I Love Wabi-sabi

Blackbird Esquivel Hobos - Before

Blackbird Esquivel Hobos - After

I was browsing through OK, one of my favorite home goods stores here in Los Angeles, when I came across a book by Leonard Koren called Wabi-sabi – for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. The book covers the ideas and principes of what wabi-sabi is and isn’t, because it’s such a difficult thing to put into words. In fact, the whole idea of having a book about wabi-sabi is intrinsically anti-wabi-sabi. That said, here’s a rough definition from the book:

Wabi-sabi can be called a “comprehensive” aesthetic system. Its world view, or universe, is self-referential. It provides an integrated approach to the ultimate nature of existence (metaphysics), sacred knowledge (spirituality), emotional well-being (state of mind), behavior (morality), and the look and feel of things (materiality).Th more systematic and clearly defined the components of an aesthetic system are- the more conceptual handles, the more ways it refers back to fundamentals – the more useful it is.

A great example is a wooden spoon you’d use for cooking. Over the years it starts to become worn, the handle takes the shape of your hand, the wood may crack or warp, but it still works like the first time you used it, it’s functionality has not decreased. These ideas speak mostly to the materiality of the spoon, but there’s also the idea of an object not calling out for your attention. Or the idea that it’s flaws make it unique, that there isn’t another spoon out there quite like that one.

I’m not going to pretend like I’m some master at this, but I do really enjoy the principles behind wabi-sabi. These values also creep into the ideas of Super Normal, a concept crafted between Naoto Fukusawa and Jasper Morrison. While I was reading Leonard Koren’s book I was also reading Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary. The idea of the book is that there are objects in the world which go beyond normal, and become super normal, because they are so ubiquitous. For example, if you asked 100 people to draw a bicycle, you’d probably get 100 drawings that were nearly identical. Two wheels, a frame, pedals and a handlebar. The paperclip is another great example. There’s a great interview with Naoto and Jasper at the end of the book which speaks more about this idea as well. It gets a bit heady, and a bit conceptual, but it’s an interesting read nonetheless.

Finally, I came across this great blog called Love and Utilty, and he wrote a great post about wabi-sabi, which includes lots of great images to illustrate the idea. A great example he gives is of my friend Dave, who runs the comic book shop Secret Headquarters here in LA, and his flesh colored Blackbird Esquivel Hobos. He wore them for an entire year, and over time they’ve transformed into an entirely different looking shoe (which you can see above).

If any of this interests you I’d suggest checking out both of those books as well as the Love and Utility post. It’s quite a lofty idea to process, but I find it to be quite worthwhile.


July 11, 2011