Wabi-sabi sanctuary: say Konnichiwa to Japanese interiors

Sou Fujimoto Architects, House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011

Sou Fujimoto Architects, House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 - Credit: Iwan Baan

The popularity of Japanese interiors has more to do with philosophy and ethics than Instagram and Pinterest boards. Here’s what we can learn from the Barbican’s Japanese House.

Antonin Raymond, Raymond House and Studio in Azabu, 1951

Antonin Raymond, Raymond House and Studio in Azabu, 1951 - Credit: Osamu Murai, Courtesy of Koichi Kitazawa

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 focuses on Japanese domestic architecture since the devastation of the Second World War. The Barbican’s illuminating exhibition provides many a lesson for architects and interior designers on our own shores.

“We invite the visitor to not just consider Japanese architecture, but to experience it,” says Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican Centre. The exhibition includes full scale replicas of both the minimalist Moriyama House, made of 10 deconstructed units by Ryue Nishizawa, and Terunobu Fujimori’s timber and white plaster teahouse.

After the Korean War in 1953, Japan’s vast housing shortfall was answered with the Metabolism movement. Metabolism was concerned with rapid urban renewel and reflected post-war shifts in the Japanese social fabric and critiqued societal norms, presenting a vision of a technological, utopian future.

In the 1970s the movement’s consumerism was rejected in favour of enclosed domestic spaces, which architect Tadao Ando called ‘urban guerrilla housing’. As the economy boomed in the following decade, the trend was reversed and open plan spaces became part of the consumer fabric.

Hackney Sunken Bath House, Studio 304 Architecture. Picture: Radu Palicica

Hackney Sunken Bath House, Studio 304 Architecture. Picture: Radu Palicica - Credit: Radu Palicica

Hosting 37.8 million people, architects in the sprawling Tokyo Metropolis are now tackling how best to reconcile the needs of the megacity with traditional Japanese philosophy.

Ancient Japanese aesthetics have tendrils buried deep in daily life. They rely on the principles of both Shinto and traditional Japanese Buddhism, emphasising the appreciation of nature. The resultant world view is one of virtue found in an understanding of the arts that challenges western notions of beauty.

Wabi-sabi is the offspring of these philosophies. The ancient Japanese answer to Denmark’s hygge, it accepts imperfection and pays homage to the natural process of aging. Furniture and art pieces are often tarnished with a patina, formed from the process of oxidation on the surface of metals, or a sheen formed by the aging of wood.

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It was Japanese ofuro baths that inspired Studio 304 Architecture’s installation of a sunken bath in a Clapton home extension. The project won the New London Architecture’s 2017 Don’t Move, Improve award. The bathroom fittings are gold and, with age, will develop a patina over time. The process of bathing itself is one of relaxation as there is a separate shower for use prior to taking the water. A glass box covers the bath and provides garden views, protected by wooden larch cladding without blocking natural light.

Claridge Architects applied pre-weathered Kebony wood by Shou Sugi Ban to the exterior cladding

Claridge Architects applied pre-weathered Kebony wood by Shou Sugi Ban to the exterior cladding - Credit: Claridge Architects

Given that much of the Japanese archipelago is forested, wood is often a popular choice of material in Japanese architecture. Inspired by the unique aesthetic, Claridge Architects applied pre-weathered Kebony wood by Shou Sugi Ban to the external cladding of a Victorian property in Hampstead. Shou Sugi Ban translates to ‘burnt cedar board,’ and was created as an alternative for hard driftwood sourced off the Japanese coastlines. The wood is distressed through the ancient techniques of burning, brushing or weathering the timber. The effect is one of harmony between the home and its surroundings. “The charred effect helps to emphasise the detailed grain of the wood and this has been a popular choice for our customers,” says Karl Harrison, founder of Shou Sugi Ban. Perhaps an unlikely partner for wood, concrete is often utilised as part of the organic building process. Whereas in the UK concrete architecture is often associated with controversial Brutalist or Modernist architecture, in Japan it is seen as a natural material. Concrete is chosen not only for its earthquake-resistant properties, but also for its composition of a mixture of sand, stone, clay and water.

A preoccupation with nature leads to an abundance of space and light in Japanese interiors. Room dividers (sh?ji) are made from translucent paper and wood to allow light to seep in. Sliding panels (fusuma) are utilised to introduce fluidity in the shape and size of a room. Above these walls panels (ranma) allow natural light to flood in.

