Many years ago, I was in a pottery studio making a series of bowls. The instructor, a talented man who creates incredible large vases, took one look at a bowl I was making and remarked, “In Japan, there is a philosophy known as wabi-sabi which finds beauty in all things that are imperfect.”
I was convinced at that moment I was being given a gentle and indirect message suggesting my pottery wheel creation was not up to snuff. Perhaps that was the case, as the bowl was a bit wonky. Then again, if I listened closely, really closely, to his words, “beauty in all things that are imperfect,” I might be onto something new. There is a lot to be said for this design concept and its celebration of imperfection. Since that morning, and now living in this old farmhouse, Roger and I have discovered that wabi-sabi is not only an idea worth embracing, but we have no other choice but to willingly and enthusiastically group all our restoration interventions as a type of wabi-sabi.
Let me be specific about our next, and rather large, project that will likely feature wabi-sabi in spades. We have a spacious room with an en-suite bathroom in the lower floor of the house, which was once an old barn. When we moved in, we used this room as a guest room. It was not a great space, but that didn’t stop us from putting visiting friends and family there during our first few months. Although cold and damp it was also very charming, and some might say cozy if you piled on enough blankets. The thing is, you could see its potential! This visible capacity to become a fabulous room would reveal itself after we sorted out the wobbly toilet, which had never been seated into the floor properly, the leaky skylights and the running streams of water down the southern wall. The room’s potential grew for those with sharp eyes who could see beyond the above rotting beams. But everyone, including the less observant, could extol the room’s full potential if we would only get rid of the carpeting, which held all manner of damp and dirt creating a musty, slightly wet smell.
Thankfully, our roof repair addressed the water running down the wall and we replaced those leaky skylights. In the past year, this wall has dried out.
While the roof project was underway, we replaced the rotting beams with locally sourced 10-inch, green oak beams. They may be a little over engineered, but the floor sitting above is now going nowhere! As the wood ages, it is beginning to dry and crack (think Wabi-Sabi, again) in the most beautiful way. Each beam weighs nearly a ton, and Roger and two other men hoisted them into place. My job? As we used a car jack to lift up the beams, I had to place the shunts underneath to maintain the height. Four people, three beams, two days to put them into place.
Then we encountered something of a hiccup. During all this activity, the shower was broken — and there is a long story about how this could not be easily fixed, something to do with electricity and a few other unanticipated challenges. Between the useless shower, wobbly toilet and filth from installing the new beams, the room became unusable. On top of its previous odour, the carpet was now filled with mud, muck, concrete, rocks, sand, sawdust, spilt tea, and all manner of other unidentifiable things that weren’t worthy of being vacuumed. While there were no longer rivers of water falling down the walls, the stones needed time to carry on drying. We did what anyone would do faced with these sorts of challenges: we stopped dead in our tracks and turned our attention to other things. That was a year ago.
Despite it all, you could still see this room’s potential. Honestly, how could you miss it?
Distracted and actively avoiding this demanding project, we allowed the damp carpeting to stay far too long. One afternoon I could stand it no longer and ripped it all out. I cut it into manageable sizes, rolled them up, shoved them into the car, and headed to the tip. That carpeting is now gone, gone, gone, and not at all missed. Some things are not wabi-sabi; they are just god-awful.
This gesture propelled us back into action and we made our list of projects, suppliers, and tradesmen to assist and are now ready to get started. Here’s what work awaits: Install new central heating system and boiler; address the two walls which suffered decades of damp and neglect; insulate, insulate, insulate; lay new wood floor; install stairs to replace the ladder which currently provides access to the room; install new windows; design and install a new bathroom; neaten up pipe work and provide more than one electrical outlet and a pull cord light; and build a wall to create two closets and hide the boiler.
In considering all the things we need to address in this next project, I am comforted by at least three parallels between modern Western design and the ancient Japanese philosophy: 1) Imperfection; 2) Impermanence; and, 3) Aged. Tick, tick and Tick! Before, I was worried about how we would ever tackle the downstairs that needed EVERYTHING done to it. Now, I am comforted, nay energized, with the knowledge that we are part of a design trend. Not just any trend, we are in really great company.
Just a quick look at renovation books and magazines for ideas and inspiration and I find all sorts of wabi-sabi: Ray and Charles Eames; Shaker simplicity; Shiho Kanzaki; Herman Miller; Danish Modern furniture; George Nakashima; Distressed furniture; Up-cycling; and the humble Amish Barn. For us, a shiny, perfectly smooth surface that looks like it has never been used is not very interesting. We like the natural shapes and colours of wood, the rough and sparkle of granite and we draw inspiration from the dramatic environment surrounding us. Slate grey, misty cloud white, moss green, oak brown and occasionally blue or yellow are the dominant colours. Oak, granite, and pine are the major materials.
Like the classic A-line dress, we are hoping for a timeless beauty and something that hints at its surroundings. We need to be realistic though, so will add some insulation, make the windows a little bigger, and with the additional radiators and whizzy new boiler, add some heat! In the end, we are aiming for an indigenous design that embodies simplicity and imperfect beauty. That’s the goal at least.
As I read more about wabi-sabi, I soon discovered a design movement known as Slow Design. Evidently, the Slow Design manifesto urges designers to “satisfy real needs rather than transient fashionable or market-driven needs by creating moments to savour and enjoy with the human senses.” Whatever. This manifesto seems a bit namby-pamby, but it contains the word slow and we like that. With all notions of deadlines and perfection fully removed from our efforts to improve the downstairs, we are ready to set about this huge project. Hurrah!
It’s a privilege to live in a house with so much history, surrounded by amazing countryside. As such, we accept a number of imperfections and seek instead to celebrate their beauty. Mostly, we have realized the renovation and restoration solutions of a house like this only come after living softly within its walls as it needs time to let us know the best way forward. Crockern Farmhouse just whispered, “Wabi-Sabi, baby.”