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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Embracing the wabi-sabi aesthetic

To restore or not to restore? That is the question lovers of mid-century modern design must answer often. We've debated this issue at great length and now tend to buy items for our homes and for the store that do not need major restoration. This is not to say that our pieces are flawless. Very few items survive sixty years without blemish. However, while some mid-century pieces have heavy wear that renders them almost unusable, others have only minor imperfections which tell a story about the previous owners who gently and lovingly used them. This sort of patina makes items all the more beautiful and needs no correction.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term fo an aesthetic that recognizes the transitory nature of life and the impossibility of perfection. It is sometimes described as a concept of beauty that is imperfect. Characteristics of wabi-sabi include simplicity, asymmetry and roughness or irregularity, especially that caused by time or use.

Mid-century designers espoused simple design and functionality. The spare designs of Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and George Nakashima embodied the simplicity of wabi-sabi and celebrated the beauty in everyday things. It stands to reason that they would have expected their pieces to show wear and signs of age after decades of use.

Mid-century experts today warn against unnecessary restoration. Richard Wright, director of the Wright auction house, gave an example in an interview with Troy Segal of a restoration that reduced the value of a rare Eames piece from $15,000 to $5,000. He says, "A real warning sign is if a piece is too band-box fresh, too gleaming. It should look a little worn, show its age--that's desirable."
From, and
The stark simplicity of the Eames home
The imperfect shapes of Noguchi's Akari lighting
The natural irregularities of a Nakashima table
A beautifully aged Hans Wegner high back lounge chair
Thonet chairs in unrestored condition


  1. I love this idea. I have a tattoo with script that reads (n French) The Beauty of Entropy. Mine was inspired by the unrestored beauty of the aging buildings in New Orleans. You don't have to fix everything.

  2. @Cherie: I feel exactly the same way about the beauty and character of the buildings in New Orleans. They're a perfect example of wabi-sabi. I have a series of black and white photos of old doors, some in New Orleans, hanging in my hallway. My daughter took them, and they are very wabi-sabi.

  3. I've earned my wrinkles and my mid-century has earned it's age.

    I think there is something we love about our mid century things, knowing it "lived" during the era(s) we wish to return to, remember fondly, or wanted to experience but couldn't (for those born later).

    When I compare a repro to a real vintage item, it lacks that charm and wonderment of "what did this item witness".

    Well, my opinion on it.

    So me personally, the only way I'd refinish/restore something is only because the other choice is to trash it. Honest wear is what I want to see. Brand new finish/fabric is not.

  4. Our home has always had a Japanese influence and so many of those things fit seemlessly in with my mid century finds. I will keep the restoration advice in mind when looking in the mirror - showing one's age adds value, right?

  5. I love a piece that has some wear - if it was a quality piece to begin with. But I've happily done some recovering on pieces that looked like they were stored outdoors during the last world war. Seriously ratty. Remember my chair?

  6. @1950sarh and DearHelenHartman: I've earned my wrinkles too, so no facelifts for this woman either. But the hair...hmmmmmmmmm...different story. My hair has turned white right in the middle of my head and no where else, leaving me with the appearance of a geriatric skunk. Not pretty. The haircolor stays! :)

  7. @Tanya: I agree. Some pieces have been so abused that they're begging to be saved. You can bet if I found a great table that had sat in a leaky shed for the last 30 years, I'd have it refinished. And I don't feel guilty stripping off a tacky upholstery job and helping a chair regain its former dignity. But my advice to someone who doesn't want a single ding or scratch on a piece is, "Go to Design Within Reach." (You don't know how close we've come to telling a few people that when they've wanted us to lower the price on a item because has a small blemish.)

  8. this is a very interesting post. thanks for sharing. i learned something new.

    best wishes,

  9. @Edie: Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm very glad you enjoyed it, and I hope you'll keep coming back.

  10. lol@geriatric skunk!

    My hair won't turn white fast enough. I want it white. When I was 30 I wanted snow white hair, but nooo, it's peppering in far too slowly. =)

  11. @1950sarh: My mom's hair turned a beautiful silver white all over by the time she was in her early fifties, and here I am at almost 63 with this stripe down the middle of my head. Go figure. :)