Japanese Aesthetics in Design.

Contemporary Japanese life is embedded with rich cultural, religious and spiritual traditions. These traditions inform and dictate the way in which Japanese people live their daily life and also in the way the material world is constructed around them.

These traditions go beyond merely a few simple guidelines by which to live ones life- rather they speak of a set of ideals that have existed for centuries but have only been exposed to the western world for a little over 200 years.

These ideals, and others, underpin much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms on what is considered tasteful or beautiful.

Below are the four main aesthetic ideals/principles and their relevance to the nature of design and form:

WABI-SABI:

The aesthetic defined as the beauty of things “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” (1).  This is the main principle that defines the way in which Japanese people view and design their material world. This ideal can be applied to all living and innanimate things in that it speaks of the transience of things- nothing is permanent and this is reflected in a Japanese person’s preference for something that is in bud or in decay as opposed to something that is in full bloom.

In this principle, beauty is not defined by it’s lavishness, exquisiteness or flamboyance- rather something beatiful can also be very mundane and simple. WABI-SABI is the most encompassing of the aesthetic principles in that it is made up of several smaller principles:

Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity;

Kanso: simplicity;

Koko: basic, weathered;

Shizen: without pretense, natural;

Yugen: subtly profound grace, not obvious;

Datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free;

Seijaku: tranquility.

(A fantastic article that elaborates on these seven principles can be found here: http://aenui.com/design/wabi-sabi-zen-aesthetic-principles/)

In the context of design, one can imagine how these  words could serve to influence the shape of a form. Though subtle in their nature, they are suggestive of a type of beauty rarely spoken of in western civilisation. While we (western folk) tend to focus on beauty that is merely skin deep, the Japanese seem to view beauty as a state; a moment in time- rich in meaning and interpretation.

Yūgen:

In the context of design, Yugen refers to objects that are imbedded with a refined elegance- though this is not to suggest that such objects are only for the upper classes. Instead, it means that to have an understanding of Yugen, you have to ‘work’ for it. To understand Yugen is to have a  “profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering” (2).

When seeking to understand the meaning of an object, one may have to search deeper than just the meaning of the shape. Suggest and not reveal layers of meaning hidden within. Invisible to the casual eye and avoiding the obvious.

Real beauty exists when, through its suggestiveness, only a few words, or few brush strokes, can suggest what has not been said or shown, and hence awaken many inner thoughts and feelings.

Geido:

This is an interesting principle in that it does not specifically speak of a visual aesthetic- but rather a way of working and a way of treating everyday actions as an art form. Every art form- from painting, sculpture, dance, tea ceremonies to Kabuki- all of these not only have an end result but they also have a process/method in which they are created. Geido is a celebration of the discipline involved in the process of the artform- and this can also be thought of in an Industrial Design sense too.

95% of a project IS the process, and yet we seem to discount it’s importance in view of the final result. For a car designer, you are judged on the final product, but what if we could reach a point in which the process involved in designing the vehicle becomes just as important as the end result. This is what Geido is about.

Iki:

“Iki can be used for almost anything, but especially for people (and their personality and deeds), situation, architecture, fashion, design, etc. It always describes something to do with people, or their will. Iki is not found in nature itself, but can be found in the human act of appreciating the beauty of nature.” -Wikipedia definition.

Iki, when viewed in the context of design, has many interpretations. It is an aesthetic principle that has existed for so long that Japanese people no longer go out of their way to acknowledge it’s presence in other people or things- rather they assume it is already there. It has become so engrained in the culture that for it not to be there would be a culture shock to a Japanese person in some respects.

An Iki thing/situation would be simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous, etc.

An Iki person/deed would be audacious, chic, pert, tacit, sassy, unselfconscious, calm, indifferent, unintentionally coquettish, open-minded, restrained, etc.

I have really only skimmed the surface on this topic, but i hope you will appreciate the notion that Japanese aesthetics have influenced me greatly over the years. The objects that are informed by these principles are incredibly sublime and rich in semantics- an effect that I can only hope to achieve when it comes time to design my vehicle. For so long I have pondered why Japanese cars look different to every other countries’ cars- and it was only through writing this short enquiry that i was able to gain an understanding of why cars like the 1970 Nissan KPGC110 Skyline and the Toyota 2000gt stand out. Both of these cars are almost poetic in their nature- they are timeless creations void of any outward influences that may alter their form. Instead, the designers worked to enrich these cars with their own meaning and power to influence through the use of the aesthetic principles, thus giving the vehicle a story, a heritage and an identity all of its own.

1.Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi Sabi for artists, designers, peots and philosophers. Berkley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

2. (Ortolani, 325). Ortolani, Benito. The Japanese Theatre. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1995

Responses

  1. Fantastic article, Leon! I’d love to add a summary of this to our site (CarDesignFetish) with a link back to your article. Let me know if you’re interested.

    Great analysis!

  2. mate, im amazed with this article, has a lot of information regarding the japanese design language. loved it :)
    your blog is in my favourite section for now on!
    cheers and keep it up-to-date
    cheers

    • Thanks mate,
      Whooo. If i knew the article was going to get this much love i might have made it a bit more in depth. Thanks for the words of encouragement.

      Leon

  3. [...] Japanese Aesthetics in Design. [...]

  4. Excellent site, keep up the good work


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