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The beauty of wabi sabi

Just when you finally grasped the concept of feng shui, there’s a new Eastern-inspired concept making an impact in the design world: Wabi sabi.

A mash-up of two old Japanese words, over centuries it’s come to express an important philosophy.

“‘Rustic elegance’ is a quick translation of wabi sabi,” said Josh Smith, co-owner of Buffalo’s Sato Restaurant Group, who has spent years living, studying and experiencing Japanese culture. “The ‘wabi’ means rustic or weathered, and ‘sabi’ comes from loneliness — I think of a Japanese tea hut in the mountains. Whether you’re talking about interior design or plating food or the vessels used to serve tea or sake, think about simplicity, minimalism, natural lighting…appreciating darkness and shadows. Light is beautiful because there’s dark.”

Traditional: Americans love pops of bright colors in their gardens; for example, rows of tulips which must be planted each year.

Wabi sabi: An autumn Japanese garden is quintessential wabi sabi, said Smith. “They’re going more for a year-round scene, with fewer colors. In the fall, the maple’s bright red leaves are more beautiful because they’re dying.”

“There is beauty in the aging of natural materials,” said Sandra Reicis, professor of interior design at Villa Maria College. “Our society often celebrates ‘new,’ and focuses on replacement. Wabi sabi has a sustainable component; it accepts aging and patinas as desirable. The perception of history through such materials can elicit an emotional response, like nostalgia, memories and sentimental reflection.”

Traditional: Products used to construct homes that do not age so much as wear out, like laminate floors.

Wabi sabi: The patina on materials like copper and teak. Human-caused wear patterns on stone steps or pathways, reflecting the passage of time.

Artist Trudy Stern is a founder and organizer of Buffalo’s Cherry Blossom Festival. “Wabi sabi’s principles are inspiring; they’re hard to describe because they are so simple and natural,” said Stern. “This beauty is always around us; we often miss it because we’re thinking about everything else.”

Traditional: A perfect white painted, clean picket fence, manicured and mowed lawn.

Wabi sabi: A fence with green moss left to grow on it; a knobby tree with rocks piled around the roots, “gnarly and sweet,” said Stern.

To see the wabi sabi in your life, take a moment to look around for the beauty in imperfections. Your well-worn jeans or comfy old slippers can be wabi sabi. An asymmetrical wooden bowl, perhaps holding fresh fruit, contains both beauty and the potential for decay. That’s wabi sabi.

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