Decorating Guides

Locating the 'Wabi-Sabi' in Midcentury Modern Design

In this series I am analyzing the parallels between contemporary Western style and wabi-sabi, the early Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in things which are imperfect, impermanent and aged. Purists may see that as disloyal to the philosophy’s core, but I am following the advice of Shiho Kanzaki, an esteemed potter and tea master who generously shared his wisdom with me once I was in Japan in 2003.

Kanzaki-san’s beautiful vases, pots and tea bowls, fired in conventional wood-fired anagama kilns, embody wabi-sabi’s very character. However, Westerners in search of wabi-sabi, he told me, should not imitate the Japanese vernacular, because this wouldn’t be authentic. They should seek out their native design constructs that exude simplicity and imperfect beauty, ” he said. When Kanzaki-san visited the United States in the 1980s, he found wabi-sabi in Pennsylvania Dutch barns. My musings have led me to find parallels in fresh, crisp, unadulterated midcentury modern layout.

Watch Part 1 in this series

Ray and Charles Eames emerged in the 1940s with wildly popular furniture which combined Shaker simplicity and innovation with contemporary business. Herman Miller was replicating the Eames’ molded plywood and leather lounge chair, which Charles described as “a distinctive refuge from the strains of modern living,” since 1956. The Eames’ enduring furniture layouts were new air for most Americans who desired a contemporary look but found intense modernism cold and sterile.

CCI Renovations

Charles and Ray Eames gave the wabi-sabi aesthetic a contemporary, industrial spin using newly emerging materials, such as molded plywood and plastic, to create things for everyday use which were both beautiful and affordable. Terence Conran calls for their furniture “intensely human, kind and charming.”

In a 1996 tribute, designer Tibor Kalman said the Eames’ omnipresent, unpretentious molded plywood seat was like a lover. “It could be dwelt, found every day, change and evolve, and slowly reveal its beauty,” he wrote. Craig Hodgetts, who designed a Los Angeles display on Charles and Ray Eames, says exactly what the designers left from the designs — “that the pomposity, hierarchy and stodginess associated with ‘significant’ material”– is just as critical as what they put into them.

The Eames’ Pacific Palisades home (shown here), one of the Art & Architecture magazine–sponsored Case Study homes constructed from the late 1940s, demonstrates the liberty which could be located in straightforward, unpretentious layout — a contemporary spin on the wabi-sabi idea.

Constructed with the exact same simple, clean lines as their furniture, the Eames’ open-plan home is contemporary yet human, using a Japanese influence which includes vertical-louvered dividers, tatami mats and Isamu Noguchi paper lanterns. It’s a humble, fleeting quality, using a large, unbroken place where things the couple gathered — driftwood, sculptures, mobiles, plants — can be brought into or removed.

The living area was home to a continually changing collage of wabi-sabi things: Indian embroideries, Mexican clay dolls, ceramic bowls, antique toys ( which they collected as fine examples of layout principles) and dried desert weeds — all handled with equal regard.

Amy Lau Design

In the 1960s the crisp, understated (Shaker-like) Danish furniture made by Hans Wegner (whose seat is shown here), Børge Mogensen and Arne Jacobsen delighted the design world. Danish contemporary furniture, completed only using a sandpaper rubdown or linseed oil and embellished sparingly with organic materials like leather, linen and cotton, was a wabi-sabi counterpoint within an environment cluttered with all the new plastics and vinyls. A softer, more human minimalism was born.

Amy Lau Design

In the 1940s Knoll furniture business began distributing Pennsylvania craftsman George Nakashima’s polished cherrywood tables and softly geometric chairs.

Nakashima’s furniture (like the side table and chair shown here) was museum caliber, but he refused to treat it as precious. “A certain amount of scratching and denting adds personality to a bit,” Nakashima composed in The Soul of a Tree. “In the trade, surface marring is known as painful; in our family it is ‘Kevinizing,’ following our son who could, if young, ‘antique’ furniture in record time. To me, there is not anything quite so uninteresting as a glowing, perfectly smooth surface which seems like it’s never been used.”

Nakashima’s daughter, Mira, explained how wabi-sabi influenced him (and continues to guide the work of his studio following his passing) in a recent interview. “We rely entirely on the organic shapes and colors of the wood to inspire and decide the course of the job, and never use artificial colors or shiny finishes,” she said.

Back in 1960 House Beautiful magazine released among its most well-known topics of all time, focusing on wabi-sabi’s close cousin, a spare, controlled style called shibui. Shibui is the ancient Japanese art of not too much, of quiet elegance throughout economy of means.

The early Japanese written character for shibui known as water blockage, a sign of restraint. Shibui colors are subdued (black, black slate, dark brown and moss green), and shibuimono (“shibui items”) have a nonmechanistic, timeless beauty, according to their own presence that they are more than just pretty.

Meshing perfectly with the age’s spare, contemporary style, shibui had its second in the post–World War II United States. Baker developed a furniture line, Shumacher promoted shibui fabrics and Martin Seymour known as its line of muted, elegant paints shibui. Erwin Lambeth Company constructed the Shibui House, with burlap-covered walls, a fireplace textured with sandpaper and Danish modern furniture. “Shibui has no bounds,” said Erwin Lambeth president Kay Lambeth. “It is the unrestrained, the unobvious, the tasteful in any culture — and we have borrowed ideas from the whole world.”

To help Americans understand shibui, House Beautiful created this list of shibui items in 1960:

• 18th-century captain’s chests
• Historical American cabinets, blanket chests and trestle tables
• Oaxacan black clay jars
• Shaker furniture
• Danish furniture
• 18th-century pewter
• Salt-glazed pottery

Next up: How the Slow Design movement embraces wabi-sabi ideals.

More: Why We Love Midcentury Modern Design

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