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Diwali Special: Come home to wabi-sabi

Designer Ashiesh Shah on how to incorporate the untranslatable Japanese philosophy in your living room and Diwali celebration

Ashiesh Shah’s 3D floor rendition of an open- format living room inspired by wabi-sabi.
Ashiesh Shah’s 3D floor rendition of an open- format living room inspired by wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi might have gained attention as “the design trend of the year", but architect and designer Ashiesh Shah baulks at this phrasing. “I don’t think of it as a trend, it’s a philosophy," says Shah, whose own studio, with its uneven surfaces, traditional black-clay ceramics and muted tones, draws heavily from the restraint of wabi-sabi. The term, which originated in 15th century Japan as a corrective response to the opulent tea ceremonies of the time, loosely translates into a philosophy of celebrating imperfection, accepting impermanence and finding balance. In design terms, a wabi-sabi mood board involves judicious accessorizing, and an appreciation of rips and cracks.

“In an age when there’s so much happening around us, it’s nice to come back to a home that reflects perfection within imperfection. Such meditative, almost monastic spaces are important," says Shah. Here, he recommends six ways to extend wabi-sabi into your living room, and give it a festive spin.

Design a clutter-free space

Instead of rolling up your sleeves for an annual decluttering project, Shah recommends fighting the urge to fill empty shelves. “Homes today are spaces for people to show off rather than for internal nourishment, but you don’t need a lot to say a lot. There should be a reason for everything that is bought or acquired. Once that philosophy sets in, wabi-sabi instantly starts playing its part," he says.

Be a laid-back host

Diwali entertaining usually lays stress on the living room (and leaves the hosts fussing over seating arrangements), but Shah says we tend to underestimate our guests. For a failsafe arrangement, he recommends playing with light, movable pieces, especially in smaller apartments. “I’m not a big fan of fixed furniture. I prefer open-format homes where you can move things around."

Find a hero

According to Shah, fluid spaces need fluid pieces—furniture that’s slightly curved, for instance. “This keeps the eye moving and shifts focus to things that need attention, like the view outside or a beautiful art piece or sculpture. It’s important to find a hero, and then build things backwards."

Sweat the small stuff

To give your existing living room a quick makeover instead of an overhaul, consider changing surface treatments like fabrics, wallpaper and rugs. “You can add new slip covers to an existing couch. For example, using a mundu sari also adds a festive look because of its golden border," says Shah.

Play with textures

While picking pieces for your living room, Shah recommends looking for objects that “tell a story of time...pieces that have age, cracks and texture." This texture can also be achieved by using accessories from nature, such as corals or shells.

A wabi-sabi colour palette leans towards soft, neutral shades. “These can also be derived from the material itself; concrete, for example, has its own colour shades, which you don’t have to paint over. Wood is another material that brings warmth and nature into a space."

Imagine a wabi-sabi Diwali

Shah’s suggestions for wabi-sabi inspired festive decor include using traditional crafts, such as black longpi plates (pottery from Manipur), creating a minimal, white-powder rangoli offset with a line of mogras, lighting traditional oil lamps or decorating with bronze bowls filled with water and floating rose petals. “Small things can be festive, it doesn’t have to be jarring," he says.

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