On Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, released last month. (Today, because of technical difficulties, I'm making it Wabi Thursday.)
“A luxurious house and the taste of delicacies are only pleasures of the mundane world. It is enough if the house does not leak and the food keeps hunger away. This is the teaching of the Buddha—the true meaning of Tea.”—Tea Master Sen no Rikyu
In wabi-sabi conversations, this word authentic pops up. Everyone, from authenticity snobs who like certificates to Eastern religion seekers who hold authenticity in a completely different realm, has a different idea about what it means. For the purpose of this conversation, I’m defining an authentic wabi-sabi home as one that feels right, without pretense or compromise.
Homemakers in the Depression era knew wabi-sabi (even if they never uttered the phrase). In their homes, things were patched and mended but scrubbed and clean, handmade or chosen and paid for with care. Their linens may have been thin from many washings, but they were crisply white from lemon-juice treatments. Floors may have shown the wear of many feet, but they were swept clean and warmed up with a rug that had faded gracefully from brilliant red to pale rose. Wood had scratches, but it was polished to show off its grain. For those indoctrinated to believe that anything less than perfect should be replaced, our ancestors’ hands-on frugality is enlightening—welcome respite in our prosperous age of planned obsolescence.
Madeleine Cenac’s Louisiana kitchen is welcoming and wabi-sabi. Photo by Philip Gould
In a wabi-sabi home, possessions are pared down, and pared down again, to those that are necessary for their utility or beauty (ideally, both). What makes the cut? Useful things: the hand-crank eggbeaters from the flea market that work as well and with much less hassle than electric ones. Things that resonate with the spirit of their makers’ hands and hearts: a handmade chair, a six-year-old’s lumpy pottery, a lumpy sheep’s wool afghan. Pieces of history: sepia-toned ancestral photos, baby shoes, a set of dog-eared Nancy Drew mysteries.
Wabi-sabi interiors are muted, dimly lit and shadowy—giving the rooms an enveloping, womblike feeling—with natural materials that are vulnerable to weathering, warping, shrinking, cracking, and peeling. The wabi-sabi palette, limited to browns, blacks, grays, earthy greens and rusts, implies a lack of freedom but actually offers the ultimate creative opportunity. In Japan, kimonos come in 100 shades of gray.
Eighteenth-century painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin captured wabi-sabi light, color and mood in his domestic still life paintings.