Saturday 19 January 2019

Interiors: Get Sabi savvy

Forget about perfection, this Japanese tradition is all about embracing natural materials and rough textures

Jo Linehan and Caroline Foran of Gaff Interiors
Jo Linehan and Caroline Foran of Gaff Interiors
Rural rug in Aztec print €109, also Dutchbone
Shelf Iron display cabinet, €649, Dutchbone
Coco ceiling lamp, €109, from Dutchbone at Woo Design
A woven screen, €435, from Out There Interiors

Eleanor Flegg

Your home doesn't have to be perfect. Sighs of relief all round! The Japanese tradition of wabi sabi is hitting the headlines as the next big thing in interiors. Wabi sabi is all about finding beauty in imperfection. If you like crumpled linen sheets, hand-thrown ceramics, and things that don't match, you're already half-way there.

Last October, Elle Décor flagged wabi sabi as "2018's soon-to-be-biggest design trend."

But wabi sabi is neither a trend nor a style - it's a way of perceiving beauty. The Western aesthetic tends to favour perfection. That's probably the lingering influence of Classical Greece (the Ancient Greeks preferred things without cracks).

In Japan, they developed a different way of looking at the world, including wabi sabi. And, as with many things Japanese, Westerners struggle to understand the concept.

Jo Linehan and Caroline Foran of Gaff Interiors
Jo Linehan and Caroline Foran of Gaff Interiors

In 1994, an American writer called Leonard Koren wrote a book on it; Wabi sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers (1994).

"Wabi sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional," he wrote.

Koren's book became the handbook for the 1990s interiors trend known as Shabby Chic. The Urban Dictionary defines shabby chic as a style invented by paint manufacturers to "promote painting things, then rubbing most of it back off, and people with no money who don't mind living with old crap battered furniture".

That's a bit harsh. While it's certainly true that shabby chic has dated, wabi sabi is not and has never been an excuse for being a slob.

The contemporary understanding of wabi sabi is subtler and more sophisticated than shabby chic.

"Wabi sabi is everything that today's sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn't," wrote Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor of Natural Home in 2001. "It's flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses… To discover wabi sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly."

Rural rug in Aztec print €109, also Dutchbone
Rural rug in Aztec print €109, also Dutchbone

At that level, it's almost a spiritual thing.

There's more to wabi sabi than interior decoration, but it does offer a cool new way to look at your home.

"It's our steer for the year," say Jo Linehan and Caroline Foran of Gaff Interiors. "Finding the perfection in the imperfect is super-affordable!" Their interpretation of wabi sabi includes working with what you already have (always easy on the pocket) and moving away from luxury-based items to embrace natural materials and rough textures. "It's not about colour coding or having things in alphabetical order," the Gaff girls explain.

"And it's definitely not for folks with OCD. You might have bookends, for example, but they wouldn't have to match."

If your tastes run to opulence, ornamentation, and symmetry, then wabi sabi is not for you. Retro industrial objects, made to look as though they've acquired a patina over time, sit nicely with the wabi sabi aesthetic.

The Dutch design company, Dutchbone, has some lovely pieces. They're available internationally from Cuckooland and in Ireland from Woo Design.

Shelf Iron display cabinet, €649, Dutchbone
Shelf Iron display cabinet, €649, Dutchbone

The Shelf Iron display cabinet (€649) offers an unselfconsciously wabi sabi context for the display of mismatching objects; the Coco ceiling lamp (€109) in stained mango wood and copper, has been torched to give the impression of patina; while the Rural rug in Aztec print (€109) is pre-faded.

In terms of wabi sabi shopping, the Gaff girls like the ceramics of Arran Street East. "We're not saying they're rough, but they're definitely not your usual perfect."

A mug from Arran Street East costs €33, but that's ok because you only need one. Wabi sabi isn't about matching sets of objects.

They also like the mismatched glassware in Sostrene Grene, vases in which you might place a single flower from the hedgerow (formal bouquets aren't very wabi sabi).

But their main tip is that you don't have to go out and buy loads of new things. "We don't live and die by trends," they explain. "Sometimes it's enough to make a very simple change, like buying a single candlestick."

Wabi sabi is more about learning to appreciate objects that you already have than going shopping. If you want to trigger your appreciation of wabi sabi, flea markets and charity shops are a good place to start.

Linehan recently admired a set of wicker furniture, only to find that its owner had purchased it in Age Action on Dublin's Camden Street. Fans of rattan and Japanese décor will appreciate the woven screen (€435) available online from Out There Interiors. Delivery to Ireland costs an extra €85 but this charge could include several other large items so it makes sense to group your orders. Items classed as accessories, like their handmade ceramic pot with copper glaze €62, qualify for free delivery.

Concrete accents are very wabi sabi and can range from a concrete pendant over a kitchen island to the kick-ass concrete and neon collection from Irish designers Al+Eil.

These are simple cast-concrete objects painted with geometric shapes in neon colours, ranging from a single concrete coaster (€6) to a tall concrete succulent planter (€38).

You'll be hearing a lot more about wabi sabi over the coming year, mostly from people like me who are only just beginning to get to grips with it. We're not ill-informed, it's just a difficult concept for Western people to grasp and for Japanese people to explain.

In 2009, Marcel Theroux put this to the test when he travelled to Japan to make the television documentary, In Search of Wabi Sabi, for BBC 4. He was inspired by a book, Living Wabi Sabi, by Taro Gold.

In the book, Gold challenged his readers to "ask people on a Tokyo Street to describe wabi sabi." Theroux did just that and found that, just as Gold predicted: "they will give you a polite shrug and explain that wabi sabi is simply unexplainable."

If you'd like to meet the Gaff girls - and avail of their expertise - they will be hosting charity interiors events in the DFS Limerick store on Tuesday, March 20, and DFS Cork store on Thursday, March 22. The free events are themed around "using colour to create happiness" . To book a place, email, stating your city of choice. See,,,,,,,,

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