Wabi-Sabi by Richard Martin

I recently found this beautiful article by Richard Martin and I decided to retype it here. It was published in Photo Life magazine November 2007.

“Wabi-Sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It’s a beauty of things modest and humble. It’s a beauty of things unconventional.” – Leonard Koren

This article is about looking at the everyday, the commonplace, and finding magic in the ordinary – a reminder that nothing in life, or design, is perfect. It is about appreciating the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, finding it or seeing it in things that already exist in the visual world around us – to encourage and develop an intuitive way of seeing that involves becoming aware of the moments that make life rich and paying attention to the simple pleasures that can be over-shadowed by the chaos and excess of our consumerist society.


Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese aesthetic focused on the acceptance of impermanence or transience. The phrase, meaning an aesthetic sensibility, comes from two the key Japanese aesthetic concepts: wabi and sabi. Their definitions are difficult to explain or translate precisely in Western terms. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” according to Leonard Koren in his book Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. It is a concept derived from the Buddist assertion of the first noble truth: Dukkha, or in Japanese, mujyou (impermanence).

According to Koren, wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty and it “occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.”

The idea of wabi-sabi speaks of a readiness to accept things as they are. This is contrary to Western ideals that emphasize progress and growth as necessary components to daily living.

Wabi-sabi’s fundamental nature is about process, not final product, about decay and aging, not growth. This concept requires the art of “slowness”, a willingness to concentrate on the things that are often overlooked, the imperfections and the marks recording the passing of time. For me, this is the perfect antidote to the invasive, slick, saccharine, corporate style of beauty.

Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.

– Richard R. Powell.


“The idea of wabi-sabi speaks of a readiness to accept things as they are.”



Wabi symbolizes rustic beauty and quietness. It also denotes simplicity and stillness and can apply to both man-made and natural objects. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies in things, a unique one-of-a-kind flaw, for example, which sometimes occurs during the process of production or creation.


Sabi refers to things whose beauty can come only with age, indicative of natural processes that result in objects that are irregular, unpretentious, and ambiguous. It refers to the patina, such as a very old bronze statue or copper roof turned green. It also incorporates an appreciation of the cycles of life.

An article published in the Nanaimo Daily News, describes sabi as, “a word that originated in Japanese poetry. It expresses the feeling that you get in the autumn when the geese are flying south and the leaves are falling. It is a sort of sombre longing that is felt in the muted colours and earthy aroma of a forest preparing for winter.

by Richard Martin

Photo Life November 2007


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