that has particular resonance with the world of hand crafted objects and most definitely includes anything made of wood which is rarely consistent and full of natural imperfections and quirks.
Wabi sabi is the Japanese aesthetic of finding beauty in imperfection, in the transient nature of life from growth to decay to death. It values above all authenticity – to quote Richard Powell “wabi sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging 3 simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” The wrinkles of a lived in face, the cracks and crevices in buildings that time and weather have left, the frayed edges of an old but loved garment, the groove worn in old steps are all examples of wabi sabi. In Japan, a ceramic bowl which is cracked will have the crack painted in gold to revere the imperfection rather than try to hide it or throw it away. The crack makes the bowl more interesting and gives it greater meditative value.
Other characteristics of wabi sabi include asymmetry and roughness or irregularities which are a common occurrence when working with wood. A creamy piece of Huon Pine may have dark sap inclusions running through it or an ancient Redgum bowl will have fissures and cracks in the ancient timber. The Ironbark coasters are so appealing because of the rough, irregular bark and the asymmetry of the branch from which they are cut - there are no perfect circles. Wood inherently is not uniform in either colour or texture – the colours change from the paler heartwood to the darker sapwood as do the grain and texture.
In a world of man-made materials which tend to be uniform in all respects we can lose the appreciation of natural materials, like wood and stone with their eccentricities and quirks. As long as the function of an item is not compromised, perhaps we should embrace the knot, the sap inclusion, the chink in the rim of the bowl, enjoy it and open up to the wabi sabi aesthetic.