I first heard the term “shabby chic” on a popular Internet auction site five years ago and was intrigued by the idea that something a bit old and worn could be a perfect touch to interior décor. Robyn Griggs Lawrence explores a similar concept which dates back to the 14th century and has its origins in Japan as an aesthetic meaning in life. Since imperfections in nature and life are appreciated as part of the natural order, the appreciation of these imperfections helps one to accept that which cannot be under one’s control. Unlike the western world where the concept of humans being able to be perfect and achieving that perfection along with immortality is exhorted as a Judeo-Christian religious doctrine, wabi-sabi’s roots in Zen Buddhism recognizes the finite life span of both animate and inanimate objects, with the latter being a necessary role in one’s life as a reminder that everything must finally pass, and that it is quite normal for something old and worn to have a special artistic value.
Lawrence describes how one can establish wabi-sabi in one’s home through simple decorating tips, simply be removing clutter and placing just one or two objects on a tabletop or shelf. Something like a vase in the Japanese style bearing a muted natural shade of brown or green along with an interesting old utensil nearby is wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi does not mean one has to start dumpster diving although interesting pieces may be found in a junkyard or thrift store with the layout and furniture in the house in mind. Returning back to simplicity in decorating along with the imperfections of life, one can easily eliminate the disease of clutter and materialism in one’s home.
“The Wabi-Sabi House” includes not only simplicity in decorating but also in daily household tasks such as cleaning. In addition to providing natural cleaning supplies such as white vinegar, borax, baking soda, and soda water, Lawrence also mentions how washing the dishes by hand can help one develop the ability to focus, concentrate and meditate. Having all kinds of automatic appliances to do the job, then sitting down on the sofa to spend the rest of the day watching television has no place in a wabi-sabi home. Of course one does not need to eliminate these appliances, as Lawrence says, but spend at least one or two days a week hand washing dishes, or hanging laundry outside to dry, can be good for the soul. Once that work is done, the mind then becomes trained to appreciate the simple beauty of life. Perfectionism is no longer the most important thing, whether it is perfect teeth, perfect husband, perfect job, or perfect children. Humans are not capable of being perfect, and as for those teeth, well, snow-white teeth look unnatural and fake, no matter who those teeth belong to. Lawrence has touched a nerve with the materialistic, cluttered homes of America and has helped provide a means for those who want to live simpler lives and still have beautifully decorated homes at a level they can feel completely comfortable in.
The Wabi-Sabi House, Robyn Griggs Lawrence. New York: Clarkson Potter. 2004. 192 pages.