Originating from Japan, the concept of zen has become an increasingly popular approach of interior design. The zen design epitomizes the minimalist philosophy through the use of simple, clear lines.
Avoiding complicated and excessive details, zen uses natural elements, materials and patterns to create balance and harmony in a space that is meant to bestow a feeling of warmth and relaxation.
In simpler words, zen equates to simplicity and elegance.
Although as a concept, zen has been widely used and many are familiar with its broad meaning, only very few are knowledgeable of the key principles that constitute the ‘zen of design’.
To begin, these principles of zen relate to all dimensions of life, including of course, design and architecture. In Japan, design that follows the essence of zen culture embodies the idea of shibumi (渋み) – an elusive, hard-to-define term that alludes to effortless and underrated perfection through the natural state of things. Beauty in imperfection that can’t simply be put into words.
Architect Sarah Susanka wrote: “When something has truly been designed well, it has discrete beauty that is manifested effortlessly and works. That is shibumi.”
Photo source: Unsplash
The seven design tenets of zen are:
1. Kanso (簡素): simplicity, easiness
The principle of kanso dictates that beauty comes out in a simplistic and natural manner, not needing to be excessive or overstated. In design, as in life, kanso exemplifies the tenet of clarity, freshness and orderliness by not gloating or being exorbitant.
By eliminating the non-essentials, the space is given room to show clean, unobstructed and natural beauty; giving way for what matters to shine forth.
A real life example is Apple products. Another is Instagram. Before Instagram, the first iteration was called Burbn – a feature-laden app that was difficult to use and thus, was not a hit. By sticking to a simple value proposition that people could understand and have fun with instantly, Instagram was able to grow faster than Facebook and Twitter.
Zen lesson: Remove the clutter to make room for things that matter
Photo source: Design Cafe
2. Koko (考古): basic, weathered, austerity
The concept of koko emphasizes restraint; the error of omission is non-existent here.
Here, the space has a sense of focus and clarity as it drills down to the bare essentials. At first, looking at it, the area may seem sparse, but limiting decor to the core gives room for limitless potential of the space to emerge.
Zen lesson: Exclude items which are not absolutely necessary or have nothing to add
Photo source: Sergei Davidoff
3. Fukinsei (不均斉): asymmetry, irregularity
In this paradoxical term, fukinsei frames the symmetry of the natural world in an evidently asymmetric and imperfect way. Seemingly unfinished, you get to continuously participate in the creative act and make it more immersive.
In art and design, irregularity and asymmetry have the power to evoke beauty that looks engaging and dynamic. It shows something unexpected.
Awkward spaces and shapes in homes are sometimes ignored because its function is uncertain – left undetermined. Embracing the unexpectedness of the area can lead to the realization that this initially frustrating space can turn into something useful and pretty. For example, a curved-shaped corner can become a reading nook or bay window.
Zen lesson: Leave space for co-creation and innovation while not shying away from having irregularities in home and space design
Photo source: Faena Aleph
4. Shizen (自然): without pretense, natural
To follow the principle of shizen means to be ‘of nature’ – striking a balance between being natural while remaining distinct from it. Architecture adapts naturally occurring patterns and elements into the design, deliberately putting together a seemingly spontaneous artistic creation.
Viewed without pretense or artifice, a natural design environment made using nature’s organic beauty is intentional, unforced creativity. Manifest shizen by purposely embracing nature in the design such as allowing natural light to illuminate spaces, creating a space around vegetation, topography, or wind flow. For example, there are many notable architectural feats that get inspiration from water.
Zen lesson: Incorporate natural elements and patterns into your design
Photo source: Home Design Lover
5. Yūgen (幽玄): subtly profound grace, not obvious
Yugen states that the power of suggestion is preferred over revelation – do not show everything in a single impression, instead leave some to the imagination of the viewer. In life like design, subtlety, insinuations and the unknown have a magnetic power, evoking curiosity and thought.
Without excess and overcrowding, people see more, notice more and can think more. Design uses the phrase ‘less is more’ connoting that luxury and beauty are expressed in clean, explicit and functional style and placement. A symbolic element or an unexpected accent piece is like a clue and makes a powerful statement to the viewer.
Zen lesson: Give and show enough just to pique curiosity, thoughts and dialogue while allowing enough room for imagination and curiosity
Photo source: The Japan Times
6. Datsuzoku (脱俗): unbounded by convention, free, break from routine
Zen emphasizes that opportunities arise from accidental events. In design, the concept of datsuzoku breaks away from convention to give space for exploration. Either in the creative process or the finished product, this tenet teaches that hidden potential surfaces when a mind opens itself up and welcomes a different perspective.
Some tend to approach designing a room or space with blinders on – for example, a bedroom is supposed to have these things, so that’s how it will be. Looking at the same space with fresh eyes and envisioning something different may be a challenge, but breaking a pattern is when creativity and resourcefulness are given an opportunity to emerge.
Professor (L.) Tierney says that the Japanese garden itself, “…made with the raw materials of nature and its success in revealing the essence of natural things to us is an ultimate surprise. Many surprises await at almost every turn in a Japanese Garden.”
Zen lesson: Take an interruptive break, escape from routine and get some freedom from habit to allow breakthrough ideas to come
Photo source: Houszed
7. Seijaku (静寂): tranquility, silence
In contrast to noise and disturbance, seijaku embraces the idea of tranquility, stillness and solitude. Seijaku takes the concept of meditation and translates them into design. During meditation, a higher level of self awareness and focus is achieved. To the zen practitioner, it is during this state of quietude that the essence of creative energy freely flows.
Zen designs have the ability to elicit a feeling of energized calm. Just like how walking through a Japanese garden evokes calmness because of the surrounding quiet and peace.
Creative juices that arise in moments of heightened mind focus can turn into a source of inspiration for design. Allowing open spaces ‘to think’ in a home is an area that can welcome seijaku; after all, physical spaces are a reflection of mental states.
Zen lesson: Doing nothing may sometimes be better than doing something
Photo source: Unsplash
The concept of shibumi is not easy; but remembering and following these zen-inpired design principles will put you on the right path.
Similarly, it will also be fairly impossible to incorporate all seven principles into one design or space. To make the principles and the elusive idea of shibumi work for you, only follow those that align with your goals and use that as guidance.
Shibumi is a powerful design ideal that uniquely combines underrated, surprising impact and often overlooked, natural and meaningful simplicity. At the core, zen-inpired design exhibits the heart of a space by subtracting the unnecessary in its minimalist philosophy.