ashley englishsmall measures

small measures with ashley: wabi sabi

by Ashley

Image from Style File

The thing about becoming a new parent that no one tells you and that creeps up on you and takes you completely by surprise is just how time consuming these tiny beings can be. Pre-Huxley, Hubs and I were all “surely we won’t become those people that don’t shower until 5:00 in the afternoon and have their fastidiously organized homes turned upside down by a being whose preferred habits include eating, sleeping and ‘relieving’ themselves.” Well, we have become those people, and fast! Newborns have constant needs and it’s our job to attend to them, constantly. What I’ve come to understand, in an enormously expedited learning curve, is that parenting requires a hefty dose of surrender, or finding beauty in imperfection and value in the ephemeral.

Image from Poetic Home

Moving into this new attitude has got me thinking a good bit about the parallels between parenting and the Japanese aesthetic principle known as “wabi-sabi.” An offshoot of Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi essentially refers to a profound and abiding appreciation for the transient, fleeting beauty that pervades the natural world. I first encountered the concept during a visit to The Gardener, a gorgeous home and garden boutique in Berkley, CA. It was there that I came across Leonard Koren’s book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Wabi-sabi, in contrast to the Hellenic aesthetic ideals of perfection, symmetry, permanence and grandeur, places value on imperfection, asymmetry, impermanence and humility.

Image from Kitchen Design Notes

While I think of myself as a bit of a perfectionist, my design and decor affinity has always steered more toward wabi-sabi principles and less toward those emblematic ideals of modernist art. According to Koren, the following differences distinguish wabi-sabi from modernism:

Modernism: public; logical, rational; absolute; prototypical; modular; progressive; control of nature; technology; adaptation to machines; symmetrical; rectangular; man-made; slick, polished, smooth; maintenance; reduction/subjugation of the senses; clarity; functionality, utility; materiality; all-weather; light, bright; cool

Wabi-sabi: private; intuitive; relative; idiosyncratic; variable; cyclical; harmony with nature; nature; adaptation to nature; organic; curved; natural; crude, rough, tactile; degradability; expansion of senses; ambiguity; naturalness; non-materiality; seasonal; dark, dim; warm

CLICK HERE for the rest of Ashley’s post (and great wabi-sabi book recommendations) after the jump!

Image from A Hazy Moon

So, in a day-to-day, life-as-it’s-lived reality, how might the ideals of wabi-sabi manifest in your home and overall design preferences? Well, they could reveal themselves through contemplating the beauty of a pile of autumn leaves (ephemeral, transient and inherently seasonal), or a handmade mug with a rim punctuated by tiny cracks, reflecting a lifetime of repeated use (“hagi ware,” a form of Japanese pottery, is closely associated with wabi-sabi ideals). Wabi-sabi could be witnessed in a wooden coffee or dining room table riddled with “imperfections” in the grain. Similarly, it could be viewed in a piece of furniture allowed to weather, chip or otherwise show the passage of time on its surface. On buildings, it could be an overgrowth of ivy or moss, or a patina achieved only through lengthy exposure to natural phenomena. (During our honeymoon in Rome, Hubs and I could not get over the beauty of the numerous terra cotta-chipped buildings, bearing silent witness to the march of time through the Eternal City.)

Keep in mind, however, that wabi-sabi isn’t a wholesale endorsement of clutter or Hoarders-style messes. It’s more about drawing attention to the beauty of the natural world and the inherent processes of aging, decay and transience. It’s about allowing some of the “cracks” to show (whether those cracks be laugh lines on our faces or frayed hems on your favorite cardigan) and our intrinsic connection to the natural world to shine through.

As a new parent, the parallels between the aesthetics of wabi-sabi and letting “good enough” or “less than perfect” reign as the order of the day could not be more obvious. My little guy will only be little for so long, his “wee-ness” itself a transient state. Acknowledging and validating that, and worrying less about keeping things as “perfect” as I formerly did is a lesson in wabi-sabi living that I can’t afford not to learn.

