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Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers ... and parents?

I found the concept of this book freeing, both in terms of my approach to design and motherhood. Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese philosophy that celebrates the beauty in the imperfections of life and redefines our perception our world. It teaches us to be forgiving of ourselves and our surroundings, to accept the incompleteness and impermanence of things.

Photo by K8 Hofmann on Unsplash

This ancient outlook challenges contemporary understanding of ‘minimalism’ as the quintessential expression for the ‘seamless, polished and smooth’ and it focuses instead on the “irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy and simple”. It celebrates the natural cycles of growth and the processes of aging and decay, inviting us to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of cracks, textures, wrinkles and folds and put aside for a moment our pretense for rigor and purity.

As human beings we come from nature and at the end of the day it is the organic in its perfect imperfection that represents a more accurate reflection of our lives. Koren defines in his book modernism as “future-oriented, geometric, rational and progressive”, while wabi-sabi is centered around the “present-oriented, organic, intuitive and variable. One romanticizes technology and the other nature. If there is an answer, it is probably somewhere in the middle. By embracing the flaws and effects of time upon our material world we have an opportunity as designers to create richer, more authentic and sustainable, nature-inspired environments that respond directly to the needs and emotions of those inhabiting them.

"Pare down to the essence, but don't remove the poetry."(Leonard Koren)

Kintsugi - repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, public domain (Wikimedia)

As architects it’s easy to fall in the trap of perfectionism and as women we’re taught by the current work culture that perfectionism is supposed to be a big part of our success. The perils of self-doubt and self-criticism are real and it is this lack of tolerance towards ourselves that often holds us back. As Sally Arnold underlines in her article “Do Female Architects Embody the Perfection Myth?” - “Women strive to stand out in the architecture field – to tick all the boxes and ensure perfect results. Yet men will often look at a job specification, career posting and move down the list and say ‘I can do most of what is asked’ and ahead they go.”

The goal is not to try to adapt to a mindset that is innately not compatible to ours, but perhaps learning to give ourselves the space to make mistakes and learn from them could make a difference. It’s not about lowering our professional standards but simply obsessing less about delivering perfection in the way we look, talk and work. I believe it is then when our creativity is at its highest, when we can truly communicate.

"Wabi-sabi acknowledges that just as it is important to know when to make choices, it is also important to know when not to make choices: to let things be." (Leonard Koren)

Once we become parents we each uphold to carefully defined ideals and standards that add to the pressure of our daily lives. As women, we wear the marks of motherhood on our bodies. Navigating through the trials of both profession and parenthood has taught me that at best of times perfection is not only unattainable but perhaps not even desirable. We are human. We make mistakes, we are in constant motion, we change, we break and we fall and then we pick up the pieces and carry on. One step at a time. As parents, uncertainty is waiting around the corner every single day and perhaps embracing the mess and inevitable moments of chaos could help us break away from achieving the text-book parenting ideal. There is something very humbling about acknowledging this.

We are not perfect and neither are our children. How about embracing the goal of allowing ourselves and those around us to make mistakes once in a while? Let’s teach our children to live freely, to think and act creatively, to live passionately even though this implies some serious mess once in a while. Let’s lead by example and show them that life is not perfect - and that’s okay.


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