Like so many other visual and aesthetic issues, good residential design involves a lot of abstract principles that most of us don’t comprehend fully until we see them in the flesh. Discussions of proportion, materials, lighting, scale and other architectural elements go only so far, and then we have to see and inhabit the structure and spaces.
That’s when most of us get in touch with our inner designer, however unknowingly. Our reactions are visceral and immediate, whether we have the “correct” language for them or not. We may like or dislike a building or a room and not be able to say why; we just know it when we see it.
But what if you don’t see it, or see it very often? Asian architectural styles offer a great example of how the unfamiliar can be compelling and inscrutable at the same time. Specifically, Japanese design has fascinated Western eyes for a century or more, and it’s instantly recognizable, but how many of us can say what makes it what it is? We can find individual words that fit — simple, spare, tranquil, restrained, organic — but not necessarily the thread that weaves these traits together into a coherent whole that we might duplicate.
Fortunately, that task has been handled by Sunamita Lim in her book, “Japanese Style: Designing With Nature’s Beauty” (Gibbs Smith Publishers, $29.95). Lim has explored the intersection of Oriental and Occidental styles enough to explain what happens when Western observers encounter the Japanese aesthetic. And she knows it’s not just about what meets the eye.
In Japanese tradition, beauty isn’t just an aesthetic issue but a moral and spiritual one. A beautiful object has an ordinary practicality, and a humility that expresses the best qualities of its materials rather than calling attention to flashy details or to its maker’s technique. In other words, it’s not about bling.
It’s also not about permanence or grandeur. A proverbial expression that translates as “each meeting only once” underscores the Japanese sense of transience, the recognition that time is fleeting and all things will pass eventually. The best cultural expression, Lim says, is the cherry tree that requires year-round care but blossoms for only a week each spring. In Japan, the proper response is not to perfect synthetic substitutes that last longer but to cherish the momentary beauty, made all the more poignant for its brevity. For Western sensibilities weaned on the symmetrical and seemingly permanent marble columns of Hellenistic Greek culture, this is one big attitude adjustment.
Some of us, though, welcome the “exotic” sentiments but wrestle with the practical question: Short of recruiting a traditional Japanese builder and his native materials, are there ways to craft an American home imbued with the same spirit? Lim navigates the options nicely:
— Keep it small. Compactness and efficiency are practical and necessary virtues in Japan, a small and densely populated country.
— Keep it clean. Cleanliness is paramount, not for its own sake but to indicate that one is entering a special place apart from the outside world. (The Japanese custom of removing one’s shoes in a home is a practical habit rooted in this ethic.)
— Keep it simple. Economy of lines and shapes is a hallmark of traditional Japanese style, so try to eliminate extraneous or insignificant details that create distractions.
— Lose the clutter. The simplicity of Japanese homes is rooted in the Buddhist ethic of non-attachment to things and/or desires. Try to pare down the stuff you have to the stuff you need and/or use often, and keep furnishings limited.
— Lose the bling. Try to use plenty of natural materials — wood, clay, stone, bamboo — that have a recognizable connection to their original state. Hand-worked and/or unfinished metal hardware is also a nice touch.
— Create a meditative environment. The realities of daily living don’t allow tranquility throughout an entire home, but setting aside one space as a sort of sanctuary can help restore the self when worldly cares seem burdensome. Japanese homes often feature a small corner alcove called a “tokonoma,” designed for just this purpose.
— Cultivate understatement. Lim mentions a renowned Japanese architect whose credo was that architecture “should be silent so the sunlight and wind can speak.” Nature renews itself moment by moment, and a house can participate in that cycle. Think of a tree in a landscape, fitting in without subduing its surroundings.
— Cultivate flow. Sliding shoji screens and open transitions between spaces allow a freer flow of sightlines, light, air and even the outdoor environment throughout a home. A visually open floor plan also relieves smaller homes from feeling cramped for space.
— Celebrate the ordinary. Inherent in the Japanese ethic of humility is an appreciation for everyday events and things.