view as:

2018  •  book design  •  Wabi-sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers is a book about its titular named Japanese cultural philosophy rooted in the Japanese tea ceremony and folk craft, which the author describes as "a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. (A) beauty of things modest and humble. (A) beauty of things unconventional." I felt that its book design did not correspond to the ideals described in the text: that of immateriality, degration of items over time, and intimacy. A custom edition was designed to honour the contents of the book and as a personal effort to improve my understanding of wabi-sabi trough the act of craft.

“(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.”

—Leonard Koren

When most Japanese persons are asked to explain what wabi-sabi is, “they’ll shake their head, hesitate, and offer a few apologetic words about how difficult it is to explain.” [1] Koren claims that this is because Japanese persons “have never learned about wabi-sabi in intellectual terms.” [1] I largely disagree with him—I believe that describing wabi-sabi in a manner that removes the context of Japanese culture—besides historical ones—is frankly a disservice to the philosophy at worst and a source of at least some misunderstanding at best. Given the interconnection of wabi-sabi as a set of ideals and Japanese culture as a whole, reducing wabi-sabi to the former is to thereby describe a philosophy that may have many elements of wabi-sabi, however, can’t truly be wabi-sabi in the Japanese sense of the word precisely because it lacks the baggage of Japanese culture and its associated language, history, and manners of understanding the world.

I largely ignored the book upon my first reading until that following summer where I worked in wilderness of BC, Canada, [2] where I lived in a tent several months to slave away working 9–12 hours a day, seven days a week. Needless to say, no luxuries were included: no showers, toilets, running water, or internet. [3] As cliche as it is to mention, it taught me how little is required for a human being to survive. The values of the book started to come back to as I began to realize that the largest flaws of the book was not so much its content—which for its faults, had some merit—as much as the book as a physical object and its associated book design. Wabi-sabi is not something that can merely be told trough a book alone. It is something that needs to be learned trough complete embodiment; it requires an entire culture, underlying system, and society. It is a lifestyle, namely something that requires a small scale, more communal, and more hand-crafted society compared to the book as a large-sized, glue-bound, mass-produced object. Moreover, the book design felt very cold. The typography was set at a giant size and it was the first time I’ve seen a Humanist sans-serif in a large size with massive leading be so illegible. In addition, interjected between chapters are photographs of objects that the author believes have the quality of wabi-sabi, which are supplemented with his own commentary.

I decided that the best way to understand wabi-sabi, was trough the act of craft. I tried to design something that hopefully resembled wabi-sabi a little more authentically. I aimed at something smaller and intimate following the tinier Japanese book sizing standards. The book was assembled by hand with the most mundane and humble materials. In place of a higher quality paper stock for the outer pages, a lower-quality one was chosen: craft paper. In place of photographs that the author imposes on the reader as objects of wabi-sabi, I thought that it should be the reader that should come to their own subjective understanding of what is and isn’t wabi-sabi. The pages between chapters would be ones weathered down by folds, cuts, and water damage, that—in any other scenario—would be disregarded as a sign of a worn-down and used novel read a thousand times.[4]

Ultimately, this story of a book’s ignorance is also one of my own. Despite this project, I still admit that my understanding of this topic is very shallow. The idea that one can quickly master a philosophy in a manner of days or months with no prior experience or background is nothing but a Hollywood fantasy, but the least I can do is broaden my own understanding to a way of living I wasn’t as aware of before, even if it’s miniscule. Maybe, just maybe, there is an unexpected virtue in ignorance, with the right intentions.

  • [1] From Wabi-sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.
  • [2] Specifically, it was a morel drying camp.
  • [3] It was just myself lacking internet actually, as I lacked a data plan for my phone at that time.
  • [4] For the record, I do believe that a battered down used paperback is the proper way to read most older novels. It feels wrong to read a new edition of anything by Orwell, Kafka, Kerouac or Kundera on top of my head.

related work