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Kathryn M. Ireland

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My Strange Love of Wabi-Sabi

Posted: 07/12/2011 6:44 pm

Every now and then, a client will tell me how they want their home to look, and I cringe, because they're describing a pristine museum-like set piece scenario. You and I both know the house. Visually perfect in every way,but ultimately inhospitable. No oxygen left in the composition for laughter or old people or anyone who doesn't have perfect balance. No room for kids or dogs. No place to live. But many people insist on turning their houses into some kind of fetish that delivers a voyeuristic thrill -- rooms to look at, but that have little capacity for real life. The French call this look coince (accent on the e), which means wedged or jammed or stuck or cornered.

You can't dance in a corner. An over-decorated/accessorized space leaves little room to do anything but sit with knees pressed together -- an aesthetic that completely breaks down when your new housekeeper sprays Formula 409 on your premium art books, paintings and candles while you're out getting your vagina re-contoured.

"Perfect" interior décor can be captivating in photographs, but underlying the flawless arrangement of drapery, wallpaper and furnishings is a palpable fear of anticipation -- when will this mirage of a showroom become, you know, "used?"

When I finish a job for a client, I advocate beating the fear to the punch with... more fear. Instead of waiting for wear and tear to happen naturally, throw something imperfect into the tableau so the wait's over. Better yet, "drop" a glass of red wine onto the rug and then grind a little foie gras into the stain immediately, so that you can get it over with and start living. If a room isn't inviting, what's the point? Nevertheless, people still chase those perfect rooms. (Be careful, because you can't actually do it and it's no fun if you can.)

So it's a little incongruous that I found myself practicing interior design in LA -- Earth's bastion of hyper-personal grooming and size zeros cruising around with flutes of un-drunk champagne. The décor equivalent of this Angeleno would be a monochromatic white on white living room with blonde on blonde furnishings, everything lined up and relined up, all square, with cadres of cushions and pillows fluffed and dented, coffee table art books perfectly stacked into pyramids and never cracked. And walls mirrored to maximize the impact of perfection through infinity.

I never had to unlearn this style because I've never been fastidious, thank God. I've never let a warped floorboard ruin my life. My aesthetic yardstick is, and always has been, comfort. Who cares if the table tops are not quite true? If the scale of upholstered furniture is slightly off? If some turned table legs are cabriolet and others are claw and ball? Getting everything to match and conform seamlessly to some ideal of perfection was never an option for me. With my triple D rack and a penchant for Pinot Grigio and wearing heels and making wild hand mannerisms, I've been the recipient of the icy stare of any number of tightly wound hostesses. The horror in their eyes is real as I bump into a marble-topped commode, shivering a porcelain tchotchke.

Maybe it's the English in me. My parents lived through World War II and their credo was "You make do." People at every income level were making do during wartime. My father, 'til the end of his life, took rolls of two-ply loo paper and made them one ply rolls. Generations that went through war and deprivation understand that what's important is life, and not aesthetics. Patina is a word that people throw around, but it's real, in that it's earned and should really be appreciated. One of the reasons I always love rehabilitating "ruined" properties is because I will not obliterate the patina of age -- I honor it and respect it as a reminder of what's truly important: A house is really only a stage for your life and the lives of your loved ones.

There's beauty in survival. I've learned you can actually train your eye to appreciate the flaw, the injury and the repair. That's wabi-sabi -- embracing the imperfect and the impermanence of nature... and life. I have a casual familiarity with this Japanese philosophy/aesthetic, but my takeaway is to enjoy the transience of everything. Perfection should never be a goal, because it's static -- a snapshot in time -- and can never be a moving picture.

There is more beauty associated with letting nature, and inevitable decay, take its course. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating a Grey Gardens way of life, where you let cats piss all over your portraits and raccoons have the run of the parlor. Disrepair can be taken to an extreme. Wabi-sabi should never be a rationalization to quit trying. But we all have to let some things go.

I love aesthetics as much as the next person, but don't let them crowd out your life -- don't prioritize aesthetic order over spontaneous afternoon delight on a newly upholstered sofa or having your geriatric neighbor cruise over for chocolate fondue. Have fun and appreciate aesthetics equally, along with good food, drink, relationships, mistakes and carelessness. Appreciate repair. In the end, we're all just stewards of property and we're aging right along with it.

 

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