If you’d like to learn more about wabi-sabi, other books on the topic, in addition to Koren’s, include

What about you? Have any wabi-sabi objects, resources, attitudes, etc. that you care to share? I’d love to hear about them! — Ashley

Suggested For You


  • There’s a great children’s picture book about a cat named Wabi Sabi who wants to know her her name means. The owner says “That’s hard to explain” and for the rest of the book Wabi Sabi slowly learns, in haiku, about the principle. It’s a visually gorgeous book with a lovely, simple text. http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780316118255-0

  • When I was a brand-new parent, I was told that perfection is the worst gift we can give our children, because when we let them down (as we all will) we risk destroying their entire world. It’s wabi-sabi parenting.

  • I have to chime in here and say that I take huge issue with the metaphysics of wabi-sabi. The metaphysical basis is that things are either devolving toward or evolving from nothingness. As a comprehensive aesthetic system it revolves completely around itself and has no real foundation in the world we live in.

    I don’t disagree that the principles are good ones, specifically the idea that things don’t have to be perfect. But we ought to feel as though things don’t have to be perfect because they will one day be perfected, not because they will one day be nothingness.

    Christ said that he is the way, the truth, and the light. He is the one that will someday bring everything to perfection, and outside of him our order or disorderliness mean nothing.

  • Thanks for teaching me a bit about wabi-sabi on this Friday morning! Thanks for having such a great blog to pop into, I love checking out each post.

  • Congrats, Ashley, on the wee one.

    This is such a beautiful post.
    I never knew what wabi sabi was, so thank you. I must say that I have always been drawn to this idea, though. I love worn wooden tables and floors. Metals that show chips and dings and marks from time. And gardening! which would have to be considered wabi-sabi due to the fact that we cannot control nature regardless of how hard we try.

    I may need to look up one of these books. :)

  • I read an article about wabi sabi years ago and how it relates particularly to vegetables … and now I’m able to find beauty in even the ugliest of tomatoes :)
    Great post!

  • Love this post! My house and I haven’t been the same since my little girl came home 3 years ago. Perfection is for the magazines. I’ll take the drop cloths covering my butter yellow sofa (a purchase made pre-baby) and my kitchen floor strewn with blocks any day.

  • Wabi Sabi is my life and I like it that way! I have always been drawn to imperfection…when everyone was swooning over Brad Pitt, I was in love with Daniel Day Lewis and now Adrien Brody…his nose is gorgeously imperfect. I find uniqueness in imperfection. My scar on my hand tells a story and the gap in my teeth another. My rug with the ends not even tell of a weaver that didn’t cut exactly and who was that weaver…was it a he or she did they do it on purpose or were they in a hurry. My cleaning lady (I can’t afford, but I am so in love with her that I can’t quit) recently broke a dragon statue that I got for my birthday. I happily glued it back and told my husband that it I like that she did that…I will forever remember her and my dragon and so what if you can see a slight crack. I think you get my point…I love wabi sabi!!!

  • I’ve often heard of wabi sabi, but never really knew what it was. It sounds like such a lovely and comforting principal, especially in contrast to the moderism.

    PS – I love the name Huxley! :)

  • I’m like Liza–I’ve heard the term wabi sabi before, but was never sure what it meant until now. Thanks for enlightening me.

  • Love this post! Wabi Sabi is my style and I didnt even know it. Life is about seeing the beauty in the inperfections; life is perfectly imperfect! Very much looking forward to reading more on this.

  • As a ceramist, wabi-sabi usually makes me think about imperfection in relation to my pottery, as that is how we are taught about the philosophy. It’s interesting to be reminded that it is a larger philosophy of life, one that happily I prescribe to without knowing. I think the idea of wabi-sabi relates really closely to the handmade and slow movements… It all basically distills to ‘Pause- take the time to enjoy this.’

  • Is Ashley the author of the post the same as Ashley Earl Grey? I loved both the post and the Earl Grey comment.

