How can a Western designer approach Japanese concepts of aesthetics and fundamental philosophies about the material and immaterial world? The history of the exchange between Western and Japanese aesthetic cultures is one of layered interpretations based on ideas in translation, inevitably flattened and distorted through the process into new cultural products. One could argue that Western artists and designers have had an unusually privileged role in building the outsider’s understanding of Japan retroactively through material interpretations.
This condition becomes even more complex when art and design are viewed not simply as creative fields but furthermore as forces of commodification. In that context, Japanese aesthetics are packaged for Western audiences as a cohesive unity of natural materials and formal simplicity under the guise of pseudo-Zen marketing jargon. A complex concept like wabi-sabi is chopped up and reconstituted into an easily digested framework for home redecoration, eliding any deeper spiritual associations. Does it bear any relation to the original idea? We might compare it to the phenomenon of ganguro, a Japanese fashion trend of the late 1990s that (among other influences) interpreted black American youth culture through a look involving deep tanned skin, offset by bleached hair and pale lipstick, as well as flashy jewellery and platform shoes. The exaggeration of this image of the West may be more obvious than the West’s distortion of wabi-sabi, but its loose approach to cultural heritage is comparable.
As a designer choosing to go to Japan and reflect on my experience through objects, I face the unavoidable problem of appropriating foreign concepts that are not inherent in my work. As someone raised and educated in Finland and later in the Netherlands, the question is even more complex, given some parallels between the indigenous cultures in Japan and Finland, both in the sense of spirituality embedded in natural objects and in the human manipulation of materials to a specific formal conception of the world. My understanding of the place during my travels was inescapably conditioned by my status not only as a stranger, but as a particular kind of stranger as well as an individual. Therefore, I did not want to create an interpretation based on my brief impressions of Japanese aesthetics, but to work from conceptual ideas to a new visual language.
My research centred on the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which I have understood as an acceptance of the impermanence of things, in contrast to the traditional Western design approach of mastering the physical realm and harnessing it into a stable expression of the creator’s vision. As in the previous idea of commodification, wabi-sabi tends to be essentialised in the West as a kind of studied imperfection related to natural materials like wood and clay. However, I chose to focus on the element of transience inherent to wabi-sabi, an element that has also played an important part in my previous work as a designer. For me, transience is not only a physical quality of the object itself, but also an inevitable quality of the relationship between the object and the viewer as a visual experience in space. In Japan, I saw this phenomenon in the kare-sansui or “dry landscapes”. The most famous example is the garden at the Zen temple of Ryōan-ji, a framed rectangular space in which five islands of dark rocks and moss are surrounded by a field of small white pebbles, raked into lines that mimic diffraction patterns of water. The viewer is intended to contemplate this arrangement from a wooden platform along one side, and each position generates a different visual comprehension of the space and the rocks within it; no single image of the space can accurately describe the design.