Thursday, May 24, 2018

Permitting Wabi-Sabi

When you see an aging building or a rusted bridge, you are seeing nature and man working together. If you paint over a building, there is no more magic to that building. But if it is allowed to age, then man has built it and nature has added into it -- it's so organic.

But often people wouldn't think to permit that...

David Lynch, from Catching the Big Fish

I lived in Japan for eight years. It would be easy for me to cultivate the assumption that my interest in wabi-sabi resulted from long study there and regular, intentional exposure to things that embodied its qualities. The reality is I only came across the term wabi-sabi after leaving Japan. An internet article about PowerPoint presentations cited the aesthetic as one to deploy for the sake of avoiding "death by PowerPoint." In that article, wabi-sabi was a coherent aesthetic that stood in sharp contrast to the modern, the modernist or the out-of-the-box framework and yawn induction of a Microsoft product. In the effort to extend the metaphor of wabi-sabi to as unusual a topic as PowerPoint, the article took a much deeper look at the subject and its application than many articles about design and interior decoration. Once a point about appreciating the flawed or old or textured is made, the discussion of wabi-sabi is truncated before its depth is plumbed. The thing about wabi-sabi that seems overlooked within the design perspective is that wabi-sabi has to be permitted or perhaps cultivated rather than added in, even if it is after a visit to a garage sale.

After reading that article, there was no retroactive bolt from the blue that left me reminiscing, "THAT was wabi-sabi" and "That so wabi-sabi as well," and "That too!" There was some careful reflection on my experiences in Japan what what aspects of my life there could inform my reflections on it. At the time I struck upon it, I was more inclined to examine things that were close at had to determine where they fit into a discussion of the differences between wabi-sabi and the modern.

Examining my surroundings through a wabi-sabi lens did not prompt me to conclude that there was a particularly Japanese quality in, for example, the worn leather hat that I received from my grandfather or the 20-year-old T-shirt that was serving its regular turn in my wardrobe. Instead, given the challenge of translating the term directly into English, I borrowed the word as a shorthand while I determined if my attachment to wabi-sabi was about the aesthetics than a nostalgic or sentimental impulse.

The quote from David Lynch, above, is significant because it briefly embodies a great deal about wabi-sabi and it comes from a western perspective. We appreciate things that have been weathered by the passage of time: listing barns, rusting bridges, life-softened Levi's and the well-worn hand-tools of a carpenter. Lynch confirms that this appreciation is not uniquely Japanese. He talks about a harmonic partnership between man and nature and it could be added that the relationship extends to what man can do with nature as well. Creations made from natural materials show what people can accomplish when they accept the natural materials available to them and work within the limits that are imposed. We form attachments to things that have done their duty and we appreciate the skill and wisdom that ensured they were made well and with appealing materials.

These attachment are often quite personal. There are probably lots of old things that we are less indulgent about seeing: the 1977 Ford Wagon on cinder blocks in the neighbour's front yard. Beyond that eyesore, there are things that as a society we would not be opposed to seeing come to an end. We can so easily be induced by efficiency or purported savings to see buildings, artifacts, processes and jobs fall by the wayside because these are modern times and we live in a modern community. In the end though, efficiency and technology do not lead to simplicity though they may strive to simplify. It may actually be better in the long run to tolerate the quaint snags of slower, more human or more organic processes and hang onto them along with the resilience and flexibility that we might have if we retain things that are more closely aligned with our senses and our needs.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Decay Reveals What Technology Amplifies

Yesterday, I walked passed a fence made of synthetic materials rather than wood. It was constructed to look life the post and rail combination we would see at a large property rather than the pointed picket fence one would associate with the suburbs. A piece of the fence had been repaired with screws to restore part of the recycled plastic in place. The effort to pass off this plastic construct as the equivalent to a wooden fence was blemished by the realities we face when a modern "solution" fails.  The reminder that these materials are synthetic rather than natural disappoints. The composite has been installed instead of real wood for reasons including price, ease of maintenance, ostensible durability, quick installation or construction, and pre-cut pieces. Corners are cut, efficiency is achieved, but the product is the technology that created that modern convenience rather than the fence.

When the plastic fence begins to decay or gets damaged, its shortcoming - namely that it is not wood and does not age or weather as wood does - presents us with an eyesore. The screws fastening the plastic back together are no aesthetic match for repaired or replaced wood. The look is provisional and makes it easy to picture a handyman's helpless shrug while saying, "This is the best I can do with this stuff. You know how much it costs to replace this?!" In another situation where plastic attempts to feign the elegance of wood we have an imitation Adirondack chair that eventually goes flaccid under the long term penetration of UV rays. It may look good, but it may not be as reliable as appearances suggest.

