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Minimalist Splendor: How Spiritualism and A Reverence For Nature Shaped Japanese Design As We Know It

Words by: Kissa Castañeda


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“There is no better designer than nature” once said fashion design legend Alexander McQueen. Many creatives, be it in the field of fashion or architecture, would certainly agree.

Nature serves as a constant source of ideas and inspiration. It provides the raw materials for creation — wood, stone, cork, clay and more — and influences the look and feel of our spaces. In recent years, every form of design has sought to pay tribute to nature's beauty, embracing its organic shapes and inherent simplicity; most disciplines also strive for sustainable and regenerative approaches.

From biophilic architecture to minimalist interiors, ensuring that design is attuned to nature has become commonplace all over the globe. However, there are some places in which a deep reverence for nature is a defining characteristic. Case in point: Japan, a country whose way of life and traditional aesthetics are truly aligned with the natural world.


Spiritual Roots


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Japan's strong connection to nature stems from Shintō, an indigenous faith that is as old as the country itself. Unlike other religions, Shintō has no founder or set rules and is generally classified as a "nature religion". Its gods are called kami, "sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility," according to Japan Guide.

The word Shintō means "the way of the kami", and this religion shapes the culture, philosophy and beliefs of the Japanese. It emphasizes the wholeness of nature and celebration of the landscape, which sets the foundation for traditional Japanese aesthetics.

The arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century further expanded the aesthetic language of the Japanese. In Buddhism, everything is "either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness, which is not an empty space but rather a space of potentiality". It teaches one to embrace impermanence, emptiness, harmony and simplicity and these are encapsulated in concepts we use in daily parlance such as Zen, wabi-sabi, and yugen.


Japan Design_NousakuBrass Vases and Candle Holders by Nousaku


Both Shintō and Buddhist philosophies influence the approach of many Japanese artisans and designers. One example is Nousaku, which was founded in 1916 as a manufacturer of brass and bronze objects such as Buddhist altar fittings, utensils for Japanese tea ceremony, and flower vases. To this day, Nousaku’s products are made using traditional casting techniques passed down for over 400 years in Takaoka City, Toyama prefecture, an area known as the centre of the country’s copper industry since 1609.


Japan Design_Nousaku_KagoKago Basket by Nousaku


Today, the craftsmen who create 100 percent pure tin tableware and brass interior décor employ these passed-down techniques. While the brand has retained traditional ways of making, their repertoire has expanded to products that bring beauty to the everyday such as handmade brass bells that are finely shaved by craftsmen to accentuate the inherent beauty of the material, as well as a flexible pure tin basket called Kago, a piece popular in the US and Europe and retailed at the MoMA Design Store in New York.


The Simple Life


When one thinks of Japanese design, the word Zen also immediately comes to mind. The image of rock gardens and bamboo detailing may be part and parcel of a typical Zen setting, but in simple terms the concept relates to meditation. Essentially, Zen design is creating a space where balance and harmony reigns and is filled with elements that facilitate peace and serenity.

The building blocks of a contemporary interpretation of a Zen-inspired space consist of the use of natural materials and neutral colours, the adherence to clean lines and natural light, as well as the monastic rejection of clutter and ornamentation.


Japan Design_National StadiumJapan National Stadium. Photo credit: Taisei Corporation, Azusa Sekkei Co., Ltd. , Kengo Kuma and Associates Joint Venture


The work of globally-renowned architect Kengo Kuma is a great example. A leading face of modern Japanese architecture, Kuma is a proponent of sustainable, human-centred design that champions natural materials. This is evident in the modest yet stunning Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium, which was constructed using wood sourced from the 47 prefectures of Japan. The low, unassuming structure was intentionally made to blend into the surrounding Meiji Jingu forest and employs natural airflow for cooling.


Perfectly Imperfect


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Another Japanese design concept that has gained worldwide recognition and recall is wabi-sabi, which denotes finding beauty and meaning in every aspect of imperfection in nature. Loosely translated, “wabi” refers to rustic simplicity and understated elegance, while “sabi” points to the appeal of age, wear and patina. The main characteristics wabi-sabi aesthetics and principles are asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty and intimacy.

Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers defines it as "the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental."

While wabi-sabi can be applied to everything from painting to indigo dyeing to furniture-making, it is most pronounced in the school of pottery and ceramics. Many ceramicists in Japan openly eschew stark lines and sameness, instead highlighting organic, accidental shapes and the unpredictability of the human touch.


Japan Design_Nagisa ShiraiLeft to right: Nagisa Shirai's suminagashi 'floating ink' marbling technique; tableware by Nagisa Shirai


An example is Nagisa Shirai, who creates plates, bowls and sake cups defined by undulating lines and marble-like veins that vary from one piece to another. The uniqueness that comes with wabi-sabi creations is one of its main draws; perhaps a rejection of the mass-produced creations that dominate our landscape. Likewise, Nousaku is proud of the handmade, hand-cast and hand-finished brass creations that bear the mark of their craftsmen, showcasing variations that make them one-of-a-kind.

An offshoot of this concept is kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using urushi lacquer (made from the sap of a tree) dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. As a philosophy, kinstugi treats breakage as part of the history of the object that is not to be disguised but celebrated. The technique dates back 500 years, and over the last five years it has become a huge trend so much so that Instagram and TikTok are replete with kitsugi instruction videos and kintsugi repair kits are everywhere including on Etsy.

That the minimalist and spiritual tenets of Japanese design continue to resonate today is no surprise. It’s not only about seeking simplicity and keeping things that spark joy close by (as KonMari advocates), but is because there is nothing in the world as timeless and timely as nature itself.


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ABOUT THE WRITER

Kissa Castañeda (@kissacastaneda) is an experienced editor and lifestyle journalist based between Europe and Asia. She was most recently the Regional Editorial Director - Homes & Travel of Tatler Asia, overseeing design and travel content across all platforms, as well as developing new ways to engage audiences through eCommerce and curated experiences. She was formerly editor-in-chief of Tatler Singapore and editor of Home Journal and Elle Decoration. 

Currently dividing her time between Ireland and Singapore, Kissa has also lived, worked and studied in Japan, Hong Kong, France, UK and the Philippines. Since 2005, she has contributed to publications such as Travel + Leisure, Wallpaper* City Guides, Suitcase Magazine, Esquire, Surface and CNA Luxury