Living a Wabi Sabi Life: an Interview with Robyn Griggs Lawrence


A few years back, Robyn Griggs Lawrence wrote The Wabi-Sabi House, a book about the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection. Lawrence, also the EIC of Natural Home magazine, recently took some time out to chat about her wabi-sabi life, and offer EcoSalon readers tips to begin creating their own.

Wabi-sabi is not a decorating style, but rather a mindset, with no list of rules. Creating a wabi-sabi home, she says, is the result of developing our wabigokoro, or wabi mind and heart: living modestly, learning to be satisfied with life once we strip away the unnecessary, and living in the moment – an arduous task in our fast-paced, uber-connected world.

Wabi stems from the word wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquility and balance. Sabi, by itself, means “the bloom of time.” Lawrence says that Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind.

Through wabi-sabi, she says, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

Lawrence first learned about wabi-sabi when covering a story about a home in Maine for her magazine. When she asked the owner about a rusty grate hanging on the wall, the woman answered “Oh, that’s so wabi-sabi,” and sent her off with Leonard Koren’s 1994 book entitled Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers.

Lawrence said that even before she read Koren’s book she knew that she’d been wabi-sabi all of her life, but now she could point to something concrete when answering to people about such things as her raw salvaged French wood doors that she refused to paint.

PhotobucketWhat are a few of the most meaningful pieces that you have in your home?

Two pieces of furniture that my dad made. One is a secretary that he built when I was six years old, and another is a table that he made for me five years before he died. When I got divorced two years ago the pieces that I took were all things that could never be replaced and that were old and kind of shaggy, like a set of 100-year-old mohair curtains that I got in an antique store in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a 150-year-old dining room table from India.

PhotobucketDid the loss of your father further your appreciation of the irreplaceable?

I’d say that the way that he lived was more inspiring than losing him when I did. He was a woodworker and loved beautiful things, which he instilled in me very early on. His things are very simple shaker style, which I think influenced me in that things didn’t have to be sleek and super fancy – that there was beauty in the simple.

PhotobucketWhat are you in search of?

I do need something big for the space behind my sofa, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to wait because it’s a large spot and I want it filled, but I’m following my own advice and waiting.

PhotobucketWhile wabi-sabi steers clear of quick fixes, what advice can you give someone who is anxious to get started, and what are some big bang-for-the-buck pieces that inspire?

One of the simplest things that you can do is keep one vase filled with something seasonal, which does a lot of things like bring your connection to the outdoors inside, and make you pay attention to the seasons.

If you have something that’s meaningful that was passed down that’s more heirloom, use it.

Focus on what you drink your coffee or tea out of in the morning. If it’s a cup that you picked up that has advertising on it, try to find something that you can really appreciate that’s kind of heavy in the hand, like handmade pottery that you interact with and use everyday.

Anything that you interact with on a regular basis you want to have soul. For me, the two biggest pieces that I took when I moved a couple of years ago were my bed and the dining room table where everyone gathers. It gives a sense of community and serenity.

PhotobucketDo you ever slip and have a non wabi-sabi day?

Oh, always! But the beauty of it for me is that it’s forgiving. To be critical destroys the whole point. It’s something to keep in the back of your mind as a lifestyle choice, not to be constricting. The worst thing that you want is a philosophy that if you don’t follow, you feel guilty.

PhotobucketDo you encourage your kids to live a wabi-sabi life? If so, can you give three examples?

My daughter loves clothing and I’ve taught her to shop the consignment stores.

We sit down together every night for dinner, and we take the time to set the table nicely. We use cloth napkins and don’t put store containers on the table. I’m getting them to appreciate that this is part of the whole ritual and enjoyment of the meal. It’s something that they complain about, but I think that secretly they like it.

Instead of going out to buy flowers we go to the field behind our house. No matter what the season we go out and find either branches if it’s winter, or flowers.

PhotobucketWhat are some simple wabi-sabi rules that you try to follow?

Go for the slower, simpler ways of getting things done around the house, like opting for doing some tasks by hand that you normally do with machines, such as washing the dishes and paying more attention as you sweep. Pay attention to eating seasonally. One of the things that the tea teachers I worked with in Japan said was to make your food preparation a meditation instead of a chore.

PhotobucketSix easy steps to awakening your wabi-sabi mind:

Give yourself five minutes of quiet time each day. If you like it, work up to twenty. Slowly.

Visit a flea market or a junk shop. Don’t buy anything. Just walk around and note what really appeals to you. Okay, if you see something you must have, go ahead and take it home.

Take a daily or weekly walk outdoors. Keep a mental or written log of seasonal changes (color, light, and nature’s mood) that you observe.

Make something, anything: a painting, a piece of pottery, a driftwood picture frame. Place it in your home where you’ll see it often. Admire it, no matter what it looks like.

Place one flower, branch, or stem you’ve found outside your door in a place where you’ll see it every day: your desk, your bedside table, next to the refrigerator. When it catches your eye, stop for a second or two and admire its singular beauty.

Create a treasure alcove. Place something you value (anything you want, from an heirloom to a stone) in a special place. Replace it every season, then every month, and eventually, every day.