What’s Even More Beautiful Than Perfect? Imperfect.

There’s nothing new about Wabi-sabi — it dates from the 12th century.

And it’s not surprising that Leonard Koren has been Wabi-sabi’s representative in the West. Educated as an architect, he founded Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, which was wildly ahead-of-its-time. As was his next incarnation:

In 1992, while living in Japan, I embarked on a project to locate and define the kind of beauty that I felt most deeply attracted to. By “beauty” I meant that complex of exciting, pleasurable sensations ostensibly emanating from things — objects, environments, and even ideas — that make us feel more alive and connected to the world; that urgent feeling we equate with “the good,” “the right” and “the true.”

Instinctively, I was drawn to the beauty of things coarse and unrefined; things rich in raw texture and rough tactility. Often these things are reactive to the effects of weathering and human treatment. I loved the tentative, delicate traces left by the sun, the wind, the heat, and the cold. I was fascinated by the language of rust, tarnish, warping, cracking, shrinkage, scarring, peeling, and other forms of attrition visibly recorded.

I gravitated toward things that reduced the emotional distance between them and me; things that beckoned me to get closer, to touch, to relate with.

I encapsulated my new domain in the phrase “a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

In 1994, Koren published “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” and, in just 88 pages, dealt a massive blow to our ideas about progress, quality and perfection. Koren is more than a writer; he does most of the photography for his books and designs them. In this case, the book is, literally, an example of the ideas it contains. [To buy the paperback of “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” from Amazon, click here.]

You can find the origins of Wabi-sabi in the Japanese tea ceremony. Over the centuries, it became a highly formalized ritual — and an expensive one, with tea served in exquisite cups in rooms decorated with rare art. Then a Zen monk began to mix local utensils with the fine china. Rough against smooth? It was a new concept of beauty.

The beauty of imperfection. Of the ordinary. Of age. Of the small.

In the book, Koren tells the story of a student who wanted to work with a great tea master. His “entrance exam” called for him to clean the tea master’s leaf-strewn garden. “First he raked until the grounds were spotless,” Koren writes. “Then, in a gesture pregnant with Wabi-sabi overtones, he shook the tree trunk, causing a few leaves to fall.” That’s Wabi-sabi. Clean but not too clean.

The implications cascade. Like: Beauty isn’t the result of creation alone, it’s also determined by time. Like: Beauty depends as much on your reaction as it does on the object. Like: It’s easy to overlook Beauty because it’s so often unobtrusive.

I like Wabi-sabi because it’s timeless. And contrarian. And intensely personal [For a New York Times profile of Leonard Koren, click here.] You can’t find Wabi-sabi in a super-polished, nothing-left-to-chance Apple store, but I’ll bet there’s plenty close to home. Or there could be. And who can say what looking closer at things can lead to?


Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing

Gardens of Gravel and Sand

The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty & Tenderness in a Commercial Context

Leonard Koren’s web site.

__Instinctively, I

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