We Americans routinely beat ourselves up in the pursuit of what we consider to be perfection. In my line of work, for example, it’s nothing for a homeowner to turn apoplectic over a tiny scratch in a newly installed floor, or to insist that a contractor replace a ceramic tile whose color varies ever so slightly from its mates. In today’s litigious atmosphere, this righteous demand for a very Western ideal of perfection can have even top-flight contractors quaking in fear of their clients — hardly the basis for an ideal working relationship.
Our friends in Japan, on the other hand, have an entirely different aesthetic viewpoint. They acknowledge that imperfection is a quality inseparable from any human effort, and what’s more, they believe that imperfection has aesthetic worth in itself. So central is this idea to the Japanese sense of beauty that it has a name: wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi is a concept roughly analogous to the West’s ideal of perfection, which we inherited from ancient Greece. Western architects, for example, have accepted the Greek architectural orders as the proportional ideal for centuries. Yet the Greek brand of perfection requires an object to have a complete absence of flaws — to be, as Plato put it, "apt, suitable, without deviations."
Wabi-sabi, on the other hand, explicitly accepts and even celebrates such "deviations" as an inherent quality of any human undertaking — a belief beautifully expressed by author Richard R. Powell in his book "Wabi Sabi Simple: Create beauty. Value imperfection. Live deeply."
"Wabi-Sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts; nothing is finished; and nothing is perfect."
The term wabi-sabi can variously be interpreted as "wisdom in rustic simplicity" — a common Japanese definition — or, more generally, as "flawed beauty." The word wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, but in more recent centuries has come to mean rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness. Sabi is the beauty or serenity that comes with age — once again, an implicit recognition of imperfection. The Western term patina is perhaps the nearest analog, though its meaning is quite literally more superficial.
It’s important to note that wabi-sabi doesn’t discourage the pursuit of perfection, but simply acknowledges that true perfection is unattainable no matter how fervently we pursue it. The fortunate flip side of this truth is the belief that time, usage and the anomalies of human effort — the very forces that obviate perfection — actually add new dimensions of beauty to objects rather than diminishing them.
Given all the anxiety I’ve seen clients expend on pursuing perfection in their own remodeling projects, they’d do well to experience at least a dash of the exhilarating freedom the wabi-sabi viewpoint can provide. Is it really worth losing sleep over that tiny scratch in the hardwood floor? It will, after all, very quickly be joined by dozens and finally hundreds more.
Does this make the floor any less beautiful? To my mind, not to speak of the Japanese mind, it does just the opposite: By evincing the traces of those who’ve crossed it over the years and eventually the decades, it becomes a testament, not to inhuman perfection, but rather to imperfect humanity.