24 July 2010

Summer rerun: Pottery Barn doesn't sell Wabi-Sabi

This post ran originally on 3 December 2008.

So last week those kids over at Apartment Therapy ran a piece hailing the arrival of what they were calling the Wabi Sabi style of decorating. Ugh. Here's the photo they used to illustrate this "new" style.

It looks sterile and affectedly rustic, sort of a pared down Scabby Chic. There's nothing Wabi Sabi about those photos.

So what's Wabi Sabi? Wabi Sabi is a Japanese philosophy, it's not a style. It's purposefully un-chic and anti-trendy. Wabi Sabi is a uniquely Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature. It accepts and appreciates the natural cycles of growth, decay and death. It's simple, slow, uncluttered and it reveres authenticity above all else. And THAT is not for sale in a catalog or at the mall.

Now that Feng Shui has run its course as an Asian idea that could be appropriated to sell candles and knick knacks, I suppose the tastemakers out there are hunting for a new one to take its place. Not so fast I say. Feng Shui, while it was an aesthetic school of thought, was also an animist belief system. Embracing Feng Shui makes sense to me if you are ethnically Chinese, but if it's not your culture then it's a pose --you'll always be an outsider looking in. Sorry.

Wabi Sabi presents a similar problem but even more so. Wabi Sabi is an outgrowth of Zen Buddhism and carries with it all of the cultural trappings of Japan. I find a lot about Japanese culture that's fascinating and worth looking at more closely. Reading about Zen, or Wabi Sabi for that matter is interesting because like a lot of Eastern Thought, it runs in diametric opposition to the ideas that undergird the West. I can read about it, I can think about it, I can bring parts of it into my life, but it can never be fully mine. 

I love how Japanese pottery looks. Its rustic and imperfect finishes are an exercise in studied imperfection. I'm fascinated by it and when I look at a Japanese tea set I can appreciate its beauty. But I'll never fully grasp the cultural history behind it so I let it be an interesting and beautiful piece of pottery and leave it at that.

In many parts of the world, things that are American are cool. And sorry George Bush, it's not because they envy our "freedom." What they envy is the sophistication all things American represent. They may hate our bullying foreign policy, but they admire our pop culture. If you ever find yourself in a non-English speaking part of the world, pay attention to the T-shirts people wear. 

I remember spending a couple of days poking around in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica some years ago. At one point, I was sitting alone in a cafe and watching Costa Rica reveal itself to me. The woman who waited on me was a Russian transplant who spoke Russian-accented Spanish which was wild. I'd never heard Spanish spoken quite the way she spoke it. Through a combination of my American-accented Spanish and her Russian version of it, we could understand one another. I wanted to hear how on earth she ended up in Puerto Limon, but she wasn't interested in talking about Russia or Costa Rica for that matter. It was kind of odd, but I'm flexible, I'd survive if I didn't hear her story. However, what I couldn't help but to notice was that she was wearing a T-shirt that read "Blonde Cool Bitch in Hollywood!" Now this woman didn't speak English and probably didn't know what her T-shirt said. But her point wasn't to have it make sense. Her point wasn't to call herself a blond bitch. The point she was trying to make was that she was westernized and sophisticated. But it was a pose. 

No sophisticated westerner would be caught dead in something like that. The story of a Russian woman who emigrates to Costa Rica and waits on tables must be fascinating. I kept trying to pry it out of her, but she kept discounting her own experiences and instead wanted to talk about American TV shows. I gave up eventually. Adopting the cultural trappings of a culture you don't understand doesn't make any sense to me and it seems like a waste of energy. You also end up being a poseur, and that's never a good thing.

What's the point of all of this? Well the point is that finding an $1800 table with a distressed finish isn't Wabi Sabi despite what you may read in a magazine.

Try this if you want to get closer to the spirit of Wabi Sabi.

Not really, but it's a lot closer to the spirit of Wabi Sabi.

If you want to bring some Wabi Sabi influences into your home and life, running out and buying a bunch of crap isn't the way to do it. Instead, take care of the things you own and let them grow old under your care. The scratched up kitchen table your family's gathered around for 20 years has a story to tell, your story. Common sense and sentimentality will tell you to hold onto it and you should --you don't need an ill-informed decorating trend to tell you that. Should someone tell you that your old table is Wabi Sabi, you have my permission to call them a "Blonde Cool Bitch in Hollywood!"


  1. As brilliantly written and dead on as the first time it was posted!!! Thank you!!!!!

  2. So you can't buy Wabi Sabi, is that what you're saying?

  3. Vickie: Thanks!

    Becky: Exactly!

  4. When I moved to Japan didn't take me long to figure out that no matter what I did, never, under any circumstances, would I ever fit in. As much as they freaked out and fawned over me in a kimono, I looked like an idiot and I knew it. I accepted that reality from the get-go and it made life there very easy for me, but there are so many Americans and western transplants that delude themselves into thinking they're making inroads and they fancy themselves as "one of the guys". They only succeed in looking sad, pathetic and pitiable. I have a ton of neat souvenirs, but there's no way I'd ever have the audacity to do my house in Japanese style. With every new word I learned in japanese, it gave me a clearer picture of the depth of their culture and made me realize even more how little I really did know. So to see this kind of thing...it just makes me laugh.

  5. I really like you...your writing,it is so sarcastic.Thanks
    Henrietta from Finland

  6. I've been scouting decorating blogs recently and I keep finding people who repaint second-hand furniture, then distress it with rotary sanders. I thought we'd left that fad behind 10 years ago. I have managed to not say anything rude yet.

  7. I like some points you make. catchy and all. but...I think you are simply wrong about the reasons why in many parts of the world american =cool. The Russians have always looked at the west with open mouths(they built St Petersburg to look like Paris and kill thousands at the same time while reinforcing swamps). Americans are extremely good at marketing with its biggest engine located in Hollywod,CA. I remember growing up in Eastern Europe and being brain washed with those movies, foreign magazines, MTV etc. I don't think it is possible to understand how strong this influence is unless you are not an American and experience it on your own. It is mind blowing. And we did not want "freedom", we wanted coke, Mcdonalds, your cars, stereos, levi jeans. I dont want to sound like an ingorant but that is what that Russian girl represents. she does not care about freedom...

  8. Remigiusz: Thanks so much for leaving that comment. Please keep coming back, I'd love to hear more. Where in Eastern Europe did you grow up? Hearing about the Cold War from the other side is a thrill to me.

  9. Paul, it is my pleasure. I enjoyed your article, it is much more honest than most of the stuff you can find.I think it is time to be a bit critical about certain things.
    I was born in Poland, came to US when I was 20.13 years ago.

  10. Vickie, Melody, Henrietta and Chookie: Thanks for the comments. Henrietta, you're new around here. Welcome and please keep coming back!


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