The Imminent Rise of Wabi-Sabi and What It Means About Our Obsession with Our Homes

The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, the acceptance and even embrace of the imperfect and incomplete, is back in vogue this year for those who are just tired of folding the laundry. So what does this say about our obsession with having beautiful homes?

By: Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza
Photo by Harprit Bola

The powers that be have declared that the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi will be your guiding home trend for 2018. Wabi-sabi is a world view that originates in the Buddhist tradition that embraces imperfection and incompleteness in life. We here in the West like to apply this philosophy to our homes every handful of years when we look around and see what a mess the place is and decide to call it a design choice.

The oracle that is Wikipedia tells me that wabi-sabi is derived from three Buddhist tenets of existence: impermanence, suffering, and emptiness or absence of self-nature. Applying these three tenets to my home makes it sound like I’m about to move into a dorm at a state school, but the internet is telling me this is chic.

Now, if you just consider wabi-sabi an embrace of the imperfect, as it’s typically interpreted in the Western home, call me a Lama. I recently bought a new chair for the bedroom and immediately said to my husband in that very finger-pointy tone, now, let’s make sure this doesn’t become a laundry chair, and within 20 minutes had already laid on it every piece of clothing I own. Wabi-sabi.

Table- and countertops are the first to fall victim to clutter in my home. Ever since I saw Signs I make it a point to leave a half-empty glass of water everywhere I go. I consider it a form of protective pollination. It drives my husband crazy, but guess what? Wabi-sabi.

Hygge was the defining home trend of 2017, and it kept us all warm and cozy and wrapped in our Horchow cashmere throws, but hygge had more to do with the way we use our homes rather than the way we decorate them. Wabi-sabi is something else. At its root, wabi-sabi about what we let—or don’t let—our homes say about us.

Photo by Lindley Battle for House Method

What wabi-sabi means in 2018

For most, bringing the art of wabi-sabi into the home is not easy. The home design and decor magazines we scour for inspiration in creating our own homes celebrate immaculate spaces that have been staged by professionals, sometimes with furniture and accoutrement that have been brought in only for the purposes of the feature just to be taken out as soon as the crew has packed up their gear. Even we here at House Method have featured homes that have been staged, or at least “curated.” Inherent in inspiration is the idea that it’s something just a little beyond reach, just a little bit different, just a little bit better than what we’ve got.  

Our obsession with having beautiful homes is profound. A survey conducted last year of 1,000 Americans about what people are, and are not, willing to give up for better sleep found that respondents were willing to give up as much as 2.5 hours of sleep each night if it meant they could live in their dream home. In fact, respondents were willing to give up more sleep in exchange for their dream home than for any other option presented to them; this includes having their ideal sex life and landing their dream job.

There are manuals full of prescriptions for making your home perfect, and now plenty on how to make your home Instagram ready, but it seems that all that sleep we’re losing over our dream homes has us tired of trying to live up to those expectations. The rise of wabi-sabi in 2018 represents an exhaustion with the idea of a perfect home. If the popularity of hygge told us that we’re tired and would really like to catch up on John Oliver, the embrace of wabi-sabi tells us that we’ve found the sofa quite comfortable and you know what? The house doesn’t look so bad from here.

That word curation is one people like to throw around, so much so that it’s been drained of its meaning, whether that’s curation of our Instagram feeds, our wardrobes, or our homes. The end to the means that is “curation” is not simplicity or the cutting away of fat, the end is perfection, a manipulation of reality. The forecasted popularity of wabi-sabi is perhaps the remedy to this curation we’ve grown so tired of, the facade that’s been so taxing to maintain.

What a relief that wabi-sabi is on the rise, and not just because I hate to fold the laundry and put my water glasses in the sink. I don’t maintain an immaculate home or even one that’s perfectly styled, and I don’t believe in succumbing to that pressure, but perhaps with the rise of wabi-sabi, we’ll be able to find less-than-perfect spaces to inspire us, ones that are, in fact, real.


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