    I have a child with special needs and I run an organisation in India for her and her friends and I think constantly about perfection and the lack of it and how so often it is the “flaw” that lets us see the truth. As Leonard Cohen sang: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. that’s how the light gets in.”
    Thanks, Ashley, for this lovely post, and congratulations on your new life with the wee one.

  • “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. that’s how the light gets in.”

    Thank you so much for posting this! I just raced over to Amazon and downloaded this song. What amazing lyrics, and perfectly apt.

  • @ Ashley from Earl Grey:

    This is the first I’ve heard of Wabi-Sabi (which for some reason I first read as ‘wasabi’!), but what struck me about it is not a process/descent or evolution into nothingness, but the fact that the impact of time, which is as a process unique and never truly replicable (how’s that for metaphyiscal??) is valued, and that transient material objects are a sum of their experiences (scratches, weather, etc) and therefore are profoundly changed by ‘the world we live in’ .

    And I don’t think your religious beliefs contribute constructively to this discussion.

  • A beautiful and inspiring post! I will definitely come back to read it again and will also share with loved ones.

    PS. Soon you will figure out your family’s new rhythm and will be composing beautiful blues. As for the baths…we sometimes have to take family showers and my youngest is almost 2yo!! :))

  • Beautiful post! As a new Mama myself, this is so perfectly timed for me, I found myself nodding along with you as I read :)

    Here are a few things that come to mind when I think of wabi sabi:
    – Ventana or Deetjens or basically anywhere in Big Sur, the whole area feels very wabi sabi to me somehow!
    – Ani DiFranco, esp. her song “imperfectly”
    – The nature art of Andy Goldsworthy; it’s all about the beauty of time passing, the way things shift and are constantly changing.
    Thank you! I hope you are having a lovely weekend with your little one! xo Laura

  • Lovely post and congrats on your new addition.
    Look up the lyrics to a lullaby if you get the chance… “I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep”- all about letting some of the perfection go in order to cherish the fleeting moments of parenthood. :)

  • I think the feature on the Minka (Japanese farmhouse) last week captures the idea of wabi sabi very well. I think it’s more of an acquired taste that most people don’t respond to so favorably at first. For example, the sparkling Golden Pavilion in Kyoto is more popular as a tourist destination than the wabi sabi Silver Pavilion (which never got painted).

  • Thanks for this Ashley! I am interested in wabi sabi in my artwork and am intrigued by the idea of a fleeting moment esp. those that aren’t necessarily monumentous. My paintings are about memory, nostalgia and universal experience. Nice to be reminded of “the space in between” which is one way I have heard wabi sabi described. Feel free to check out my online portfolio if you have the time.

  • As a new parent of an enthusiastic six month old I could not appreciate this post more. Thank you for reminding me that a graceful surrender is necessary for survival and happiness!

  • Wabi-Sabi is the way forward. I see more and more of my peers falling away from the manicured and vain perfection in their homes, and learning to embrace and love the beautiful, endearing natural imperfections instead. I think the whole having a kid thing helps one to succeed at this sort of a transition well, and also, isn’t it really what it’s all about? There’s a sort of serenity in it.

    Beautiful post, photos and mostly, congratulations on making baby and becoming a Momma!

  • A very inspiring and calming post!
    It is so true..surrendering to imperfections is crucial.
    Thank u very much for sharing this..
    As an interior designer myself i had never heard of wabi-sabi and i now take it is as one my resolutions for the year to come!

  • +1 on Kate @ 3:41

    also, the story of the broken dragon is just perfect.