Whether the possible precision of screws or multipurpose assault with duct tape, the quick patch-up of a modern solution is an unattractive sight when we are more familiar with natural materials. Beyond the unsightliness, the patch-up of the synthetic - whether this plastic fence, vinyl-siding or a botched Botox job - reveals the delusion and hubris behind the creation of technologies or  decorations that propose to surpass the natural or organic.

These technologies strive to facilitate convenience or to offer a false promise of beauty, perfection, youth, defiance of gravity or time. These new technologies, however, amplify the values that informed their creation and when they are damaged or begin to decay, the sight is nowhere near as pleasing as a more natural decline. The peeling of paint from a wooden fence desiccated by years and decades of exposure to the elements fosters a fondness and perhaps a temptation to add to the sensual experience. You know you want to touch that dry wood despite the threat of a splinter. With a plastic fence, you just want to look away.

The regular celebration of the new, the high-tech and the state of the art -- whether a new composite or a self-help guru's pitch of a new way to improve yourself or the way your organization can do things -- belies the likelihood that these modern, technological interventions may prove to be futile or worse still, damaging. A wooden version of that damaged fence would certainly be more expensive and require more maintenance or a more expert hand to maintain it, but it would remain a more pleasant sight. It might even prove to be something that can be maintained - a sharp contrast to the hidden surprises cloaked in the maintenance-free promise associated with the synthetic.

The realization that we must stop hiding from is that there are similar modern, technological or in approaches to relationships and the way we engage with one another int he public forum that are influenced by the promise of something that is easier and more efficient than older, less technological more merely more quaint approaches to engaging with one another. Of late, it has becoming increasingly evident that the detached, technological approaches that we take to our relationships and the way we organize the work we do and the people that we do it with are starting to have negative consequences because we have become less adept or less inclined to interact in a more coherent, personal and natural manner.

As relationships, public discourse and organizational function are threatened by the inability to communicate effectively with one another and parse out the meaning of everything that one might say int he context they are speaking in, there is concern that this vital aspect of communicating and relating is being devastatingly undermined by modern "solutions" to the way we engage with one another.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Meditation Beneath a Tin Ceiling

Writing about wabi-sabi is an exercise in nuance, one that coaxes self-doubts to become especially active about fine lines and clarity of terms. From my perspective there have always been concerns about the possibility of appropriating it for my own purposes and possibly even abusing its vocabulary to clad my opinions in the ethos or wisdom of Buddhist contemplation or eastern religion to add an unmerited gravitas to my expressions of my tastes. There is the risk of being misinterpreted. I could be accused of settling, considered pessimistic or unduly nostalgic in light of my passion for wabi-sabi. Beyond that there is the possibility of being indifferent or even averse to the ways that we can express or achieve the maximum potential and efficiency that technology can afford us.

One thing that is tolerated within a discussion of wabi-sabi is paradox, so I write to you from a Starbucks that has been leased in a renovated space that affords me a view of a century-old hammered tin ceiling. Beneath that ceiling is contemporary halogen track-lighting that has been strategically placed and the exposed duct work for the HVAC. The duct work and ceiling are the same gun-metal grey. There are patches in the tin ceiling where the surface is peeling or scarred by the passing of time. The ceiling positions itself in contrast with the uniformity of the porcelain mugs, which the baristas need two reminders to use instead of the paper or plastic. Despite the diversity of beverages that could be generated from the combinations at hand, there is a uniformity to look, product and background music that assures you that there is next to nothing that would vary from the experience you would get in any other Starbucks.

Hence, the slight consternation that I'm writing about wabi-sabi from a Starbucks rather than a local tea shop that is inclined toward quirky touches that add character or make an experience more memorable. Perhaps it is an array of mismatched furniture, or other touches that add to the sensual experience - elements that make you more aware of your surroundings and the experience you are having. In the case of this restaurant, it is that ceiling that is prompting my curiosity about the age of this building and impact that the passage of time has had on this building, this corner and the lives that have passed through it. Main street merchants, their customers, landlords and tenants have breathed ongoing life into this room and building and the ceiling that has overseen it invites me contemplate them.