Clerkenwell-based Coffey Architects recently transformed a three metre wide mews house in Lancaster Gate into a modern home. Drawing inspiration from a Japanese tea house, the house is subdivided using translucent rice paper partitions and adapts the spaces by way of sliding doors. Light bounces off the white Corian and floods in by way of glass panels between floors and a skylight, which illuminates the property via the central staircase, which itself eliminates the need for corridors. Modern Mews was nominated for RIBA’s House of the Year prize last year.

Japanese homewares conjure up images of delicate and ornately decorated folding screens (byobu), bamboo window coverings (sudaere) and short legged tables (chabudai) to sit around on a matted floor (tatami). The Barbican’s Moriyama House is more playful than this. Interior spaces are lit by huge windows, chairs are brightly coloured, and objects are minimalist and esoteric in design. The spaces are modern, sliding into the urban fabric of both Tokyo and the Brutalism of the Barbican.

Modern Mews is a marvel of Japanese-inspired interior design in the heart of London

Modern Mews is a marvel of Japanese-inspired interior design in the heart of London - Credit: �Tim Soar, courtesy of Coffey Architects

The British taste for Japan extends far beyond architecture alone. Momoko Mizutani set up the Momosan Shop in Hackney with the goal of providing authentic Japanese crafts, bemoaning the rise of faux-Japanese products.

“People seem to have got bored with batch-produced, clean looking design pieces that you can find in many shops,” she explains. “[They’d]rather look for one-off, hand made pieces.” She was surprised, however, that many of her customers were fashionable younger people.

“I realised the new demand and interest in crafts from the younger generation,” she says. Mizutani, who is curating the new Tate Edit shop, searches out authentic craftsmanship. “I wanted to have a place where you can find special pieces, also a place where you can find traditional skills of craftsmen and women.”

Kokedama, or ‘moss balls’ are the latest urban gardening trend to bloom in London. The root of a bonsai plant is removed and surrounded in mud before being wrapped in moss and wound on string. The effect is one of simplicity, of naturalism devoid of pretence (shizen). It adheres to the Zen principles most usually found in a Japanese garden; unobtrusive beauty (shibui), tranquillity (seijaku) and freedom from convention (datsuzoku).

Tiny Pots by Yuta Segawa, £36.00, Momosan Shop

Tiny Pots by Yuta Segawa, £36.00, Momosan Shop - Credit: Archant

It’s no wonder that architectural design our own city is growing more experimental as we tussle with the needs of living in an architecturally complex and disordered city and try to create emotionally fulfilling interiors to shield ourselves in our homes. In our current climate of property drought, battled by stamp duty storm clouds and surrounded by whistling Westminster winds, perhaps it befalls us to remember the words of architect Kazuo Shinohara in 1962: “A house is a work of art.”

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 runs until June 25 at the Barbican Art Gallery, barbican.org.uk

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Nobue Ibaraki medium pitcher in deep ocean, £90, Maud and Mabel

Akiko Hirai the buoy light, £2,300, The New Craftsmen

Round rattan coffee table, £285, Graham and Green

Get Zen

Here are the seven Shibui principles of a Zen Japanese garden you should embrace in your home:

Koko: the subtlety of the simple and austere

Kanso: simplicity through elimination of clutter

Shizen: absence of the artificial to make way for the natural

Y?gen: subtlety, or less is more

Fukinsei: the beauty of asymmetry and irregularity

Datsuzoku: unbound by convention

Seijaku: tranquillity and stillness

Read Up

Wabi Sabi: for artists, designers, poets and philosophers, £16.95, Leonard Koren

The Art of Japanese Architecture, £19.99, David and Michiko Young

How to Make a Japanese House, £42.75, Cathelijne Nuijsink

Japan in north London

Jin Kichi serves up yellowtail and beef tongue in a Hampstead dining room 73 Heath St, London NW3 6UG

The Sogetsu School of Ikebana regularly holds flower arranging sessions, workshops and Japanese cultural events in Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, 3 Pilgrim’s Pl, Hampstead, NW3 1NG

The Momosan Shop is curated by Momoko Mizutani and sells everything from pots and pans to jewellery, 79a Wilton Way, Hackney, E8 1BS