In late April of 1591 one of the greatest Japanese tea masters of all time, Sen no Rikyū, committed Harakiri at the request of the great Samurai General Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Rikyū is widely regarded as the person who created the modern aesthetic of the Japanese tea ceremony, having converted it from one of lavish opulence, to one of austere simplicity. The simplicity, asymmetrical irregularities and natural quality that Rikyū applied to the tea ceremony would also become the basis for the Japanese aesthetic of life and design known as Wabi Sabi.


Rikyu was serving as tea master to Oda Nobunaga, a leading feudal Lord in Japan, when Nobunaga was assassinated. After Nobunaga’s assassination, Rikyu became the tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s successor and the dictator of Japan. Hideyoshi had come from a poor farming family and came to believe that the Wabi Sabi aesthetic of Rikyu’s tea ceremony, with it’s peasant pottery and implements, might have been a cruel joke that Rikyu was playing on the dictator, making fun of his humble beginnings. This feeling lead Hideyoshi to demand Rikyu to commit suicide.  


Wabi - Satisfaction with simplicity and austerity
Sabi - Appreciation of the imperfect

Wabi-sabi is a philosophy of design that sees beauty in rustic simplicity and the grace that comes with age and use. It sees that the beauty of an object often lies in its flaws and that an object only embodies perfection in amounts that correlate directly to the amount of imperfection the object also contains. The Wabi Sabi aesthetic believes that when something's suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful. This way of appreciating beauty can be applied to architecture, interior design, philosophy, literature, and fashion


According to legend, when Sen no Rikyū was a young man, he went to the great tea-master Takeeno Joo to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the Way of Tea. As a test, Takeeno Joo asked Rikyū to tend his garden. Rikyū raked and cleaned the garden until it was perfect. But before he presented the garden to Takeeno Joo, Rikyū decided the garden was too perfect. He shook a cherry tree causing flowers to fall to the ground, randomly covering the path with flower petals. It was this decision that lead Takeeno Joo to believe that Rikyū would be a true master. This application of natural imperfection would serve to become a perfect example of the Wabi Sabi philosophy.


Before Sen no Rikyū the Japanese tea ceremony used expensive and ornate Chinese made teacups and pots. The tea ceremonies were often held in large tea houses that were meant to show wealth and power. Rikyū, with his preference for simple, rustic items that were made in Japan, designed his tea ceremony using very simple instruments and surroundings. He preferred Raku pottery, with its rustic imperfection, for use as teacups and pots. He also held tea ceremonies in tiny, rustic tea rooms referred to as sōan.  A two-tatami mat tea room of his design can still be seen today at Myōkian temple in Yamazaki, near Kyoto. Sadly this love of rustic simplicity seems to have lead to his early death at the hands of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.


The Wabi Sabi aesthetic can be seen throughout the “Tales of Japan” Collection of Olaf Olsson neckties and bow ties.  Many of these ties use fabrics that are heavily influenced by traditional Japanese fabric techniques such as Shibori, Katsura, Sashiko, and Boro. All of these fabrics and design show an appreciation for Wabi Sabi. The natural simplicity of the pine needle pattern on the Indigo Matsu necktie and batwing bow tie are a great example. Another great example is the Indigo Patchwork necktie and batwing bow tie and finds influence in Sashiko and Boro and it’s reverence for the value of fabric and it’s history and life.

Click here to see our Pinterest Board on Wabi Sabi

May 14, 2017 — Olaf Olsson