I landed at Kate NaDeau’s sweet, rustic stone house on a hillside near Belfast, Me., while scouting houses and gardens to feature in Natural Home magazine. I found Kate’s place utterly charming. Appointed with cozy, flea-market furniture and beautiful dumpster finds, it had a comfortable feeling that made me relax almost instantly. The wooden dining chairs didn’t match, and a wine-colored armchair near the woodstove had seen better days. I wanted to sit down and spend the rest of the afternoon in the sunlight at the kitchen table, helping Kate snap beans. I loved her casual, frugal decorating style; nothing was new and everything had a story and a reason for being in her home. I asked about a rusty grate hanging on the wall.
“Oh, that,” she said. “That is so wabi-sabi.”
“Wobby what?” I asked.
As I delved more deeply, I learned that wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay and death. Wabi stems from the root wa, which means harmony, peace, tranquility and balance. Sabi means “the bloom of time.” It connotes natural progression — tarnish, patina, rust. Daisetz T. Suzuki, a Japanese scholar and early interpreter of Japanese culture for Westerners, sees wabi-sabi as a celebration of the freedom that comes from shedding the weight of attachments and material concerns.
“Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut . . . like the log cabin of Thoreau,” Suzuki wrote, “with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.”
As far as home décor is concerned, wabi-sabi isn’t a “look,” like French country or shabby chic. It’s a lens that appreciates the passing of time. It’s a philosophy that offers a path toward home-as-sanctuary, a simple place devoid of clutter and distraction.
A room containing gently used furniture, receptive surfaces and personality-filled objects is much more welcoming than a hyper-designed room full of high-style stuff, super-pristine finishes, or items so precious and fragile they provoke anxiety.
The good news is that creating a wabi-sabi space is primarily an exercise in simplicity. Here are key elements and principles that can help you bring more wabi-sabi tranquility to your home.
In a wabi-sabi home, space and light are the most desirable ornaments. Clutter smudges clarity, both physically and metaphorically. In homes rife with gadgets (even if all of them work) and tchotchkes (even if all of them are beautiful), there simply isn’t much visual peace. The wabi-sabi room doesn’t have to be monkish, without ornament or whimsy, but it shouldn’t be suffused with extraneous details. Things you’re holding on to because they were expensive, because they were gifts from your mother-in-law, or because you might need them some day are all just getting in your way.
Resist the urge to fill every space in a room, and eliminate any items (footstools, plant stands, spare chairs) that aren’t crucial to its comfort.
Collections of wabi-sabi possessions are continually pared down to those that earn their space through their exceptional utility and beauty. What makes the cut?
1) Useful things: the hand-crank eggbeaters that work as well and with less hassle than electric ones.
2) Things with emotional resonance: a quirky handmade chair, a nubbly wool afghan.
3) Quality things, built to last: “If we use carefully made, high-quality objects in our daily lives, our lives become a sort of training,” says Gary Cadwallader, who teaches at a university in Kyoto. “We come to use each tool with care and consideration.” Invest in the best quality you can afford for daily-use objects. A good tea kettle, for example, will start the day right for years to come.
If you’re not ready to get rid of family heirlooms and art that you don’t have space to display, follow the ancient Japanese practice of rotating precious items through a special alcove, or tokonoma, on a seasonal basis.
Assuming you have the storage space, rotating knickknacks through storage is much less painful than selling or giving them away.
Try to connect the items you bring out of storage to the season — get out your grandmother’s milk-glass vase for spring flowers, and group candlesticks to bring in welcome light in winter.
Putting things away for a while makes them feel new when you pull them out again. And it allows you to focus on just a few special things at a time, rather than bombarding your senses with more than they can fully appreciate.
Our homes should be a refuge, a place where we can hear our inner voice. That can be tough over the refrigerator’s humming, the washing machine’s thunking, the next-door neighbor’s stereo, or your own teenager’s video games.
You can minimize noise by making sure that at least 25 percent of every room contains some absorbent material such as drapes, book-filled bookcases, upholstered furnishings or rugs.
If your home is particularly loud — especially in the bedroom, home office or meditation space — bring in a white-noise generator. Small enough to fit into your palm, these devices produce gentle rushing sounds that help mask traffic noise and voices.
Wabi-sabi isn’t slovenly. Cleanliness shows respect to our visitors — and our selves.
Keeping surfaces free of dust and debris lends a sense of calm and order to your space.
That said, it’s best to define housekeeping success on a continuum. A little dust will hurt no one. Real people don’t live in the houses you see in magazines. Real people might leave some mail in the entry or let the flowers go a little too long, if they have them at all. And homes with real people in them are by far the most inviting.
Next time you arrive home to an unkempt house, try this: Put the dishes in the sink to soak and throw a blanket over the dog hair on the sofa. Then light two or three candles where their light pools only on an empty space. Relax. Nothing looks bad by candlelight.