The End of Imperfection

Over the last year or two, wabi sabi has been gaining increased attention in the west. There have been more news and interest items on it in magazines and on television. With the second season of David Letterman's My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, wabi sabi may have reached a new level of attention as Letterman was interrupted by Kanye West to confirm that yes, his home had, what West called "wabi sabi vibes." In a recent home and design article in The Globe and Mail, it is cited as the reason for using wood in the Japan-inspired design of a home in Toronto.

In the cases of Kanye West appearance on Letterman, and much of the other press that has been written about wabi sabi, the prevailing suggestion has been that integrating wabi sabi into design adds beauty via imperfection. The risk in this line of thought is that it comes across in a far more superficial manner than it ought to and that the rationale is something along the lines of, "If we add this piece of Japanese [pottery] that is a little lop-sided or old-looking we can make the case that we are not preoccupied with perfection." The New York Post article on the West appearance acknowledges that his $20 million home is minimalist. Given that one of the distinct characteristics of wabi sabi is its humility, West's nest is more likely the antithesis rather than the beachhead embodiment of wabi sabi as the west (yes, small "w," the culture or continents) takes interest in it or tries to monetize it.

The message in many of the discussions of wabi sabi in the context of interior design or decoration is that a wee soupçon of imperfection will be just the dollop required to suggest a sense of completion, but there is the rub. While much of the discussion in western media about wabi sabi cites it for embodying the "perfectly imperfect," other aspects of wabi sabi are overlooked or misrepresented. Incompletion and impermanence are key pillars of wabi sabi that are reveal a great deal about this aesthetic and bring to mind a deeper examination of imperfection that end up overlooked in an 800-word design review in the weekend section of the newspaper.

The pursuit of perfection remains intact. We are more conscious of the challenges and ultimate undoing that are guaranteed when perfection is a goal.  The technologies that are being developed are aimed at achieving perfection or pursuing efficiency of some sort. If wabi sabi is nothing more than a decorous distraction from the innate pursuit of perfection or achievement, it has been misappropriated by those who have written about it. There are cases where a wide range of aspects of Japanese design or culture have been referred to as wabi sabi, minimalism has been described as wabi sabi, and other instances where the "rough translation" of this nuanced term is exceptionally rough or narrow.  All too often those who have written about wabi sabi imply that it is used as a centrepiece or design feature that is added in or a mere mantra to tell others that we do not strive for perfection as a desired goal, but that it is a very welcome outcome.

In the misuse of the term is the narrowing of its use and our potential to learn from it. As it has been explored in the writings of Andrew Juniper, Leonard Koren and Richard Powell wabi sabi provides a worldview that is an antidote to the toxins of modernity.  It provides a perspective from which to contemplate ourselves and our surroundings. Powell writes in Wabi Sabi Simple that "Your home will never be a finished masterpiece of wabi sabi decor, your work will never be completely done, and your life purpose will never be completely finished. If you think you have finished, you have moved outside of wabi sabi.  What you can hope for is approximation. Warm closeness to the mark... This is the side that makes people lose motivation and settle for imitations." (Powell, p. 25) Among the imitations is what Powell calls "wabi sloppy" which is simply a certain laissez-faire to let things get sloppy.

A deeper understanding of wabi sabi would foster a more holistic view of things an a matter-of-fact acceptance that, indeed, nothing is perfect, complete or permanent. In viewing the world through a lens that acknowledges these basic things, there is the opportunity to realize and appreciate that in the unrefined, there is enough.

The impulse to achieve perfection more often appears in the effort to put a slickness or shine between the unrefined and what we want people to see. Perfection, despite what we might assume, is far more subjective than what we might assume. There would ultimately be a binary quality to it that excludes and isolates. Further to that, approaching subjective perfections limit the potential and possibility that remain in the imperfect.  The flawed, the imperfect or incomplete bless us with questions about what remains possible and attainable. 

In the imperfect, there is the chance to still see how things fit together organically, spiritually and in the paradoxes that pose such discomfort to those who wish to achieve perfection.  There is a holistic view of the world and an appreciation for the symbioses that can occur when we see and appreciate the imperfections that exist for the subtleties they possess and the insights that they can impart.

Beyond that, there is the realm that the imperfect invites us into. In the acceptance of imperfection and the flight from the veneers and charades that we trap ourselves in when feigning or pursuing perfection there is a freedom, a wholeness and a truth that comes with truly being ourselves and modelling for others the benefits of doing the same in their daily lives. It is time to make it a habit to tell ourselves that we are enough. It is time to say that things are perfect because we have taken a moment to gauge our needs at a given moment and appreciate things for what they provide despite the lack of refinement rather than scowling in discontent because things are not exactly how we think we want them. That would be a far healthier paradox to grapple with than the one we might trap ourselves with when we assure those around us that things are perfectly imperfect and misquote the essence of wabi sabi.

Still, if there is a an unrefined, rationalizing centrepiece in our space to suggest that we get wabi sabi and are in recovery from perfectionism, perhaps there will over time be a contemplation of that piece that asserts that it is not a mere decoration, but an embodiment, a quiet voice that expresses the possibility of the incomplete and quietly, patiently advocates for wisdom, acceptance, and a broadening of the senses and perspectives that misguide us when we are scrambling to stay on the narrowing path toward perfection.