Designers are turning away from the mass-produced and uniform to embrace the Japanese aesthetic of imperfect beauty
Interior design: the idea of imperfection. The Closet; Hot Buy.
It is an interesting state of affairs when the next wave of design talent takes on an ancient philosophy such as wabi-sabi, which celebrates a connection to nature, the broken, unloved, the coarse and unrefined, but does it in a way that, in some cases, employs the most contemporary of processes. While some of the output is elegant, other pieces are about the fascinating design journey and how a strange, often ungainly, beauty results. They do, in the words of Leonard Koren, illustrate the idea that “beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness”.
The invention of the camera, and the subsequent rise in the accuracy of recording the world in photographic images, saw painting move from realism to the capturing of visual impressions in a more atmospheric form. In the same way, the ability to achieve manufacturing perfection has driven a yearning for something beaten up, irregular or even damaged in our lives. Something with character, heart, a past life or a cleverly invented new one.
The love of objects and art that impart the mark of the maker is nothing new, but it is finding a new intensity and a new platform. Homewares companies that produce hundreds of thousands of items at the press of a button want to partner with makers so that some of the reflected warmth from a handmade cushion (of which there are only 12) or a blanket that takes a week to knit add a layer of the genuine and the heartfelt to commercial product.
There is nothing wrong with this desire to elevate and promote the craftsperson but it does tell us that there is a broad yearning among the buying public for individual items made with creativity and care. As trend forecaster Li Edelkoort notes: “It is time to empower goods with a new dimension, their own character, an invisible energy locked into the design process.”
One approach is to acquire something that has gained its character through use, its dents and scrapes, marks and erosions through the effects of
‘Things wabi-sabi often appear odd, misshapen, awkward, or what many people would consider ugly. Things wabi-sabi may exhibit the effects of accident, like a bowl glued back together again’ LEONARD KOREN WABI-SABI FOR ARTISTS, DESIGNERS, POETS & PHILOSOPHERS
accident indicating it has led a useful life. There is sensory pleasure in the much-handled spoon, the bowl with a mend, the worn timber stool or door handle. Australian architect Richard Leplastrier, who has a strong appreciation of the Japanese aesthetic, once said that a house is not at its best when first occupied, but only attains its optimal beauty when it is used with love.
Even at a more prosaic level, a good interior designer knows that the introduction of the worn leather chair, the vintage light and the indigo throw with visible mends adds kudos to the newly minted, no matter how expensive. Hence, alongside the bespoke and one-off craft pieces, a number of designers are experimenting with in-built imperfection as the central design driver.
In 2009, Dutch designer Maarten Baas launched his Standard Unique chair for Established & Sons, with the explanation firmly embedded in its name. Taking the form of a classic Dutch kitchen chair in timber, he created 16 variable parts that can be configured in an infinite variety of ways. The chairs have a wonky character that is both consistent and playful, and combines the feeling of hand-sculpted timber with the accuracy of something mass-produced.
Another piece, which goes one step further in defying repetition, is the Well Proven Chair (2012) by James Shaw and Marjan van Aubel. Experimen- tation with waste timber wood shavings and soya bio-resin produces an unpredictable alchemy, and the mixture, applied to a simple mould, expands and hardens overnight.
In this example (pictured opposite page), the addition of dust from walnut timber and graphite from Stromboli ensures the result is both miraculous and strange. Legs remain untouched as the back of the chair is densely coated in a lightweight material of volcanic appearance, which is at once mesmerising and a little unsettling.
Another maker, Adam Zelezny, produces his ceramic range, Blast, through the shock wave of a controlled detonation, which ultimately determines the shape of the bowls. “It is a kind of punk analogy to an industrial porcelain production,” he says.
Mood is a theme that recurs among the subjects in my book Perfect Imperfect, not only in the play of light but also in the use of colour. Australian retailer and interior designer Sibella Court talks about her palette embracing murky, muddy and even dirty colours, and Martyn Thompson’s craft with fabric is all about the proximity of “close” but not the same colours creating a subtle depth and visual richness.
Densely displayed collections of intriguing objet trouve in the Montauk weekender of American interior designers Roman and Williams demand we look more closely, simply because everything is not clearly and declaratively illuminated.
True to the spirit of wabi-sabi, it is often the unpretentious branch of leaves, with its simple expression of form and singular colour, that has the ability to evoke more emotion than a fanciful bloom. When paired with ceramics with an irregular shape, a dulled surface or an offkilter design, in muted neutral shades, the natural element becomes the galvanising force that gives the setting its energy and movement.
There is a wonderful quote from Andrew Juniper in his book Wabi-Sabi — The Japanese Art of Imper
manence: “Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in modest, rustic, imperfect or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of things.”
And it is this notion of “melancholic beauty” that resonates deeply with the idea of the weathered, patinated and, at its most extreme, the desiccated and yes, even the dead.
The Well Proven Chair by James Shaw and Marjan van Aubel, left; irregular plates by Mr Kitly (mrkitly.com.au), above; the Montauk weekender of US designers Roman and Williams, below
Sibella Court’s display of apparently random objects, top left; Martyn Thompson’s riotous SoHo loft, top right; a collection of John Wardle’s textured finds, above left; beauty in the aged patina of a platter, above