The Beauty of Impermanence


Are you familiar with the Japanese aesthetic ideal called Wabi Sabi? A simplified translation would be: Wabi - seeing beyond the mere physical and Sabi - the beauty of the natural progression of time.


Wabi Sabi is best understood in terms of the Zen philosophy that has nurtured and shaped its development. With a focus on the subtleties of objects in the natural world, stressing the importance of space or nothingness, Wabi Sabipromotes an alternative approach to both beauty and life itself. 


Design is often better defined by what is left out than by what is put in.


This approach to design is very different from that of western culture. While the Wabi Sabi ideal could be represented by a simple worn jacket in creased linen with a surface of uneven threads, our western ideals are often expressed by lots of details on a perfectly smooth, maybe even shiny fabric. 


Unlike Hellenic-inspired ideals of beauty, Wabi Sabi has nothing to do with grandeur or symmetry. Instead it requires that one observe, with utmost attention, the details and nuances. 


Wabi sabi is the understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect or even decayed.


The humble and subtle beauty of a Japanese garden, with its careful arrangement of stones, water and trees, brings a calm atmosphere. The observer isn’t invited to just sit and enjoy something that looks appealing, but is enticed to contemplate. Famous European garden designs on the other hand, are richly decorated, have a logical structure and are usually big and impressive. 


Christian churches are magnificent, with the glorification of the greatness and omnipotence of God, while the unadorned rusticity of the Japanese tearoom is a restrained expression of the humble and simple. Rather than aim at superficial beauty, its focus is in discovering the truth that runs beyond our day-to-day perceptions.


Beautiful women on the covers of western magazines are young, with flawless skin, tight muscles, narrow waists, big lips and breasts… all according to prevailing ideals. A beautiful woman from the Wabi Sabi perspective is one who is genuine. Age is revered instead of being a disadvantage, since wrinkles and grey hair are a true sign of transient beauty.


Everything in the universe is in flux, coming from or returning from nothing.


Whether we look at a fabric, a garment, a piece of furniture or a human being, time reveals true essence from the Wabi Sabi perspective. The natural wear and tear of the materials used add to the beauty. Whereas western design often uses inorganic materials to defy the natural aging process, Wabi Sabi embraces them. 


Worn blue jeans are very Wabi Sabi and this is probably why we love them so much. 

All the different nuances of blues in the denim, which gets more beautiful as it wears, the very functional details… They can even be torn with threads hanging out and still be so beautiful. 


In Wabi Sabi there is attention to detail and a desire to keep all aspects of design as simple and well balanced as possible.


There is an enormous difference in these two ways of perceiving beauty. In our culture we add things to build up what we perceive as beauty. We try to fit into the collective molds of beauty, comparing ourselves to others. As we grow older, we are seen as less and less attractive unless we do make-overs to look young. 


From the Wabi Sabi view point, time peals off the outer layers, revealing our true beauty, our essence. 


Wabi Sabi honors the interplay between youth and old age, beauty and ugliness, life and death. It is the rhythm of Nature.


Maybe it’s time to rediscover the intimate beauty of the impermanent and humble. Random patterns left by the flow of Nature, small nuances of color, the curve of an opening petal or the decay of a knot in old timber show us true beauty. Through this way of seeing life, we can also find the innate beauty in ourselves…



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