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“Wabi-Sabi”: Applying Japanese Design Principles to Modern Retail Space

Michael Chen

In Business, Design, Uncategorized Posted

‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a core principle in Japanese design derived from the Buddhist teaching of “nothing is infinite, everlasting or perfect”. So, what does this involve and how could it be integrated into your new retail store?


WHAT IS WABI-SABI IN DESIGN TERMS?  

Melancholy. Transient. Imperfection. Simplicity.

These are just some of the words people use to describe the characteristics of “Wabi-Sabi”. Simply put, rather than trying to meticulously add and warp the surroundings to how we want it to be, the idea is to create a balanced unison with what is already present. If something shouldn’t be, then leave and let go.


ISN’T THAT JUST BEING MINIMALISTIC? 

There are many similarities between the two design styles when it comes to their visual presentations but the underlying principle is quite different. Minimalism is more related to a ‘subtractive’ approach to simplicity: remove the unnecessary to be more streamlined. A very ‘practical’ approach. On the other hand, Wabi-Sabi utilises an ‘additive’ approach to simplicity: remove the unnecessary to create peace and tranquility. A more ‘emotional’ approach.


WAIT… I’M STILL CONFUSED. HOW DOES ‘REMOVING’ THINGS GIVE YOU AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE? 

I’ll give you an example: Robert Ryman created the White Canvas in 2014. Just as the name suggested, it’s just a simple white canvas with white paint (google it if you don’t believe me). It was auctioned at Sotheby’s for a record 15 Million USD. Yes, you read correctly. 15. Million. Dollars. Why on earth would anyone pay 15 million dollars for a painting? Well, the value is certainly not in the artistic technique that’s for sure. Rather, it’s the underlying message: ‘White’ in your mind is different to the ‘White’ in mine. Each of us have had different upbringings, life journeys, experiences, values and views. It’s how we feel that actually fills the emptiness of the White Canvas and makes it complete. The value of the painting is not in itself but the presence of the being viewing it. Otherwise, it really is just a ‘white canvas’.


OK I GET IT NOW. HOW DOES THIS BENEFIT ME AND MY STORE?

Modern and traditional western retail space designs place a lot of emphasis on showcasing, brand, quantity, trend, cool, bright, attention, colours, impact etc. In other words, it has a very heavy and extrinsic visual impact. The more people see, the more they know what is being sold and the more likely they’ll want to buy it. The brand message is communicated to the customer in a rather straight-forward and direct approach.

When it comes to Wabi-Sabi, the approach is more subtle. In fact, it’s almost completely the opposite: declutter, ample white/negative space, contempt, peace, balance, flow etc. The brand message is not being conveyed via signages or texts but rather a holistic combination of how an entire store is portrayed. In other words, the store itself has a ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ (an almost architectural style of thinking). Psychologically, it creates a sensual and peaceful atmosphere. Almost like walking into a museum or art exhibit: customers will want to enter, be immersed in its surroundings and ‘feel’ the emotional connection.

Don’t be misunderstood. This is not to say traditional retail designs are less effective when it comes to attracting customers. It’s just that human beings are very adaptive people. When something unique has been widely used (let’s say, for example, a fashion trend), it will slowly begin to lose its appeal. Simply put, a tree may stand out in an open plain but place it in a forest, it becomes just another tree.


ALRIGHT… I’M INTERESTED IN GIVING IT A GO. WHAT DO I NEED TO DO? 

Firstly, there are a few questions that you need to address regarding your store/brand:

• What do I want to convey? What do I want the customers to feel?
• Which products can be showcased without using words/graphics?
• Which products can be removed to create more of an open space? Does it really have to be here?
• Is there a story regarding the brand that I want the customers to know and be a part of?

These may totally change your original approach to your brand and retail store but don’t be afraid to really give it some time and deep thought. It’s going to be challenging but the result may be more beneficial than you think. Whenever you feel like ‘this design isn’t really going to work for us’, just remember, this is not something new. Wabi-Sabi has been an important part of the Japanese culture for hundreds of years. It is one of the reasons why many Japanese designs are considered to be a trademark of beauty, art and excellence. If you are willing, we will be ready to help make it happen.

Peace and tranquillity. Be Wabi-Sabi.

By Michael Chen
Interior Designer at Prospace Australia

Michael Chen is one of ProSpace Design’s interior designers and specialises in design production. He has previously worked in multiple design disciplines, both temporary and permanent displays, with multiple notable clients such as Samsung, Panasonic, Reebok, Kathmandu, Connor, L’Occitane and more. He is passionate about creating designs that combine the beauty of aesthetics, the practicality of functions and the connection of emotions.