The ceiling alone is not wabi-sabi and neither is my inclination to be reflective or mildly sentimental about it. There is something naive in me, or anyone, saying, "That is wabi-sabi," full-stop. Japanese people struggle to define the term and the translation into English is an uneasy one as well. Recently in discussions about wabi-sabi as an approach to design the tolerates flaws. Well... not... quite. It is not meant to be an excuse to give second-life to stuff that was made carelessly. The other thread of a discussion of wabi-sabi design is that there is a fondness for old stuff or stuff that is worn out. There is a line to be drawn when that is contemplated. A 1988 Yugo automobile, for example, embodies wabi-sabi as badly as a paper soft drink cup. Age and rust will not spark the appreciation and foster the connection of something made with care and expertise.

There is little nostalgia for things that are made with an eye to disposability. It is hard to get fond of a Bic pen or a paper cup since there is little about them that could be unique. These things will decay easily and quickly enough, they are made, it seems, with decay a key component of their character and manufacture. The question that wabi-sabi answers is, "What kind of decay is appealing?" The warmer feelings are expressed toward the decay of things that are authentic or made from unrefined materials. It would be easy to install a dropped ceiling of acoustic tiles between me and the tin above me but it is easy to anticipate and even cringe at the gradual disintegration of the reprocessed material that would comprise those tiles. We gravitate toward the grains of desiccated wood over the disintegration of concrete that reveals rusted rebar. The gold kintsugi seams in broken, reassembled pottery enchants with not just the new visual but the tangibly expressed appreciation of the original pottery and the two rounds of artisanship that has kept it alive.

The appreciation of imperfection that is central to wabi-sabi is not intended to accommodate the repurposing of the shoddy but to acknowledge that untapped potential that remains when we make the best of what we have rather than settle for the perfected mass product version. Consider the Corning Corelleware dishes that were considered state of the art and ideal in the 1970s. Wabi-sabi has been eliminated in the pursuit of this ideal of convenience. There might be nostalgia but I have yet to see enough to promote a significant revival. The product is not only inert and impermeable to the elements, but perhaps sentiment and deep human attachment as well. It remains, however, an expression of fully conceived convenience, but as a consequence it lacks potential for more. If this broke, it probably would not accommodate a kintsugi patch-up. There are too many others like it, it doesn't foster any attachment and it may not even work well with gold. This material, however is the pursuit of an ideal to its ultimate end, be it convenience, uniformity or something else that is defined by or achieved through a voracity for the next technological achievement.

A preference for the hand-made and the imperfect over what is readily available to us through the technological means that are being identified, focus-grouped and perfected seems vaguely cultish and perhaps dubious, something akin to an aversion to medical intervention among certain sects. Ultimately, there are two distinct visions of possibility that are expressed through the manufactured retail item and the crafted commitment of artisans or individuals who take the time to assemble a deliberate and carefully-crafted product, service or response.

As wabi-sabi is authentically embodied in objects that we can possess, things that are made with a care and precision that distinguishes them and communicates to us the care, attention and expertise of the person who has made or repaired something for us. Or, alternatively, there is a strong appeal in having and relating to something that requires our ongoing attention and care despite the inconvenience that may be posed by something like a 1966 Chevrolet Corvette. I believe, and a close reading of wabi-sabi writing such as Leonard Koren's work on the subject would reinforce the argument, that wabi-sabi need not be limited to discussions of design and decoration but much more.

Wabi-sabi is an informative and expanding lens in favour of a more sensitive and careful examination of the services and responses that we generate to the problems and opportunities that our world poses to us. Careful, engaged and hand-crafted approaches to the way people interact with one another would foster greater authenticity in our actions and in the responses we craft to the problems that we face. Solutions that are more conscious of our and our planet's diversity and potential rather than the pursuit of the efficiencies and rationalizations that have resulted in purportedly high-efficiency, high-tech initiatives that have resulted in various monocultural pursuits that have diminished our diversity our potential and our engagement with one another, the ideas we possess, the languages we speak and the range of insights that we possess. From where I sit, there is far more potential in ensuring those dialogues can occur than there is in mainstreaming toward a low resistance banality. It is not pessimistic or resigned to believe that there is great potential in a conversation than there is in a formula. In an age of crowded isolation and material ennui, the potential that we collectively possess needs to be cultivated once again and it begins with a pursuit of the imperfect, the inefficient and the hand-crafted.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Design Fads, Wabi-sabi and Going Deep

Earlier this spring, The Globe and Mail published an article under its "style advisor's" shingle with a headline declaring, "Move Over, Hygge - Wabi-sabi is the Design Trend of 2018." I had mixed feelings about the off-key declaration and the anxieties deepened as I read on. I was happy at first with the possibility that awareness of wabi-sabi was creeping into the mainstream, but ultimately I found that a few broad strokes of the ethos were being appropriated and taken far, far out of the context they came from.

