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Wabi-sabi and Grunge

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term for an aesthetic that appreciates the beauty of ordinary objects no matter how imperfect, incomplete, or humble they are (Figure 1.16). It is an acceptance of the truth of life's impermanence. Although the idea of decay or incompletion has a negative connotation in Western culture, Zen Buddhism sees this inevitable predicament as a transcendence of worldly concerns; therefore, it has the positive perspective of liberation. From a philosophical standpoint, wabi-sabi is the recognition of worldly things exactly as they are in the present moment with no judgment or excessive thought about what they used to be or might become. It is an awareness and acceptance of life's endings and beginnings.

Figure 1.16

1.16 Wabi-sabi principles are often incorporated into freeform structures like pottery. But these principles can encompass anything that is human-generated and takes on a spontaneous shape; for instance, releasing leaves or petals to fall into an unplanned pattern when they land in a garden.

This is a foreign idea to most Westerners, whose values are determined by reliability, predictability, and materialism. Although the Japanese version of wabi-sabi is an acceptance of irregular beauty and is a state of letting it be, the Western version comes from another perspective. A dominant cultural interpretation of the Eastern-styled wabi-sabi outlook is grunge. Grunge—or messy, chaotic design—breaks the rules (Figure 1.17). It is a trend response that rebels against cultural mores when they become too restrictive. From surfer to punk, grunge design has been used as a visual antithesis to materialism and superficial values. The difference between these two cultural outlooks is significant: Grunge tears down or interrupts in a reactive way, whereas wabi-sabi simply appreciates the reality of the living process. Beliefs gauge the status of internal and external values, and determine which has dominance. Modern cultural values have a tendency toward active and offensive action, whereas many traditional cultures, particularly in the Eastern hemisphere, tend toward passivity and acceptance. Both have their appropriate place. You have the ability to choose which one to use as a design aesthetic depending on the circumstances.

Figure 1.17

1.17 Northwestern United States grunge designer Art Chantry reinforces his client base of musicians and artists with funky grunge techniques and visual shock tactics (opposite).

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