What Is Wabi-Sabi? A Philosophy for Home Decor That Finds Beauty in the Imperfect

| Apr 5, 2018

Wabi-sabi style has nothing to do with high-maintenance decor, those flawless, picture-perfect interiors you see on Instagram and Pinterest. They’re fun to drool over, but keeping that pristine white living room in perfect condition will take a lot of work. So that’s where the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi comes in. It’s a mindset that embraces the art of finding beauty in imperfection.

Simply put, wabi-sabi is an ancient principle that loosely translates to “wisdom in natural simplicity or flawed beauty.” While the concept applies to life in general, it can also be applied to interior design and home decor choices.

The wabi-sabi aesthetic rejects the idea of machined perfection by celebrating natural materials, organic asymmetry, and (gasp!) flaws on furniture and accessories from everyday wear and tear. Think modest interiors that look comfortably lived-in instead of ambitiously styled: linen bedsheets that aren’t perfectly arranged, handmade pottery, and bare brick walls.

The best part of wabi-sabi is that embracing the philosophy at home does not require hours of training. All it takes is a loving appreciation for the authentic things that personalize a home.

Photo by Jute Interior Design

Where does wabi-sabi come from?

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese design tradition born from the tenets of Zen Buddhism.

“Aesthetically it emerged in 15th-century Japan as a reaction against the dominant, aristocratic style of the day, which was heavy on both ornamentation and lavish materials,” says Lindy Williams, an interior architect and co-founder of Westward Foundry, a Seattle-based design firm.

For example, the wabi-sabi mindset helped to transform the Japanese tea ceremony from an elitist pastime to a modest sharing experience. Tea service items once made of precious materials fell out of favor, as simpler pieces crafted from clay and wood became standard.

These days, the interest in wabi-sabi has been fueled largely by the design world’s enduring obsession with downsizing, tidying up, and streamlining.

“For the home, the wabi-sabi aesthetic is about embracing a minimalist lifestyle over the race to buy stuff,” says New York City interior architect John Mochelle.

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How to work wabi-sabi into your home decor

The first step toward adopting wabi-sabi is to see life through a lens that finds joy in the imperfect.

“The most common example is finding beauty in a chipped teacup,” says Dallas interior designer Ashley Marion. “Instead of seeing the chip as a flaw, the wabi-sabi way is to appreciate how the chip adds to the object’s history and beauty.”

However, finding joy in imperfections at home has nothing to do with messiness or shoddiness.

“Wabi-sabi is not trash piling in the corner of your kitchen because you’re too lazy to take it out,” says Marion. It’s also not about replacing your old stuff with new things.

“Wabi-sabi is the veneer on your table slowly weathering away from years of use. Wabi-sabi is also those beach pebbles you collected during vacation. All of these items have a story, which is very wabi-sabi,” Marion says.

The critical thing to remember, adds Mochelle, is that homes with the wabi-sabi aesthetic are comfortable and clean, filled with a mix of both natural and worn objects with meaning.

To add some wabi-sabi goodness to your home, consider the following ideas.

Collect objects with meaning instead of shopping retail. The worn, velvet love seat that used to be in your grandmother’s house, the blanket your BFF knitted for your first kid, or that table you cobbled together from reclaimed wood are all things that add wabi-sabi to your home.

Stick to an earthy, neutral palette. Wabi-sabi extols colors found in nature such as creamy shades of white, brown, green, and gray.

Kick clutter to the curb, because mess can seriously diminish the feeling of serenity in a home, which can disrupt your sense of wabi-sabi.

Go for authenticity at home, because you don’t live in a hotel. A wabi-sabi home is tidy, but not pristine. For instance, clean but wrinkled bedding is wabi-sabi while pressed sheets are not.

Select home accessories that reflect the natural world around you. Wabi-sabi accents include handmade pottery, wood trinkets, and woven baskets. Such pieces convey a sense of intimacy.


Deirdre Sullivan is a journalist and content creator living in Harlem, NY. Her work has appeared in Elle magazine, HouseLogic, The Spruce, and Tiny Home magazine.


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