There is something to gain from applying wabi-sabi principles to interior design. I acknowledge the appeal in finding a distressed old piece of furniture or decoration to "make" a room or to hang on to a piece of furniture that has done its service over a long period of time and passively fostered your affection and attachment to it.

Think in terms of a worn wool sweater that is a little time-riddled, but still provides an unspoken warmth because of its history or the way it has molded itself to your body. Think of an artisan's tools and the smoothing polish of the hand's ongoing grip over hundreds or thousands of hours of the familiar partnership between creator and the tools of the trade.

This intimacy between man and material and the poignant recognition of the passage of time is not, despite The Globe and Mail's assertions, something to "celebrate." There is a trace of melancholy in recognition of time's patient, gradual toll that is the essence of wabi-sabi. A year-long run as the "it" design trend for 2018 is ironic because one of the pillars of wabi-sabi is that nothing is permanent. That principle, along with the assertions that nothing is perfect and nothing stays the same, provides the foundation for an aesthetic that, in my opinion, has application and value far beyond the realm of design.

The Globe and Mail's assertion that it is a new approach to interior design overlooks wabi-sabi's deep roots in Japanese culture. The championing of IKEA and Muji as emerging sources with a wabi-sabi appeal to them was of significant concern as well. I have not rushed out to browse IKEA's shelves for its deliberately wobbly pottery, but the mass-production of such a product is the antithesis of wabi-sabi's aesthetic.  I'd be slightly less concerned if this line of IKEA pottery were not all fromt he same mold. In emphasizing the flaw over the passage of time and the replication over the unique eccentricities of something that has been informed and influenced by an artist's unique vision or the vagaries an off-day misses the point of wabi-sabi.  It even risks slandering the concept with the bemusing experience of examining a store's wares to find all of the items flawed for no clear reason. The effort to imbue wabi-sabi qualities into a mass-produced object is grossly misleading and has the unfortunate consequence of regarding an individual merely as a consumer rather than giving them the opportunity to curate and assemble their home environment with an acute sensitivity to the experience an object provides.

Merely treating wabi-sabi as a means to distinguish new lines of consumer goods risks merely skimming the surface of what wabi-sabi stands for and what it can inspire what its principles are closely examined and integrated into lifestyle and a broader ethos that extends beyond what we might shop for. The fault here is not entirely with The Globe and Mail article, which does cite individual artists for their approaches to ceramics.

the unfortunate consequence of regarding an individual merely as a consumer rather than giving them the opportunity to curate and assemble their home environment with an acute sensitivity

If wabi-sabi is going to have its turn in the spotlight that landed on hygge last year, then it is a transition that is not without prelude. In her book Wabi-Sabi Welcome, Julie Pointer Adams' examination of how wabi-sabi principles can inform a more relaxed approach to entertaining, her travelogue structure to the book routes her through Denmark for an examination of hygge and there is some overlap between the two. Some. The issue with appropriately either of these as a guideline for interior design is that it leaves behind the heritage and the context that informs these and gives us the opportunity to integrate the principles into our lifestyle in a more intrinsic manner. Buying a tippy vase and letting the flower you put in it wilt for a few more days is the tip of the iceberg when compared with the impact that examining our world from the perspective that Leonard Koren outlines in his books on wabi-sabi.

If wabi-sabi merely serves as the rationale to invite consumption of certain goods, it is an opportunity lost. There is a remarkable opportunity to explore wabi-sabi deeply and consequently reconsider our relationships to the things we possess, the brief half-life of political and marketing spin, the passage of time and ultimately, authenticity. These are just a few things that can be seen more clearly through this well-worn but eternally clear lens of Japanese culture. Delve more deeply into the topic and you will come away wiser and less cluttered.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Does Fenway Possess Wabisabi?

My brothers and I headed to Fenway after brunch at the Pour House, and casually took in the sights as we approached on foot. The blue collar brickwork and disciplined lines of the building's exterior, the retired numbers of revered players, the banners commemorating championship seasons were all variations on what you would expect on sporting venues. The barricaded street to provide parking for the home team's fleet of luxury vehicles was a jarring indication that this stadium was built in an era when cars, not to mention athletes' appetites for gaudy four-wheel baubles, were barely registering in an architect's or city planner's thoughts. In more modern stadia, these cars would be underground with convenient access to the home dressing room.

