Delving into the various different cultural contexts of interior design aesthetics across the world has veritably been my favourite pastime! Whether it’s Oriental interiors, English or Asian aesthetics, when appraised within the respective anthropological perspective each emerges as breathtakingly stunning in its own right.
I had the privilege to study the Japanese aesthetics and philosophy for an interior design project just recently and gained so much more than just knowledge of the academic/design principles. For the Japanese their design principles are much more than ways of decorating their homes and in the bigger picture actually govern their lifestyles, hence one ends up learning many life lessons and teachings! But before moving onto those, I would like to shed light upon the design philosophy itself. Cutting the incredibly loooooong history short, owing to its geographic location of being surrounded by water (only!) Japan remained protected from foreign invasions allowing controlled contact with other nations. This helped Japanese aesthetics develop in an utmost unique fashion with core spiritual pillars of belief being harmony, respect, purity, tranquillity, freedom, anti-rationalism, transcendental truth and leading an unencumbered life (quite the opposite of many present day ideals plagued by decades of consumerist, materialistic and insecure rampage).
While I was going through the renowned novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s essay (1933), In Praise of shadows – where he describes the Japanese aesthetics and particularly the interplay of light and shadow in ancient Japanese minimalist interiors and architecture – the following spellbinding excerpt almost put me in a state of trance; as if time had come to a complete standstill for the briefest of moments. Herein he attempts to describe how traditionally in Japan, black lacquerware decorated in “flecks of silver and gold” viewed in the warmth and shadows of a single lantern/candle light (rather than the sunlight or electricity) was rather preferred over the “clatter and clings” of the heavy ceramics for table ware; in the process, uncannily alluding to ‘living in the moment’ and almost transferring one to a state of reverie:
“I know a few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soup bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth……Remove the lid from a ceramic bowl, and there lies the soup, every nuance of its substance and colour revealed. With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its colour hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapour rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapour brings a delicious anticipation…..almost a moment of meditation and trance”.
In his book ‘Wabi-Sabi (the exact term is explained in the next paragraph) for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers’, Leonard Koren draws upon the concept of the ancient Japanese tea house ceremony still revered today) to represent similar ideals. Since ancient times, the ceremony was modelled around the value of zen – simplicity in all the different arenas of life, be it food preparation/presentation, architecture and design or the traditional clothing called kimono – all exuding simplicity and only embracing the essential while pushing away any flourishes. Why I am bringing it up here is because customarily, a moment was created inside a typical 16th century tea room; its structure and form objectifying the essence of a shoddy farmer’s hut with mud thatched roof and exposed wooden structural elements; pushing materiality/artifice out of every corner of the room; establishing an egalitarian atmosphere. Everyone entered the room being bent over as an act of humility, eliminating any possibility of deriding the farmer’s hut/materials being medieval/less-preferred. The tea-making process itself is as simple as fetching water, collecting firewood for boiling, preparing tea and ultimately serving it. Instead of expensive conventionally beautiful utensils, warn bamboo tea scoops made of virtue of their age for example and hand crafted bamboo vases are to be employed. A successful ceremony is to leave its participants with a feeling of ‘Jaku’-tranquility and ‘Sei’-Purity. Of course, outside of the tea room all these ideals of existence fade away, in line with the belief in evanescence and impermanence.
It is said that the ceremony today more than often lacks the genuine wabi-sabi. The term Wabi-Sabi itself (perhaps a bit too expansive a term to be discussed in entirety here so best kept for a detailed discussion for another day) embraces the imperfect, incomplete and impermanent; the natural generation and degeneration of all; that beauty reveals itself only once the winds of time have had their say and the bumps and scrapes of life are evident. That may be invisible to vulgar eyes and there is as much charm, allure, whim and mystery in the arcane crumpled skin of an old man as in the soft and pure wrinkled skin of a newborn. It is the exact opposite of what “slick, seamless, massively marketed objects, like the latest handheld wireless digital devices aesthetically represent”, as aptly put by Leonard Koren. He further goes on to say that this ideal of beauty need not be tragic at all, infact most modestly elegant! Interestingly, the Japanese mostly hesitate to explain the concept Wabi-Sabi in words or through speech – that it is more of a ‘feeling’ to be experienced than a material concept; that the real beauty lies in the unseen and unspoken. “In order to appreciate these qualities, certain habits of mind are required: calmness, attentiveness, and thoughtfulness” (Leonard Koren).
In terms of interior design then, that would mean embracing the rustic appeal, the earthiness, the diffused glow of the rice paper, the course and unrefined, the scars of clay cracking while healing/drying, the ageing and the scarring of time:
Admirably then the Japanese believe in occasionally slowing down, meditating and disconnecting whether it’s their culinary culture, interior design principles or the basic philosophy of life for that matter. When one enters the Japanese tea ceremony hut, it is in fact, amongst other things, also an opportunity to disconnect from the outside world for a limited time, to meditate and put your mind at ease. Similarly even though feeling the warmth of the soup in the lacquerware bowl might seem to be pointless and an extreme waste of time, it does represent a ‘live in the moment’ scenario where instead of rushing your tea/lunch while concurrently planning the next ten tasks on schedule in your mind, you disconnect (even if for the tiniest of moments) from the worries of the future and the fears of the past, inadvertently embracing the imperfections around you – in turn reviving your spirits and preparing you to deal in an even better way to learn from your past mistakes and also deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
Ok so, ‘living in the moment‘…….. Yes, we keep hearing the same at many points in our lives and how it is extremely important to do so occasionally (maintaining an adequate balance of course) to rewire our brains and rejuvenate our spirits; but believe you me (and you probably must have also realised already), it is much harder than we think and the focus is more than often fleeting – even more so as our present day routines get more and more exacting with time. Without exception, each and everyone of us is stuck in the rut of the banal, (more or less) symmetrical and logical progressions of our arduous daily grinds – whether it’s stay at home moms/dads, or someone working nine-to-five, somebody who has just lost a job after all that hard work or in another instance, is struggling to complete that ‘four year undergraduate degree’, we all are indelibly working towards our own respective ends. So a shout out to all of you out there – obsessing over the need to keep up with the times, to stay ahead in all walks of life, to stay socially connected, updated with the most recent technological advances, to compete, to run after that very job that you’ve been dreaming of, aiming for the very best of the best for ourselves, our children, our families, the foodies planning the next three meals while still having their firsts, and finally my kindred spirits: the perfectionists, worriers, organizers/planners – WAIT….take some time out and STOP, PAUSE for a bit……..go off social media for a while, spend some alone time learning and exploring your own self – your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, hobbies and passions, whether its reading, meditating, praying, designing or even if its something as menial as sitting with your coffee/tea by the window or just weaving with foliage with no end goal/product in mind for that matter. Free your minds, try to focus on the task at hand instead of simultaneously thinking of the day(s) that lie ahead, stop trying to take on tomorrow’s tasks today, shut out the outside world for the tiniest of moments and enjoy your children and their usual shenanigans before they grow up and go off to live their own lives, in short anything and everything that reinvigorates you, even if it’s that single happy thought that renders you with a feeling of comfort, a reward at the end of the chaotic/busy day – lest you carry that regret in your heart forever!