    I’ve always loved the idea of wabi sabi and certainly with a toddler life is rarely perfectly anything, other than perfectly what it is.

    here’s a related quote, which i have held onto since well before being a parent, which applies deeply and does balance with visiting designsponge daily. :)

    “I think maybe the dream house idea was the last unrealistic fantasy I gave up. The dream career, the dream husband, the dream children, all turned out to be specifically themselves, often wonderful, sometimes maddening, always real. No dream I ever had when I was young of my future family was nearly as interesting as they have turned out to be. Now here I live where I’ve ended up, down in the valley rather than up on the mountaintop, on three acres rather than thirty, surrounded by furniture rather than “pieces”, listening to the forced air blow through the pipes rather than feeling the radiance shine up through my feet. One dog is sacked out on the carpet, the other is coming in through the sliding door from the deck. It’s Sunday, and things could be a lot tidier around here. I know that when I get up and go into the kitchen, teens foraging for breakfast will have left every cabinet door open. All of this is thoroughly real and thoroughly OK. The fact is that the house where these moments come together is the best dream of all, the one you never knew you were going to have. ”

    — Jane Smiley from Dream House

  • There is an obvious tension between wabi-sabi and an image of wabi-sabi. I wonder if any image can really express this philosophical idea (or for that matter, words themselves). But as a lover of design (and of its limitations), I thank you for offering up the intriguing possibility of wabi-sabi.

  • Beautiful post.

    I have a fashion blog, and I’m always encouraging my reader’s to break out of the tight restraint of Western pretty. Grey hair is ok. Laugh lines are beautiful. Big hips should be celebrated.

  • thank you so much for this post, ashley ~~ inspiring & à propos for me.
    congratulations and have a sweet time savoring that transient “wee-ness”

  • @Kate (3:41)

    I know that not everyone shares my beliefs (though many do!). I also know that before you knock something, you better have an alternative or you’re just a nay-sayer. That was my reason for posting my “religion” as you say. I hate calling it that because for me it’s not just a religion, it’s everything. It is the way I view the world and everything in it.

    I completely agree with you that Wabi Sabi has to do with time wearing on things, etc. I take issue with the underlying belief that led to that idea in Wabi Sabi.

    I know that many people don’t like it when people bring their beliefs into “neutral” discussions like this, but I felt Wabi Sabi wasn’t neutral, which is why I was compelled to spill my guts a bit. If anyone wants to talk about it more, please feel free to shoot me an email over at my blog. I’m not crazy (and if you like design*sponge you’ll probably like my blog!)


    Ashley (from Earl Grey, NOT design*sponge!)

  • Hi Ashley!
    As a longtime follower of wabi sabi ideals, I first want to say thank you for not once calling this a *style* or method, such as feng shui or whatnot. Wabi sabi was never evolved to become an interior style, it was first created for the tea ceremonies. Of course, the principles of wabi sabi can encompass everything from tea to interiors to food to artwork, but it is primarily a way of being, not a movement (and as you can tell, it irks me when I see interior magazines detailing houses in the ‘Wabi Sabi style’).

    Anyway, I wanted to add one more book to your resources: The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo. This was the *original* book of wabi sabi, before the term wabi sabi was even coined; thus, you won’t even find the phrase written in there, though the entire book is pretty much the bible of wabi sabi. And beautiful old editions are pretty easy to get a hold of – I have a gorgeous green hardcover that comes in a woven brown slipcase, I value it almost more than anything I own!

  • I think the argument that wabi-sabi is somehow in contradiction with the fundamentals of Christianity is very misguided. The aesthetic tenets about reaching for permanence and perfection that Earl Grey Ashley (not Design Sponge Ashley) espouses are actually more rooted in Greek philosophy than Christianity. And frankly, the denunciation of harmless Buddhist philosophies such as wabi-sabi, has a lot more to do with intolerance than spirituality.

    In fact, the Christian bible has quite a few passages about the importance of embracing impermanence, imperfection and even entropy, most notably in the famous verse from Genesis, 3:19:

    “By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
    until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
    you are dust
    and to dust you shall return.”*

    Hard to imagine anything that could be more wabi-sabi than that. If wabi-sabi isn’t your thing, that’s fine, but filtering it through a shroud of religious intolerance is more than a bit silly.

    *The origin of the phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

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