   We arrived early for the sake of taking in batting practice and as much of the experience that a pilgrim would linger over on a trip to Fenway. This is only the second time I've visited a baseball stadium in 20 years, my interest in the Majors ever-so-slightly erm... decimated by the departure of my Montreal Expos for Washington. For all of the fodder that baseball provides for great fiction and movies, there is probably a similar impulse to reminisce from the stands about a slower, simpler time or immerse yourself in the sensual lure of the smells, the colour, the purity of groomed natural grass and the open air. My experience of the sport is not as steeped in such innocence or nostalgia. We are 20 years removed from the peak of the steroid era, and my brother's preoccupation with his fantasy league roster as we pace around the stadium -- he has plenty of moves to make because of the rain-outs that have already been called -- leaves me gnawing on the presumptions about the innocence and sanctity of baseball. It is slower and more contemplative than the other major professional sports, but there has been pressure for a few years to push the pace and get the nine innings completed in a time frame that TV viewers can tolerate.

A pilgrimage to Fenway, though, was a chance to resume an acquaintance with the lore and locale of baseball. I approached with ample respect for the old building and its surroundings. Our seats along the first base line were plastic and replete with the long-sought mod-con of any communal experience - the cup holder. The section behind us though was comprised of wooden seats - sharp and well painted on this mid-April day but perhaps a few millimetres more snug than the seats we had.  Changes have been made to the stadium over time and they have been done with caution and a deliberate effort to suggest that here the stadium and perhaps even the sport remain preserved in amber.
     Before the park was full enough for me to risk the eavesdropping of a passionate local, I ask my brother, the Sox fan, "Are there still plans for a new stadium?"
     He shrugs.
     There was talk at the turn of the century - this century - about building a new Fenway downtown, but the plans got scuttled by community opposition. In the end, Red Sox ownership poured money into Fenway to extend its life and to maintain its ancient appeal. They anticipate another four decades of service from the old ball park. Still, the renovations and restorations are not merely an act of preservation. There is an astute plan maximize what revenue streams they can in a ballpark that holds only 37,000 people. Under the bleachers, the signage in the concourse area consists of basic white signs with black lettering indicate, with an old-fashioned simplicity, whether it is hot dogs or beer for sale at each kiosk. There is a sense of being in an old stadium and a temptation to ask whether you have traveled through time, but the prices and product remain defiantly modern.

    The challenge Fenway and its guardians (or are they benefactors) face is that of striking so many balances. There is a profit to make, a team to keep competitive, a massive historic heirloom that needs to be maintained both physically and spiritually as a public trust. The modern realities of baseball assert themselves and there are efforts to bring as little attention to those as possible. Still, it has become more difficult to attribute any romance to the game when players are toting nine-digit contracts around the base paths. A quick glance at the scoreboard features a new statistic: trips to the mound. As discreetly as it is displayed, the pressure to speed up the game is evident and the national pastime has become a product vying for the public's attention against other sports and the media that is so easily consumed via our smart phones. Baseball, much like this venue is being subjected to ever-increasing levels of control.
    The hand operated scoreboard at the base of the Green Monster in left field is a throwback to the stadium's first seasons, when the out-of-town updates were received by telegraph. A glance to the electronic scoreboard, which flashes all the statistics and information you would want in any other modern ballpark amplifies the effort to manufacture a certain look. While the Monster and the wooden seats behind me bear a fresh, gleaming coat of paint, the electronic scoreboard has a peeling paint motif. The green pixels are accented with bronze tones to suggest the board has been weathered by time.  The conspicuous effort - the artifice - to assert that this is an old stadium in every way amplifies a precise, calibrated effort to provide people this version of a trip through time. The truth is, they do a brilliant job of it and Fenway is in pristine condition for its age.

     Still, there has been a significant tension between ownership's profit motive and the fans' or the community's desire for their Fenway to be kept intact.  While ownership would love to have a stadium with 10,000 more seats, better concessions, more sources of revenue and the private player parking that every other stadium may have, they also realize the substantial public trust they have with not only the team they put on the field, but with Fenway as well. The impulse to tear it down and build a larger replica may have been formed in part by an ownership group that regarded the old stadium as an albatross. While it is an old and even dated building the effort to ensure that its facade remains true to its heritage is quite modern and the artifice deployed to that end betrays the effort to adapt to the realities of modern baseball - driven by money, new media and esoteric statistical strategizing - rather than an attachment to the game's contemplative pace and the poetry, harmony and occasional wonder that the game provides.