East met West

The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists -Japanese Proverb

As summer is coming to an end I am reflecting on all the travel, experiences and new people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I believe nothing that happens in life is coincidence. Rather, I believe the universe puts people, places and things in our path because there is something (good or bad) that we need to take away from the encounter. This summer I was exposed in a more personal and repeated way to the beauty of the Japanese culture and left richer for it.

Prior to this summer I had little experience or understanding of the Japanese principles and tradition that guides this cultures’ past and present aesthetic. A dear family connection (a beautiful Japanese woman) introduced us to her many Japanese friends, the delicious delights of the cuisine and some of the customs as they relate to the home. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much of the culture is devoted to creating beauty and a warm environment to entertain family and friends. Whether setting a table, preparing a meal or decorating the home there is a grace and intent put into every effort. Indeed, the same can be said for the fashion, home décor and architecture that come from the tenants of a culture known for thoughtfulness and restraint.

Indeed, I saw first hand the beautiful balance that happens when good design stops short of excess. For example, I had dinner on a stunning table that had so much thought put into the construction and grain placement that it needed no embellishment by way of tabletop décor. I was stopped in my tracks by a block for storing knives (yes, a simple knife block!) at the Japanese Pavilion at the NY NOW tradeshow because it was so beautifully pared down to the simplest essence of form and function. Shopping with my Japanese friend, I saw how buying decisions were first based on need and not the distraction of embellishment or décor that leads so many of us to buy things we really don’t need.

As if the universe wasn’t having enough fun showing this newbie all the wonders of Japanese culture, it had an unexpected encounter up its sleeve. While in New York I went to visit a new friend. Her building looked like most apartment buildings in the city and the hallway to her door gave no indication of what was waiting inside. As fate would have it, my friend had purchased her apartment from a Japanese woman and much of the original Japanese décor was still there. Great thought had been put into the layout and execution of storage that, while not obvious, would impress any New Yorker starved for precious closet space. The bedroom was a traditional tatami mat bedroom which, from a Western perspective,seemed sparse at first glance. But closer inspection revealed hidden storage that was abundant. I believe the lack of decorative items and furnishings actually amplified the feeling of energy that immediately pulsated though me when I entered the room. It was both calming and restorative and I have never had an experience like that before. I envied my friend, who nightly falls into slumber in such a beautiful space.

As an interior designer, I often say that a good outcome relies on the ability to edit out the unnecessary and then to curate just the right thing. I have come to appreciate the mastery of this principle that has been understood by the Japanese for thousands of years. Now, awakening my eyes to the subtlety of Japanese influence, I see how beautifully this aesthetic can be integrated into our Western homes.

This merging of East meets West does not mean a room filled with bamboo, painted fans, shoji screens or any other clichés we Westerners might associate with Japanese decor. Rather, what this integration can bring to us is a shift in mindset, to ask more often what do I really need. By answering that question first, we set in motion the editing and curating process (in thought and selection) that helps to avoid the pitfalls of excess. We increase the chances of creating homes that have a feeling of spaciousness, rejuvenation, groundedness and serenity rarely felt in over decorated Western homes.

I’m glad this summer immersed me in a cultural lesson that expanded my circle of friends, culinary exploits and ideology. And perhaps as a last little gift from the universe, I stumbled upon the beautiful Japanese word kintsukuroi. It literally translates to “golden repair” and is associated with the practice of fixing cracked pottery with lacquer blended with silver or gold. Metaphorically, the suggestion is that something maybe more beautiful and valuable after being broken. This made me think of the transformation that happens when we deconstruct the things in our homes and our lives that seem broken. By putting thought and intent into the creation of a new reality we can find ourselves surrounded by beauty that adds immeasurable value to our lives.