Sabe Wabi Sabi?
Sumita Lim’s Japanese Style
It’s no accident that many of the photographs of homes and gardens in Japanese Style were taken in Santa Fe. Not only is the City Different where journalist and author Sunamita Lim makes her home, its adobe architecture offers the perfect backdrop for the beauty in simplicity the book advocates.
I use that verb intentionally: Japanese Style’s text often reads as a heavily footnoted treatise. But don’t let this stop you from setting the book on your own coffee table. The many photographs throughout Japanese Style are well worth the price of admission. From the gardens of Ten Thousand Waves north of Santa Fe come every season: snow-covered juniper branches in winter, alluring stone stairs in spring, colorful koi in summer and serene welcoming gates in autumn. Photographs of other gardens reveal how simple statuaries can enhance peaceful retreats, as well how the simplest materials—bamboo, wood, stone, rocks—can be arranged to best contemplative advantage.
But it’s the interior photographs that steal the show in Japanese Style, beginning with the gorgeous cover shot (like many throughout the book, by Robert Reck) of a post-and-beam living room. Japanese touches from hibachi to tansu grace every room. They also illustrate concepts not often seen in this country, such as one-room living and small outdoor structures devoted to tea ceremonies.
Lim’s intent for the book is to reveal how the outer beauty and simplicity of Japanese style goes hand-in-hand with inner serenity and grace, and yet, again and again, I found its text so dense and impenetrable that I soon abandoned it for the photos. Thankfully, in addition to the photos, the back matter of the book is both intriguing and informative, offering a detailed glossary of Japanese terms used in the book, a timeline of Japanese historical periods, an extensive bibliography, and a resource section that lists museums, design and art sources, “lifestyle sources” and antique dealers (though I was surprised to see two personal favorites, Kiku in San Francisco and Hey Jhonny in Albuquerque, absent from the list).
The other redeeming factor is the offset quotations from architects and designers (both Eastern and Western) on nearly every page, used to illustrate wabi sabi (simplest definition: rustic simplicity) and other aspects of Japanese design, such as this, from Le Corbusier: “Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”