Wabi Sabi

When you look at the picture above, what do you see? An old meat grinder lying on an old used kitchen table. These two things have a long history. I can tell you something about the younger history of both. The meat grinder is my grandparents’ one. They used it for decades. Since I can remember this meat grinder was always something I connected with my grandparents, especially with my grandma. There is one recipe which is something special within my family. German dumplings with a sauce of parsley, chicken and leek. The dumplings are mostly as big as a softball (the bigger type of a baseball, like two fists big) and the dough is made with the grinder. And the family competition is always to eat as many dumplings as possible. But my grandparents switched to a new electric meat grinder. So I got it and I used it already for my burgers.

And the kitchen table? It was long time used as the work bench in my dad’s garage. You can see wholes and deep scratches on the surface. At first it was only an interim solution but then I fell in love with it, more and more. And now I don’t want to give it away anymore.

Both things are imperfect. Not from the sentimental or aesthetic point of view, but from the tool point of view. Especially the meat grinder, a modern electric one would be much easier to use, much more efficient. BUT the older one has soul. It has the history annexed. It has soul BECAUSE of its history!

And what is wabi sabi?

These two things have wabi sabi. The got soul and beauty because of their imperfection, their used appearance and their history. Hmm… at least that is what I understood of wabi sabi. But wabi sabi is much more. It’s origin is Japanese and behind wabi sabi is a whole philosophy. For Japanese wabi sabi is a special way of beauty, of aesthetics. The more I try to understand it, the more I get interested in it. I want to understand it, for real. But I guess it takes time to understand a traditional philosophy.

Designer, Thinker & Craftsman Andy Mangold (read his about page!) wrote an article, which infected me. He tried to explain wabi sabi. His explanation is pretty engaging, I couldn’t stop reading his article.

“Wabi sabi, a Japanese aesthetic and mindset based on embracing the transience of material things, is in many ways existentialism for objects. Human beings are temporal, fragile creatures; we are all on a constant and inescapable march to our demise. This is one of the only immutable truths I am aware of, and it also applies to everything we conceive, design, construct, and use during the course of our lives.” (via loveandutility.com)

Andy really makes a point, most things in our lives are very short-living. The “life” of a computer is over within 3 years, maximum. Everyone celebrates the time when the cell phone provider tells you that you are able to get a new phone! The old one vanishes in a drawer. But these are the results of our lifestyle, our life is more and more characterized with electronic devices and these technics age very fast. Other things, like leather bags, furniture, (some) cars are much more attractive the older they are and the more they are used. Andy verbalises it perfectly:

“By wearing in, these materials take part in a give and take with their owners, building an intimate and nourishing relationship one blemish at a time. There is an element of personalization and uniqueness at play when interaction with an product changes it, even slightly.” (via loveandutility.com)

This video, a BBC documentary, gives you a great insight into the deep knowledge and tradition of wabi sabi:

Andy Mangold ends his article with a perfect statement I can totally support:

“It seems the english language is not properly equipped to explain the humble beauty of wabi sabi; words are just too clumsy and overstated. The best synthesis seems to be that wabi sabi is the unique story of an object, or anything that highlights and celebrates that narrative. From a designer or maker’s standpoint, it informs specific physical properties of materials or finished products. However, it can also be applied in a more broad sense to the way in which one looks at the world. Embracing imperfection in all facets of one’s life, not just in objects, encourages contentedness, as well as physical and mental well-being.” (via loveandutility.com)

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  • Moritz

    Wow, what a coincidence. Just yesterday while sitting in one of the beautiful trains of the Buenos Aires Subway from 1913 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashobbs/363201423/)
    I wondered why the train after so much time still looked absolutely beautiful, while newer trains from the 70s and 80s look now outdated and ugly. ResearchIng a bot about the aesthetically concepts behind it I came across the word ‘patina’. As I understand it’s the sort of ‘European’ word to describe this concept.
    Anyway-why I am writing this comment is because I wanted to point you to an article by Berg about exactly that exact concept of Patina. Other than using beautiful and simple words to describe what ‘Patina’ really is the article also raises an interesting question that really got me thinking:

    Rather than admiring objects that have ‘wabi sabi/patina’ already- how can we design objects that encourage and embrace the development of such qualities?

    Have fun reading! http://berglondon.com/blog/2010/09/03/patina/

  • Juan Ignacio Iglesias

    How can we design objects that encourage and embrace the development of such qualities? I think that Dieter Rams gives us a clue: Gutes Design ist langlebig.

    It’s not about time, it’s about the anachronistic relationship that people establish with objects, and what we read in the objects that surround us…
    …Or not, I don’t know, that’s just what I understood :)

  • Markus Reuter

    @Juan Thanks for your comment. I think I can totally agree.
    But many of these things just gain its beauty or soul after a long period of time. I guess the table above won’t be in my kitchen if it was brand new. There is some magic around these things that make them special. It’s not just time and usage. I guess you can just call it: wabi sabi.

  • Sabina Brave

    I dropped here by coincidence. I was searching results for my blog site in google. But I’m glad, that I had possibility to read your articles.
    I also like a lot things with soul. Last days I bought very old cupboard. With subtile sculptures. It’s damaged by time, but I love it. I’ll try to renew it by myself. It won’t be perfect, but it’ll have soul. More, than after professional renewing. And after all, it’ll keep a bit of my own soul :)

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Wabi Sabi