Wabi Sabi vs. David Pye

Wreckers,
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 cloth".
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 wabi sabi."
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?
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snipped-for-privacy@comcast.net (Ian Dodd) writes:
[...]

A very agreable point of view. By the way, would in you parenthesis about the end user HWMBO be more correct?
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On 13 Nov 2004 08:15:16 -0800, snipped-for-privacy@comcast.net (Ian Dodd) wrote:

Why did Nakashima allow a huge crack down the centre of his natural tables, but tie the two sides together with a perfectly fitted butterfly key ?
That's the difference between wabi sabi and sloppiness.
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On 13 Nov 2004 08:15:16 -0800, snipped-for-privacy@comcast.net (Ian Dodd) wrote:

I think someone is seriously misunderstanding what is going on. To get another perspective, I'd suggest reading D. T. Suzuki's "Zen Buddhism", which has an extensive discussion of this matter of wabi, sabi and Japanese aesthetics, especially in relation to the objects used in the tea ceremony.
Ignore for a minute the stuff about 'deliberate imperfections' because they leave room for improvement. I've never, ever heard that as a Japanese concept, either in classic or modern Japanese contexts.
Try this instead: There is always mastery in the Japanese aesthetic. The question is where the mastery lies.
In the case of objects used in tea ceremony, the masters of some schools did indeed use ordinary inexpensive cups and other ware from the marketplace. However they didn't use just any cups. They carefully examined hundreds, or thousands, of them to find the ones that were accidentally beautiful. In other words the mastery came in the selection, aided by the differences in the individual cups produced by the production process.
Having seen some tea articles assembled by masters in this way I can tell you that they are stunning in an austere sort of way.
I think part of the problem in Pye's formulation lies in confusing 'random' with 'imperfection'. The processes commonly used by craftsmen can eliminate randomness only with great effort. But we can control at least most of the effects of the randomness and the result is anything but imperfection. We use that randomness to help us produce beauty. That's why we eagerly seek out the wood with the most random grain for some objects and pay a premium to get it.
In other words, we _use_ that randomness in the pursuit of craftsmanship and one aspect of mastery is the ability to make the best possible use of the materials and processes we have.
--RC

Sleep? Isn't that a totally inadequate substitute for caffine?
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Think perfect craftsmanship, with imperfect materials.
(Ian Dodd) wrote:

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