Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

An Ancient Japanese Aesthetic, Revived in Milan

Designers are rebelling against the notion of pristine objects. This year at Milan's Furniture Fair, that trend is on full display. But it's actually an ancient idea. For hundreds of years, Japan's dominant aesthetic has been wabi sabi, which values the impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. You know wabi sabi, if you've ever been to Japan or seen Japanese design—it's the rationale behind the mottled, asymmetric design in traditional houses, pottery, and gardens. The artisan's telltale traces are left as is, rather than buffed away; works are meant to mimic the random hand of nature.

That sensibility used to be absent in the west—Modernism being the exact antithesis of wabi sabi—but today, it's refuge for young designs. Which makes a certain sense, if you're a cutting-edge furniture designer: There are only a few ways to make a a product look perfect, but a million different routes to making it look messed up. With that in mind, here's some of the pieces from Milan that caught our eye. 

Designed by Tjep for Droog, a clearinghouse for conceptual design, the designs for these vases were borrowed from famous designers—the bubbly form is from a work by Marcel Wanders; the pink vase is by Hella Jongerius, for Ikea. But Tjep lined them with rubber, so that they don't don't break when dropped. Instead, they accrue cracks like a hard-boiled egg:





This lamp, by Fresh West for Moooi, is asymmetrical and imperfect to the extreme. Inspired by traditional Asian bamboo scaffolding and developed "without a design or plan," it was assembled from small pieces of wood notched and pegged together, then counterweighted at the bottom, so that the delicate scaffolding would stand.


Gitta Gschwendtner intended these stools as a wry comment on the ubiquity of disposable paper bags. Using one as a mold, she created these stools from a mixture of concrete and recycled wood fiber. From a distance, they look apt to be blown away; up close they're clearly concrete, bearing the weight of a huge rock.



Japanese designers, of course, grew up with wabi sabi. But its imprint remains. Tokujin Yoshioka's Clouds sofa, produced by Moroso, was inspired by fluffy white clouds and crumpled paper. He issued this statement, to explain his thinking: "I am fascinated by the elements of nature, their beauty is born of coincidence, that's beyond human imagination." Which is as pure an explanation of wabi sabi as any.



The "Craft Punk" show sponsored by Fendi is really wabi sabi, renamed for a younger audience. It features numerous handmade designs which embody the messy process of actually producing something. This piece, by the young hotshot Nacho Carbonell, was made with recycled leather, stapled together by hand: 


This table by Peter Marigold, looks haphazard, and in a way it is: The leather comes from remnant scraps, salvaged from the Fendi factory floor. But the willynilly shapes in the table come from the precise shape of a bisected square:



Another Craft Punk work, this one by Simon Hasan. The designer boils leather and forms these stools and vases by hand:




Related: Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling at the Milan Furniture Fair
Related: A Building? A Plane? Nope. It's Frank Gehry's Newest Chair
Related: Milan Report: Despite the Recession, New Brands Debut
Related: Knitted Furniture Finally Done, Knitted Wii Only a Matter of Time

Visit our Design Channel for more Milan 2009 coverage.