The Insider: The Perfect Imperfect

Defined in interior design as "Wabi-Sabi", discover the art of the perfectly imperfect.

Written by Clinton Smith



The English singer-songwriter Noel Gallagher once wrote in one of his musical lyrics that “true perfection has to be imperfect.” With interior design, that premise can be defined as Wabi-Sabi. The concept’s name may not be a term whose meaning is first known, but its ethos is quite simple: it is the Japanese art of finding beauty in an evolving, naturally imperfect world. No direct translation of the philosophy from Japanese to English exists, but "Wabi" means simplicity, while "Sabi" represents the beauty or serenity that comes with the passage of time.

In a minimalist Washington state home spa, designers at Portland-based Fieldwork used tile from Ann Sacks’ Savoy collection to create a zen-like private oasis. In a brilliant move, the tile—which is handcrafted by skilled artisans in Japan—was not only used on the walls, but the ceiling, too. The soft character of the glaze envelopes the space with a subtle play of warmth and texture.

It is not a purely visual concept. While Wabi-Sabi is a celebration of imperfection, it is not about crumble or decay. Quite the opposite: It’s really a daily practice of embracing irregularities with intention, and finding wisdom and harmony in natural simplicity.

At home, Wabi-Sabi isn’t about one set style or look. Even in new, spectacularly appointed contemporary spaces, a rustic furnishing or one whose patina shows the passage of time, adds a soulfulness to the room. Often, earthy, organic textures play a prominent role in Wabi-Sabi.

Although the philosophy has been practiced for hundreds of years, Suzanna Cullen Hamilton sees Wabi-Sabi being embraced by a new generation of design enthusiasts. As an antiques expert, lifestyle journalist and consultant to the design community, she has seen the evolution first hand.

“Patina, one-of-a-kind textures, and unique forms always add interest to a room, whether it’s with a chair, table or a tile,” says Hamilton. “Those details make a room interesting, sophisticated, and intelligent.”

Ann Sack’s MADE Modern collection incorporates crisp geometry and simple, fluid details. Developed in the company’s signature stoneware body and paired with glazes that break beautifully at the edges, the tiles create a subtle play of shadow and light. All MADE by Ann Sacks tiles are conceived, handcrafted and refined at the company’s factory in Portland. Each tile is made to order to exact specifications and hand-finished at every stage, and 100 artisan glazes are available (or you can customize your own).

In a world where mass manufacturing and production is the norm, creating pristine reproductions with exacting detail, incorporating something artisanal in a space insures that you have something wholly unique.

“Anytime something is handmade, you will never find two of the same,” says Hamilton. “Therein lies the authenticity, individuality and specialness of the piece. Anything handmade always adds a new layer of interest.”

Ann Sack’s Context ceramic line—available in an array of rich colors—is acclaimed for its artisanal and multi-dimensional glaze effect that creates exceptional movement. A subtle shimmer illuminates with a shifting of color as reflective light moves across the tile face. Offered in a variety of field and mosaic formats, Context is handcrafted by the artisans of Tajimi, Japan, a city renowned for its expertise in ceramics.

Wabi-Sabi extends well beyond decorative home furnishings. It can apply to fixed surfaces, as well, such as tile.

“Whether it’s a delicate crackle finish or the variation caused by the pooling of the glaze, those details create movement in the piece,” says Hamilton. “There’s a fluidity, and you can see the hand of the maker. These subtle shifts lure one’s eye into a space.”

Embracing the modesty and humility of a material is also a hallmark of Wabi-Sabi. In the natural world, unusual veining in an otherwise neutral marble, which might be seen as an outlier, can be transformed into a showstopping focal point, whether as a mantel, countertop or flooring.

Ann Sacks’ Terrazzo Renata evokes the alluring and timeless beauty of Old Italian terrazzo, yet is suitable for both traditional and contemporary settings. In a chic powder room, Los Angeles designer Genna Margolis of Shapeside incorporated the Terrazzo Renata field tile in Grey. Terrazzo Renata includes marbles from the Carrara mountains, which are selected for their fine variation in size, composition and coloration.

“No two stones are ever the same,” says Hamilton, “And you have to celebrate that. Each is going to have individual characteristics that, in some cases, could never be recreated by machines or in a factory. Sometimes a unique streak or veining can be the centerpiece, but in other instances, the variations are very subtle. They don’t always have to be so overt that they command the rooms they’re in. Sometimes, they’re quiet backdrops.”

In a tranquil Colorado bathroom, Designer Robin Riddle deftly imbued the space with an array of soothing neutral colors and finishes. A wall of rectangular mosaics from Ann Sacks’ Pala collection adds varying texture and an understated, organic feel. The Pala Collection is an eclectic mix of stones in three distinctive designs. Its classic Italian marble, limestone, and travertine stone feature a varying range of veining, mineral colorations and other demarcations.

However you incorporate Wabi-Sabi into your home or daily lifestyle, consider the second lyric of Gallagher’s song: “True perfection has to be imperfect. I know that sounds foolish, but it's true.” True, indeed.

February 18, 2022

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