I've been taking a lot of books out of the library recently on
Japanese aesthetics and Japanese woodworking tools and techniques.
I've been really intrigued by the concept of "wabi sabi" which has
been prevalent in much of Japanese craft/utilitarian design.
Sometimes wabi sabi is translated as "the art of impermanence". Other
authors have phrased it as "the patina of the old and the flash of the
new". (Some have passed it off as "the new Feng Shui", but that's
topic for another thread.) Everyone agrees that it is a difficult
concept to translate concisely. In short, for those not familiar with
it, it is the idea developed by Zen Buddhist monks and tea ceremony
masters that items should be simple, made of natural materials, and
that they need not be perfect. Indeed, it is their imperfections that
make these objects more dear because perfection leaves no room for
improvement while imperfect suggests the infinite possibilities.
But even as I was doing this reading, I kept thinking back to another
book I loved, David Pye's "The Art and Nature of Craftsmanship" which
I'm sure many of you have read. In it he discusses the "craftsmanhip
of risk" (handcrafted) as in different from the "craftsmanship of
certainty" (machine made). It's a fascinting treatise on how a
craftsman does everything he can to reduce the risk and increase the
certainty of his results. Pye has a phrase for objects some observers
may praise as having "wabi sabi" qualities: "gritty pots and hoary
So, on the one hand, we have a school of thought that values design
that is direct, unadorned and doesn't try to hide its imperfections,
made by "the unkown craftsman" (to borrow the title of Soetsu Yanagi's
book). On the other hand, we have Pye's advocation of mastering the
materials and techniques of one's craft to be able to fully realize
the potential of an item.
Which leaves me conflicted. While I can appreciate the concepts of
the wabi sabi approach and genuinely like much of Japanese design, why
would any self-respecting craftsman not put his heart and soul into
doing the very best that he can to design and build objects worthy of
appreciation? Indeed, when I read about the extraordinary lengths
Japanese master carpenters and metalsmiths used to go to, I have to
beleive they were not thinking "Oh, it's okay if this joint is a
little loose or this blade a little rough because, after all, it's
I'm building a chest of drawers now which follows some of the concepts
of "wabi sabi" in that is being made of natural materials (wood) and
has a simple design without fancy adornment and unhidden joinery (what
I call "honest construction"). But at the same time, I'm doing my
darnedest to minimize the mistakes and make it the very best that I am
capable of, both for my own satisfaction and that of the end user (who
happens to be SWMBO). All of this kind of leaves me thinking of a
phrase by the American photographer John Sexton: "Strive for
perfection. Tolerate excellence."
What think you guys?