Shibui

The Japanese aesthetic of shibui draws upon silent, subtle and unobtrusive qualities. A person, performance or an object can be considered shibui. Each are authentic and appealing without the need for decoration – this is the shibui ideal.
Something shibui, although seemingly simplistic, reveals the complex and intricate variables in nature that make our world unique. Its intent is to evoke awareness and appreciation for life as it is, seeing the implicit beauty in what has come to be considered ordinary or mundane. The word mundane in its latin form mundus actually means ‘the world’. Would we say the world is ordinary? The very existence of our world and everything in it is extra-ordinary, including ourselves. The shibui aesthetic opens our eyes to the beauty of real life, the everyday miracles of nature.
Art termed shibui is designed with a purpose – to merge nature with day to day living. Every form and detail is designed to contribute towards a whole experience. For example; the wave in the grain of a structural post, the uneven texture of a tea bowl, the solitary blossom in a flower arrangement. Natural elements help to connect and re-align us with nature on a subconscious level.
Yanagi Soetsu, philosopher and founder of the Japanese folk craft movement (mingei) refers to shibui as a refined taste, an understanding we arrive at over time. In his book The Unknown Craftsman Yanagi challenges conventional ideas of art and beauty, exploring the Japanese appreciation for “objects born, not made.”
“The world abounds with different aspects of beauty. The lovely, the powerful, the gay, the smart—all belong to the beautiful. Each person, according to his disposition and environment, will feel a special affinity to one or another aspect. But when his taste grows more refined, he will necessarily arrive at a beauty which is shibui. Many a term serves to denote the secret of beauty, but this is the final word.”
– Yanagi Soetsu (1889 -1961)
Shibui in Ikebana
Ikebana demonstrates the shibui aesthetic by drawing attention to the everyday life around us that often goes unnoticed. Familiar materials, presented in unfamiliar ways, ask us to slow down and look again, closer. Through observation, intricate details reveal meaning… we begin to see the world and ourselves as an integral part of it, with clarity.
Shibui-Ikebana
Shibui in Pottery
Japanese pottery is an example of the shibui design aesthetic. Characteristics include those of wabi-sabi but cover a wider design scope. Objects often feature asymmetry and uneven raw textures but they can also include more refined, glazed surfaces. The objective is to draw attention to the awe inspiring detail of the natural world.
18th century Japanese tea bowl
Objects used in the chanoyu tea ceremony epitomise the unobtrusive sophistication of shibui – each piece serves a function to the whole experience.

Shibui in architecture is architecture aligned with nature. The word shibui is often used interchangeably with suki which describes the aesthetic of the Japanese tea room (sukiya)
Japanese tea house sukiya
The inspirational work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959) was influenced by his understanding of the Japanese aesthetic approach to life. In his autobiography he wrote of his observations of nature during visits to Japan and his attraction to the spiritual values. Over his lifetime he became one of the most important collectors and dealers of Japanese art in the US. He described Japanese design qualities as ‘ values he himself professed ’.
“True ornament is not about prettifying externals. It is organic with the structure it adorns, whether a person, a building or a park.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd wright gained notoriety for his organic approach to architecture, asserting that form and function be viewed as one. Perhaps his most celebrated example is ‘Fallingwater’ in which the home appears as part of the falls. Rather than designing with a view in mind, Frank Lloyd Wright would design the building as an integral part of the view, stressing the importance of working in conjunction with nature. His goal was to enhance the environment and the life and times of the people who come to call it home.
Falling Water House Frank Lloyd Wright 650
Falling Water House. 1935. Built atop a waterfall. A marvel in organic architecture.
Shibui reaches the western world
Outside of Japan the term shibui was almost unheard of until a special feature in the August 1960 edition of House Beautiful magazine entitled:
“Discover Shibui: The Word for the Highest Level in Beauty.”
The August issue was followed by the September 1960 issue:
“How to be Shibui with American Things”.
Elizabeth Gordon, editor in chief of House Beautiful (1941-1964), studied the topic of shibui in great depth. She wrote in the August issue:
“Shibui describes a profound, unassuming, quiet feeling. It is unobtrusive and unostentatious. It may have hidden attainments, but they are not paraded or displayed. The form is simple and must have been arrived at with an economy of means. Shibui is never complicated or contrived… Shibui beauty, as in the beauty of the tea ceremony, is beauty that makes an artist of the viewer.”
House Beautiful Shibui Magazine
Anyone, anywhere can ‘think’ shibui. It is an approach to life, an attitude that notices and values the beauty in everyday. The simple truth is – as part of nature – our lives are enhanced when we connect with it.
Here are some suggestions on how to re-connect:
  • recognise and disregard unnecessary distractions
  • remove excess (clutter) from your surroundings
  • step outside, walk more often – let this be your preferred form of transport
  • notice seasonal changes, details in nature that signal change and encourage growth
    – the will of a roadside wildflower early spring
  • invite nature inside, this could be as simple as placing a single branch or leaf in places you spend time
  • make subtle adjustments to interior spaces to echo the season
    – change the colours and textures of accessories – a simple effective way to refresh and inspire
  • where possible, use handcrafted items (flower vase, knitted blankets, wooden bowls)
  • take quiet time alone, everyday – no matter how brief
  • create something with nature, for the pure enjoyment of the process – the outcome will be imperfectly beautiful
  • Donna Canning
    Ikebana Artist
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