Wabi-Sabi, not Wasabi

Ever wonders why Japanese take such a big place in the design world? And what makes the subtlety featured in Japanese designs the way it is?

In Japanese design, art, poetry or literature, there is a noticeable tendency towards simplicity and restraint. Whether it is Sakata’s Blank, Mende’s Anniversary Matches or Fukasawa’s Juice boxes, the metaphor behind those minimally processed designs is subtle. It all comes back to the Buddhism beliefs that have been profoundly influencing Japanese from generation to generation and nourished unique Japanese culture. Wabi-Sabi, a deep cultural thread of Zen principles, has become the essentials of Japanese aesthetics, brought up to the world by a great many of distinguished Japanese designers.

In the book Wabi-Sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers, Leonard Koren suggests that Wabi-Sabi is “the most consipicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty” and it is “a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” The connotations of loneliness, frailty or resignation often conveyed through Japanese artistic expressions are derived from the Buddhism beliefs of Anicca or Impermanence where “we are all transient beings on this planets—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust.”

Blank – Saburo Sakata

Blank, a 2GB USB drive manufactured in cork to be housed inside a small glass bottle, is a capture of impermanence. The name itself, suggests an idea of emptiness. Digital data is constantly in flux, and it is something you can lose easily. The bottle itself, attempting to build a concrete shelter, suggests a layer of meaning to the idea of memories—something that is invisible. It is something metaphorical as the USB drive is a temporary storage for digital media and the bottle is storage for physical items. This design, as YUGEN, one of the Zen principles explains, works subtly to communicate messages hidden within. Now, with the bottle, the memory is safe and sound.

Furthermore, what the image itself provokes, which enhances the delivering of Wabi-Sabi, is worth talking about. The photography gives you a feeling of emptiness and timelessness. The product, which is photographed on a pure background with a soft tone and placed in the center, appears a little lonely in the set. The USB is in its blissful solitude, surrounded with oxygen, it can live, waiting to be used or not.


Strawberry Juice Skin by Naoto Fukasawa

Wabi-Sabi is a unique Japanese approach to design, and it is what makes Japanese design subtle, profound and timeless. The Buddhism is definitely one of the biggest inspirations for most Japanese designers. Naoto Fukasawa has a Japanese traditional philosophical book on his bedside table, according to his interview with designboom. Maybe it is not reflected in his Juice box designs that one of the key concepts of Wabi-Sabi is an appreciation of “negative” experience such as old age, poverty or loneliness, but if you look closely to it and feel it, don’t you see a kind of true naturalness and a sense of raw innocence? The strawberry juice box even has small seeds embedded in its surface! It is what it is. With Fukasawa’s interpretation, the packaging has become the skin of the juice, something unconventional, frank and uncomplicated—KANSO.