ON TREND: WABI SABI
Might you benefit from incorporating a Japanese aesthetic ideal into your work?
If 2017 seemed to be the year of hygge, in 2018 ‘wabi sabi’ is the trendy term being bandied about in the headlines. Garden designer Sophie Walker, author of The Japanese Garden, says that despite the glib publicity, it’s not easy to translate this Japanese term into English, because “there is no single or simple explanation of what wabi sabi ‘is’ – it isn’t one ‘thing’”. London-based designer Adolfo Harrison MSGD agrees. “It’s a bit like the other Japanese word that people struggle with: ‘umami’. It falls down when people try to make a literal translation.”
The reduction of wabi sabi to a kind of ‘oriental shabby chic’ is unhelpful, but it’s more informative to look at how Andrew Juniper sums it up in his book Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, as “an aesthetic ideal that uses the uncompromising touch of mortality to focus the mind on the exquisite transient beauty to be found in all things impermanent”.
What does that mean for garden designers, then? It involves thinking about materials in terms of how they change over time, Harrison explains. “We’ve always declared that gardening’s a time-based medium, but by that, people are usually talking about the plants. With wabi sabi, we’re talking about the materials. You start changing your materials palette, not just to suit your clients and the narrative, but materials that record the weathering process they’ve been subjected to. We’re not talking about perfect polished granite, but materials that change and show their imperfections, like zinc and Corten. There’s an honesty and a humility in accepting we can’t control what happens to these materials.”
Or, as Walker puts it, “Wabi sabi teaches us not to work against the inherent nature of the garden, but to accept the garden’s natural drive towards decay. The garden’s beauty lies in the vulnerability and awkwardness of nature itself. It is our challenge to be at one with and accepting of the truth of impermanence and imperfection.”
Harrison says wabi sabi isn’t something clients are currently mentioning to him when they provide a brief, but it is still something that runs through the design process as part of the narrative for every garden he works on. “We tell clients what wabi sabi is, and how it fits with what they’re aspiring to.” And although wabi sabi is enmeshed into Japanese culture, once you start to grasp this aesthetic, you begin to see it everywhere, including many of the UK’s finest gardens, says Harrison. “Whenever we think of great gardens, even in the UK, they are usually the older ones, where they’ve got that patina of age.”