If you've been noticing an uptick in spaces with a wabi-sabi aesthetic lately, you're not imagining it—it's absolutely having a moment. Though the technically untranslatable term has been compared to other far-flung vocab favorites like Hygge, it's both more explicitly aesthetic and more philosophical than its Nordic counterpart—which may be part of why it's so tough to define or pin down.
"Wabi-sabi is having a moment right now because 2020 has been a year filled with unprecedented challenges," explains Shanty Wijaya of ALLPRACE Properties. "We're now spending much more time at home and becoming increasingly aware that change is the only constant in life. The wabi-sabi principle and design style help us instill a sense of peace and calm in our anxious minds during a challenging year, and it teaches us to find beauty in imperfection, form a deep connection to nature, and enjoy the simple pleasures in life."
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term that can be translated to mean "flawed beauty" or "the perfection in imperfection." It often refers to the beauty found in nature which is organic, asymmetrical, or otherwise "imperfect" but still aesthetically pleasing. Though it's tricky to pin down a strict definition, the general philosophy has been taken in recent years to describe an aesthetic that emphasizes nature, the incomplete or impermanent, and a "slow living" approach.
As Wijaya is quick to note, this term is about more than just looks—but it does have a general visual style that often accompanies it.
"Wabi-sabi is not just purely an aesthetic, but it's also a way of life," she says. "Wabi-sabi is all about recognizing, accepting, and embracing life's imperfections and opting for simplicity and authenticity as a conscious choice." After recently redoing her entire home in a wabi-sabi style—an aesthetic she also refers to as "Japandi," a combination of Japanese and Scandinavian influences—Wijaya is something of an expert on achieving the delicate balance that wabi-sabi implies. Read on for her tips on how to get the style yourself, and how to know it when you see it.
Meet the Expert
Shanty Wijaya, the renowned multi-hyphenate behind ALLPRACE Properties, heads up boutique real estate renos and development in California, spanning everything from architecture to design to landscaping.
"An uncluttered, 'Zen' space is a must-have for wabi-sabi style," says Wijaya. Not only does a pared-back living area channel the sort of calm reflection wabi-sabi is meant to attain, but it helps the things you do really shine in their uncrowded environs—so you can appreciate them (in all their imperfections) fully.
Use Natural Materials
The best things in life get better with age—and they get more "perfectly imperfect", too.
"Use materials that can develop a natural patina over time," Wijaya says. "For example—wood, natural stones, and 'living' finish metals can all show signs of aging beautifully while adding character to the home."
This texture and patina are impossible to predict, so it feels uniquely flawed (in a good way)—but it can also be a meditative reflection on your habits and lifestyle, like with the worn leather of a seat cushion.
Nurture a Neutral Palette
Unsurprisingly, neutrals are a key element of wabi-sabi—and of course, they pair beautifully with the natural textures you're likely to find in a home of this style.
You can create variation by using different shades of these materials, as Wijaya did: "We used lots of different stained colored wood in this house: Accoya, white oak (quarter sawn, rift sawn white oak) and pine." (It's also sometimes easier to appreciate the unique character and texture of pieces when they're in a restrained color palette, just FYI.)
Wabi-sabi stems from an appreciation of nature, so it's only natural to make organic life a centerpiece of your space, inside and out. Around the interior, houseplants and artfully arranged flowers (see another Japanese term, Ikebana, for inspiration) are the perfect way to channel wabi-sabi.
"Bring nature inside by having lots of oversized windows with beautiful views of your garden, and incorporate hanging plants and greenery inside the house as well," Wijaya suggests. Externally, opt for organic shapes over super-manicured lawns—the way the mosses on this footpath are designed to grow around the stone naturally is a perfect example (and nothing short of genius).
What does a design aesthetic that emphasizes and prioritizes self-care look like? This might just be it.
"I love this design style because it truly supports a healthy, meaningful, lifestyle," says Wijaya. "It teaches us to find beauty in imperfection and form a deep connection to nature while enjoying the simple pleasures of life."
Those pleasures could be soaking in a hot tub, gazing out the window, or even cooking—so let your own interests and the ways you envision your best life guide you. (But any design that lets you spend more time outside is probably a smart start.)
Cultivate A Sense of History
"When implementing wabi-sabi style, originality is key," Wijaya says. "Opt for handmade, vintage, bespoke, or reclaimed pieces when decorating, rather than mass-produced items. For example, for this kitchen's countertops, we repurposed beautiful rough-hewn reclaimed solid French oak doors that were refinished with a dark stain. The countertop has imperfections that speak to the age of the wood and creates depth and interest. The wood will continue to change over time as it interacts with its environment and will age beautifully."
Result: one-of-a-kind style that deepens as it ages.
Create Clean Lines
To embrace the airy aesthetic of wabi-sabi, it's not enough to go clutter-free—but open sightlines and clean design lines can definitely help you get the look. Clean, minimalist design is something both influences in Wijaya's "Japandi" style can appreciate since, in fact, clean lines are a calling card of both Scandinavian and Japanese furnishings.
"Both Japanese and Scandinavian design aesthetics focus on simplicity, natural elements, comfort, and sustainability. Incorporate clean lines, an abundance of natural light, and ventilation into your design," she says, to help bring wabi-sabi style to life in your space.
Keep A Low Profile
Scale is usually a secondary consideration when it comes to design styles, but wabi-sabi does seem to be most at home with low-profile, slight furniture pieces that complement an "East meets West" mentality.
"Get down to earth by choosing simple and low profile pieces of furniture in natural, muted, and earthy colors," Wijaya advises. Low-to-the-ground pieces can also help give off the effect of added "breathing room" in high-ceilinged spaces, which can feel very soothing.