WABI-SABI: FURTHER THOUGHTS An interview with author Leonard Koren

For better or worse, the term "wabi-sabi" has entered the mainstream design and marketing discourse as a stand-in for the "real". It has come to signify the imperfect, the asymmetrical, the natural and the hand-made. The thinking goes that clients respond positively to the real because it is not false, and that by leveraging the real with wabi-sabi-type images and layouts, brands can make authentic connections with their clients while enabling them to sell more products and services. But what is wabi-sabi exactly and what does it mean? More importantly, who or what makes wabi-sabi? Does this medieval Japanese term help us think through contemporary design problems? Or is it just another historicized style thrown up by our continual need to recycle the past?

Leonard Koren's latest book is called Wabi-Sabi, Further Thoughts. It is an extension of his influential 1994 classic on the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. In it he lays out the history of the terms "wabi" and "sabi" and shows how they were eventually conjoined under the rubric of the tea ceremony. The book also traces the rise and fall of wabi-tea, and how the idea has survived into the present by preserving aesthetic norms established some five hundred years ago. The book concludes with some interesting thoughts on wabi-sabi in the digital age.


Perry: Has the revival of interest in wabi-sabi aesthetics influenced the community of people in Japan who still practice the tea ceremony?

Leonard: I don't know about in Japan, but in this country an interest in wabi-sabi aesthetics has probably induced some people to learn more about contemporary tea ceremony practice.

Perry: In your book you describe how the tea ceremony changed during the Sengoku Period (1466-1598), which was a time of war and upheaval. What changes in the social order occurred that made it possible for this to happen?

Leonard: As opposed to the generally rigid stratifications in Japanese society, a kind of egalitarianism took over in the cultural sphere. New people—creators from the lower social classes—were able to rise and predominate in the arts. This allowed interesting new ideas to blossom.

Perry: Sen no Rikyu was very influential in the development of these new ideas. What were his concerns and how did he transform the tea ceremony?

Leonard: Rikyu was passionate about further marrying tea ceremony with various Zen-inspired notions. Simplifying the form of tea-related objects and rituals was one of his major focuses. Democratizing the general tone and atmosphere of the tea ceremony was another.

Perry: Would Rikyu have used the term “wabi-sabi” to describe his practice?

Leonard: I don't think linguistic invention was of much concern to Rikyu. “Wabi,” which had subsumed most of the meanings of “sabi,” was the term used to describe Rikyu's favorite kind of tea practice at that time. So I think simply "wabi" would have been sufficient for Rikyu.

Perry: Rikyu's career as a tea master encompassed a great rise and a greater fall. What were the transgressions that eventually caused his demise? Were they aesthetic or political?

Leonard: There are numerous theories, but none of them solely aesthetic. Somehow Rikyu got on the wrong side of his main patron, the supreme political-leader Hideyoshi. As a consequence, Rikyu was asked to commit ritual suicide. Such a death was actually considered a privilege—as opposed to being ignominiously hung, poisoned, or hacked up.  

Perry: You must be gratified with the role your original book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers has had on the revival of interests in wabi-sabi. Have you received any feedback from your readers in regards to the issues they are encountering as they try and introduce wabi-sabi aesthetics into the digital age?

Leonard: Yes, I am gratified with the interest in the wabi-sabi paradigm. And yes, many readers have asked about the possibility of digital wabi-sabi. That's one the main reasons I wrote Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts—specifically to discuss that possibility.

Perry: Theoretical question: I have an authentic wabi-sabi tea cup which I've scanned and printed with a 3D printer. It has the same look and feel. Is it wabi-sabi?

Leonard: The later part of Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts deals with this and related questions. The short answer is maybe, but probably not. First, there is the issue of “who or what” actually makes wabi-sabi? There is something "wrong" with setting out to make things wabi-sabi from scratch. And the engineering approach to making things—as suggested by using a 3-d printer—is antithetical to the poetic, natural processes that have become associated with wabi-sabi. In other words, the “taint” of the idea of digital technology “smells” un-wabi-sabi. Then, on a more practical level: can 3-d printers make things out of actual clay? If not, how can they have the indepth look and feel of an earthen-clay “wabi-sabi tea cup”? . . . I could go on, but I think you get a taste of this line of thinking.

Perry: Thank you for talking to me!


For a fascinating, in depth look at the impact of wabi-sabi on marketing strategy, follow this link: Aesthetics and Ephemerality: Observing and Preserving the Luxury Brand

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a thorough inquiry into traditional Japanese Aesthetics here.

More about Leonard Koren:
Since first publishing Wet Magazine to critical acclaim from 1976-1982, Leonard Koren's subsequent publishing projects have continued to attract the attention of creative thinkers looking for alternatives to the Western cultural paradigm. Koren has continued to oblige his audience while continuing to explore his love of Japanese art, aesthetics and culture. Post-Wet, he has gone on to publish almost 20 books -- each packaged with careful dedication to a design style that prioritizes visual presentation and integrity of materials.