The “Wabi-Sabi” of Collecting

In our modern society we tend to throw away anything that is broken, damaged, or starting to show wear or age.  Our culture tells us we must replace our wardrobes annually (if not more frequently), and there is pressure to keep up with the latest trends–in our homes, cars, even food choices.  I won’t go into what this mindset does to our environment, but I will say that I think cultivating a more mindful approach to our possessions could be worthwhile.

The Japanese take a different approach.  Rather than throwing away items that become damaged, worn or are otherwise “imperfect,” they embrace and honor those items used in daily life.  They say these items have “wabi-sabi,” a word that encapsulates the meaning of that which is imperfect and impermanent but retains beauty and meaning.

This antique European dough bowl is one of my most prized possessions. It has been well-loved and used. When the ends started to crack apart, the owners lovingly placed a metal strap across the crack to hold it together and maintain it’s usefulness. I’d argue the strap and it’s rivets make the bowl even more beautiful.

The Japanese sometimes take wabi-sabi a step further by actually highlighting the imperfections in a piece.  Examples of this would be filling in a chip or crack in a piece of pottery with real gold or attaching a brass strap across a crack in a wooden bowl.  The piece’s usefulness is preserved and it is made more beautiful by the addition of a precious metal.

I spotted this unusual lemon growing on my tree and thought it was a good example of wabi sabi. It is abnormally shaped with it’s double lobe and “finger” growing off to the side. Perfectly edible and just as delicious as any “perfect” lemon on the tree!

Nature is filled with examples of wabi-sabi.  Trees do not grow perfectly straight, fruits do not always form into the perfect shapes we have come to expect, and even animals are sometimes born with crooked tails or collapsed ears.  We are examples of wabi-sabi too.  Our freckles, crooked smiles, and wrinkles can be viewed as imperfections but they also make us unique. Wabi-sabi teaches us that with age, we acquire a heightened beauty which is seen in the lines of a face that has lived a long full life.

Another important aspect of wabi-sabi is impermanence.  In 1912 the Japanese donated 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, DC as a symbol of lasting friendship.  Having lived in the Washington, DC area much of my life, I have had the opportunity to see our nation’s cherry trees in bloom many times.  However it can be difficult to time your visit when they are at peak beauty.  If the weather is a little too cold, they won’t open; a little too warm and they open too soon and can be killed by frost.  Too much wind and they can disappear in a day.  In all cases, the flowers eventually fall off the tree and die.  However we know that next year the blossoms will return and we will have another chance to experience their fleeting beauty.

I love to apply the concept of wabi-sabi to collecting.  A bowl that has been well-loved and used for many years, even with a chip or crazing, has a sort of soulful beauty with which a new piece can never compete. The patina, or “dirt” on an old wooden table has a depth of coloration and richness that Pottery Barn just can’t duplicate!  Furthermore, the quality of new or mass produced pieces is often inferior to older pieces.  I often think that something that has held up for 100 years is likely to continue to hold up for a few more.

See the dark areas of mottling in this ironstone pitcher? The pitcher remains perfectly useful and is made even more lovely by the character that wear and tear have imparted to it.  ( The white putty at the base of the pitcher is earthquake putty–a necessary precaution here in California!)
This little Japanese transferware bowl has a chip, numerous dark spots and areas where the transfer pattern bled onto the white areas before being fired (see the blue spots on the lower white portion of the bowl). Thankfully it was not discarded and I was lucky enough to acquire it for my collection of Blue Willow. If you look closely, you can also see that the Victorian linen hand towel under the bowl has a small hole at the upper right hand edge. That’s another example of wabi-sabi.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to estate sales, auctions and thrift stores is that I often find items that I collect–ironstone, majolica, antique linens, blue and white china–that have imperfections.  I love the idea that I may be saving theses treasures from being tossed in the trash.  Knowing that a delicate piece of china has been around for 100 years or longer and that I might preserve it for a few more years is meaningful to me. And as an additional bonus, these pieces can usually be had for minimal cost.

The little ironstone pitcher on the left is badly crazed and discolored. I know of a method to bleach out the discoloration but I prefer to leave it as is. Mixed in with the other pieces in my ironstone pitcher collection, it adds texture and personality.
Notice that this bowl does not sit evenly on the table? It is handmade, rough-hewn and uneven. It’s enormous scale tells me that a very large family must have once cherished this bowl.  It likely held their daily bread.

Collecting items with wabi-sabi gives us the opportunity to preserve them for a while, however an important part of wabi-sabi is understanding that none of these pieces will last forever.  They can break, or burn, or decay.  Eventually everything has an expiration date–including us.  Melody Daggerhart, a writer who lived in Japan for many years, puts it best:

“These “treasures” have personality and character because of what they have suffered, rather than because they have avoided trauma. Each item has been forged into something unique and special with its own story because it lived, and life is hard. So, you appreciate everything that it has been through and the fact that it’s still here. And lastly, these items have transcended their original design and purpose and owners, etc. They are more than a pitcher, a bowl, a cup. They are meaningful beyond their physical forms. And the fact that you value them for being what they are only adds to their beauty.”

Remember, a collection is simply “more than two” of something.  Whether you have an interest in pottery, tea cups, vintage clothing or stamps, I encourage you to have an open mind to the beauty of wabi-sabi.  If you are willing to look past an article’s imperfections, you will open yourself up to finding treasures all along life’s journey.  And this is true not only for material possessions, but for people too.

Two benches along a pathway within West Potomac Park in Washington D.C. during the National Cherry Blossom Festival and Bloom, 2015.




2 thoughts on “The “Wabi-Sabi” of Collecting

  1. A wonderful, enlightening commentary. Henceforth I will look upon age as a wabi sabi event . If we cannot expect perfection or timelessness in ourselves, we have little reason to demand it in anything else. I have a set of blue Dansk dinner ware in which every piece is slightly different in color, design, thickness, etc. I have a treasured American Indian pot that shows sooty imperfections from firing in an unregulated oven. And I have a mirror that reminds me not to be too critical of any of it.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it Doris. Wabi-sabi does give us a positive way to look at aging. Yet I will admit I still struggle with the mirror more and more as the years go by.

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