The Beauty of Imperfection

Balancing stone disks

I never fail to be tickled by some Japanese expressions. To date, Irusu which means pretending to be out when someone knocks at your door or Shinrin-Yoku which means visiting a forest for relaxation and to improve your health or yup, quite literally, forest-bathing.

But possibly the one we are most familiar with is the Vogue-ish Wabi Sabi, the idea of finding beauty in imperfection. In the interiors world (which is where I spend most of my time when not trying to highjack Gill’s soapbox) Wabi Sabi has become very de nos jours. Broadly speaking it is everything that today’s mass produced, technology-sated culture is not. It is brocante markets instead of shiny new shopping malls, a cluster of bluebells over a dozen, cellophane wrapped red roses, authenticity not perfection, nature over anything clinical or sterile.

Wabi Sabi is to understand the tender, heart-soaring beauty of a misty grey April morning or the elegance of an abandoned, rotting shed. It celebrates cracks, crevices and all those other marks that time and weather imprint on something.

It speaks volumes too of the wisdom of the Ancient Japanese that they gave this idea a name (no prizes for guessing that there is no corresponding word in English). According to Japanese legend, a young man called Sen no Rikyu set out to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the “Way of the Tea2. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested him by asking him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked ground until it was perfect and then examined the pristine garden. Before presenting his work to his master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground. Rikyu then understood the fleetingness of perfection.

It’s a word that we could all use more of in our lives, along with the understanding that there is a beauty in things being imperfect, but most importantly in ourselves. Wabi, I have since discovered can also be used to describe a certain type of person. It is frequently used in conjunction with the phrase: “The joy of the little monk in his wind-torn robe”, and it refers to someone who is perfectly themselves and doesn’t crave to be or have anything else.

Sabi, meanwhile might be translated as “the bloom of time”, and talks to things that carry their years with grace, and of the marks of age and constant use that can amplify the beauty of an object such as the green  patina that is gradually acquired on a bronze statue.

Outside rarefied design circles, society hasn’t on the whole caught up with the idea of wabi sabi. We live in an age (sigh!) of photo-shopped everything, hatred of wrinkles, waist-lines or else faces that are pumped full of Botox.

Wabi-Sabi is also a rather powerful lesson in reminding us that we are part of nature’s cycle of growth and eventually decay. Through Wabi-Sabi we hopefully learn to embrace the glory and the beautiful (and inevitable) marks of the passing of time.

I’ve just returned from a week in Milan at Salone del Mobile, a best in show for the world’s design and furniture. Aside from the many objects, furniture, installations and ideas I got to see during the week, it was also a very fun glimpse (especially when you are nosy as I am)  into the private world of chic Milanese women and the way they live. For all their privilege and exquisite taste, two things struck me most. First of all, their faces were not pumped with filler or Botoxed to the max. There were laughter lines and much evidence (rightly or wrongly) of decades of sun worshipping. They exuded such joie de vivre in the way they laughed, ate, talked, gesticulated. Not for them the pinched, tugging at an outfit.

Their homes were not a checklist of design classics, the sort of show homes one sometimes finds in interior magazines but a paean to understated elegance, rammed with books and the sort of knick knacks that are hugely personal. They were clearly comfortable in embracing who they were, readily “bien dans sa peau” and in possession of such an alluring and infectious confidence. If I’m honest, damned sexy to boot too.

Something that has surprised me a lot is that getting older doesn’t mean getting rid of our individual traits but rather it heightens them. We do not all just become a generic older person – thank God. I love  that I am more myself that I have ever been. I am learning to accept my scars,  pigmentation and trying to find the grace to just embrace whatever it is that is around the corner.

One of the most dynamic women I met that week, fizzing with abundant energy was Uberta Zambeletti. Zambeletti told me, that like my mother, she was widowed when her child was born and yet, while fate had apparently dealt her a tragic set of cards, it had also taught her gratitude for what she did have and gave her the resilience to deal with life’s challenges. It was why she decided to call the concept fashion and lifestyle store she founded, Wait and See.

How to embrace wabi sabi? It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate this strand of beauty, the courage not to fear bareness and a willingness to accept things as they are – without ornamentation. It also requires that we slow down and try to shift ourselves from doing to being. Look deeply for the details that give something character – be it on a chipped jug, your favourite item in your wardrobe, or some beautiful fabric.

You don’t have to understand why you’re drawn to it, but you do have to accept it as it is.