In the 70s it was avocado green appliances. The eighties — neons and melamine. Recent decades definitely had their own recognizable decor trends that were the height of style at the time but begged to be ripped out and redone to fit new tastes just a few years later. Excessive? Yes. Wasteful? Definitely. Over? Appears to be.
If today's crop of design blogs, magazines, and home decor books are any indication, there is a stampede away from the perfectly-done-in-the-latest-style rooms of the past toward a more sustainable, organic and personal approach that is both green and beautiful. Christine Lemieux, founder of DwellStudio, has titled this "movement" in her new book "Undecorate: The No-Rules Approach to Interior Design
." But like all good "old" things that are now new again, this idea has been around a while. The Japanese call it "wabi-sabi"
and it's a celebration of simplicity, living in the moment, and treasuring items that are meaningful to us and that have withstood, and even gained beauty from, the test of time.
Although there are different interpretations of the phrase wabi-sabi, in general "wabi" refers to the concept of simple, unmaterialistic, balanced and harmonious, while "sabi" suggests the bloom of time on objects or people. Sabi is rusty, weathered, tarnished and interesting. Sabi items have their own stories to tell and their uniqueness can only be gained through time and experience.
Put together, then, wabi-sabi in design seems to describe a simple minimalism where every item is both beautiful and useful. Nothing comes in the house that isn't well-loved and purposeful or has meaning. There is no excess or wastefulness. If an item gets chipped, scratched or worn, that simply adds to its "sabi" — it isn't thrown out or replaced with something new or cheap. A Japanese expert on Zen Buddhism describes wabi-sabi as "an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty" — not "poverty" as in destitution, but more in the sense of being unconcerned or not weighed down by material possessions and thoughts. Sounds pretty green to me!
In "Undecorate," Lemieux explores the concept of wabi-sabi indirectly by illustrating several home designs that have developed organically and that are constantly changing and fluctuating as their owners add things that speak to them. She celebrates homes that are lived in and that are a direct expression of the personalities that live in them, not a reflection of the latest must-have sofa or trendy paint color. In the introduction, she explains that "it's not about store-bought perfection, so it's easy on the planet. It's about being unafraid to do things yourself ... "
If the concepts of undecorating and wabi-sabi sound good to you, here are some tips for practicing them in your own home:
1. Raid your grandma's attic or your local thrift shop: Rather than heading to Target for a new bookshelf or art object, see what you can find that's already been made. Don't worry if it has a few chips or cracks in the paint. Think of the stories that piece could tell, think of its history, especially if it belonged to a relative or someone special.
2. Look for items that speak to you personally: Don't be chained to whether something is "in" or matches everything else you have. If you love it, and it has a purpose and can be useful, make it a part of your life.
3. But, don't just buy something to have it: If it's not useful, don't add it to your "I might use it someday" collection. In fact ...
4. Pare down: Keep only those items that have a purpose or are beautiful (ideally both), items that you admire and love to use. Get rid of everything else at a thrift store or by gifting things to people who will love and admire them.
5. Use natural materials: Wood, paper, natural fabrics like cotton or wool all tend to be vulnerable to time and weathering, which add to their sabi.
6. Repurpose: Use old items in new ways. If something has outlasted its usefulness, think of how it could be utilized for some other purpose. For example, one of my friends has a beautiful china teacup her grandmother gave her. It won't hold liquid anymore because of cracks, but does a fine job holding her cat's food and it looks beautiful on her countertop where she can see it and remember her grandma every day.
Both undecorating and wabi-sabi require a bit of letting go, a shift in mindset that might seem unnerving at first. But ultimately, the freedom and creativity they allow is energizing and a very sustainable way to treasure and honor your home, and ultimately yourself and the planet.