Wabi-sabi – a Japanese philosophy relating to the beauty found in modest things – is playing out in furniture from the likes of Timothy Oulton, Harding and Read, Studio Furthermore and others
29 May 2020
It took a bowl of over-cooked couscous for furniture designer Gavin Keightley to come up with the idea. Having experimented with the effects of various materials used for moulding gypsum-based moulding material Jesmonite, it struck Keightley that perhaps he could use various foodstuffs, for their unique textural qualities. Couscous was followed by bread, agar jelly and mashed potato. And the results – stools, tables and chests of drawers – look like they’ve been dredged from the seabed, or have been formed from lava.
“The texture gives each piece a uniqueness, because you can’t make more than one – the mould won’t take it,” says Keightley, who is now working on a ceramics collection using the same process. “But I’m also a tactile person and I think too many objects have their appeal primarily in the way they look. We’re living in visual times in which the value of something might lie in how Instagrammable it is. So we’re surrounded by these shiny, perfectly-finished objects. I can make those kinds of highly-finished pieces – but I also love the rawness you can create in other pieces, too.”
Keightley’s day job is designing bespoke furniture for Princess, the yacht-builder, for whose boats everything is finished to the Nth degree. Keightley’s experimental, food-moulded pieces couldn’t provide more of a contrast. But they’re also not alone: there’s a shift in furniture and interior product design from the glossy to the grungier, from the perfect to the happily imperfect. Pieces seem unfinished, worn, rough, highlighting the hands-on reality of the hand-crafted.
“I think this interest in the imperfect stems initially from a big resurgence of interest in craft-made objects,” explains Iain Howlett, co-founder of Bethnal Green-based Studio Furthermore, whose works include Moon Rock – occasional tables made from a material akin to lunar rock, complete with tiny bumps, craters and rough edges – and Bark, a collection of furniture pieces made of ash structures and finished with bark from the same tree from which the wood was harvested. Its Fuchila chair – a tubular metal frame suspending a wire mesh arrangement, through which is woven the textile that supports the sitter – even comes literally unfinished.
“You see this perfection in so many manufactured objects now – phones, say, are now made to the same level as a fine wristwatch – but they all tend to look the same,” he adds. “But there’s also been this big shift over the last 10 years – and I don’t think it’s just generational. It’s as though we’ve reached some saturation point with perfection. Instead we’re after objects with which we can have some emotional connection – objects that express the fact that they’re hand-made, that are bold and proud about being hand-made.”
Howlett also argues that this new mood chimes with growing environmental awareness: a sense that imperfection is more in keeping with nature. It’s a mood that is growing, too, with niche manufacturers seeking to explore the unfinished aesthetic – not without challenges, contends Howlett, given the complexities of bringing imperfection into mass-manufacturing processes. That’s something Studio Furthermore has found with its new update on the lost wax casting method, instead using what it calls lost foam casting – akin to the process used to produce the mirror mountings for space telescopes – to develop a production line of Parian wares that, well, look like they’re made of foam.
Indeed, signs of imperfection are even being built into cookie-cutter products, “so you end up with a thousand identically imperfect pots,” laughs Howlett. That leaves the onus on an astute consumer to spot the difference between the genuinely raw and the artificially raw, like knowing the difference between the genuinely old and worn and the new and artificially worn. Small wonder then that he speaks of the difficulty not just of making these objects, but in communicating and retailing them.
“There’s a degree of push and pull going on,” argues Isolde Jaspard Mandy, studio director for the textiles designer/maker Vanderhurd, based in Notting Hill, which, by exposing more of the usually-hidden warp in its weaving, as well as the weft, has rugs and other textiles that seek to reveal the nature of their own construction, rather than just the finished product. “Some customers want imperfection but not too much. They want a sense that a product has been hand-made, but not too many signs of that. But there are so many options now in textiles and furnishings that there’s an awareness at least that this is the kind of effect that isn’t something you get through mass-production. Machine-made textiles are getting more sophisticated but as yet they’re not able to escape a certain uniformity that gives it away.”
“This isn’t about distressing a textile to make it look old or worn,” Mandy adds. “It’s about new ways of expressing old hand skills – especially in an industry that is losing a lot of its expert skills base. When something’s distressed it doesn’t have the signature of the individual who made it. And one thing people really want now is for there to be some kind of story behind the things they buy that the human touch brings.”
Of course, the idea of producing goods with imperfections is not a new one. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi is an ancient one, with Zen Buddhist roots, an idea characteristically not written down but passed down from master to pupil. By one definition it’s an aesthetic appreciation of the transience of beauty, and particularly the beauty found in modest things, those imperfect and even decaying. By another definition it’s focused on the appreciation of simple, humble, even poor things, those perhaps embodied by the use of natural materials in a rustic style, which again reflect imperfections, not as some fault in the making, but as a consequence of the materials used, the processes through which they are put, or even just as a result of their use. Historically, it was an appreciation for the utilitarian over the expensive, the harmony and essence of a particular thing.
What’s more, it’s a deliberate choice – the very wealthy through Japanese history could have selected the very finest, ‘best made’ objects, but if they followed the thinking of wabi-sabi, they chose the simple and unpretentious. A patchily glazed and chipped sake cup, which just wouldn’t be the same with a new glaze and no chip. The philosophy also invites closer inspection of the things we consider to be perfect in order to find their imperfections: the scratches and pits in the edge of a seemingly super-sharp razor-blade when seen under a microscope, for example.
“I think the idea of embracing imperfection is a new one for Europe,” argues the designer Fernando Laposse, whose work includes a bench made with sisal, the material more commonly used to make ropes; a series of furniture pieces made from loofah, the tropical fruit used as a shower scrub; and a collection of bowls made using paper waste and corn husks. “Look to other cultures, not just the Japanese but also that of Mexico, where I’m from, and you see a lack of precision is common to their aesthetic palette. They embrace the kind of characteristic that’s long been lacking in countries with more industrialised manufacturing. But it’s interesting to see the likes of the UK now embrace those ideas of the unfinished and imperfect, seeing how it was the birthplace of the machine age and of standardisation.”
But he also thinks there is some work to be done before this design approach finds widespread acceptance. He cites his use of natural dyes, which tend to lose their initial vibrancy over time, relative to synthetic dyes, and the fact that not everyone gets it. There’s an education required before consumers are open to the ideas of the things they buy reflecting human touch, roughness, transience.
“It is coming,” says Laposse. “Changes in the way we look at things like this used to come from the luxury market, but you can see now how that is responding to these ideas in a bid to give their products some kind of narrative. It’s the little things that express real wabi-sabi as opposed to a faked kind. And we’re already starting to see ‘fakes’ – objects that are hand-made to start with but then finished by machine. You see it especially in ceramics, that ‘hand-thrown’ wobbly look can come straight from the mould. The danger is that this kills a craft movement just as it starts to get traction. I hope not – at last we’re starting to see more objects that have personality, that have some character.”