book excerpT

east by southwest

Minimalism, elegant simplicity, and an affinity for nature mark the appeal of Japanese design and its compatibility with New Mexican aesthetics, as this new book reveals.

This article first appeared in Spring II 2008 Su Casa

Editor’s introduction: In recent years we’ve seen more than a few examples of “Asian-adobe” or “Japanese-Southwest” style homes, enough to earn the aesthetic the status of a subgenre of Southwest style, perhaps on par with “Moroccan” but trailing behind “Old World” in popularity. One can spot enough compatibilities between Japanese design and the simplicity of classic adobe to suggest they might at least be friends, if not the perfect eHarmony match. Shoji screens and nichos cohabit nicely, while fine Japanese style carpentry brings a lighter touch to traditional weighty wooden lintels and beams in a village adobe. Overall, the shared minimalism creates an interactive dynamic that energizes the cross-cultural fusion. Sunamita Lim’s new book Japanese Style: Designing with Nature’s Beauty (Gibbs Smith, Publisher) explores this crossover with particular attention to the New Mexico connection.

Japanese Aesthetics and American Sensibilities
As the editor of House Beautiful, Elizabeth Gordon pointed out in 1960 (her observations still ringing true today) that we share many shelter instincts with the Japanese and others around the world because everyone wants to live in a nurturing home environment. And, it’s not about material splurging either, in wanting to live a life of luxury and well-being.

In a survey by American Express Platinum published by USA Today, on the front page of its “Money Section B” on July 12, 2005, 770 households with incomes of $125,000 and over were asked, “What is luxury?” Forty-four percent of respondents chose happiness and satisfaction from being with family or friends and enjoying good times; 37 percent selected having enough time to do whatever you want and being able to afford it; and 19 percent opted for finer things in life that provide supreme comfort, beauty, and quality.

It’s hardly surprising to learn of these responses. Confronted with today’s intense lifestyle pace, we yearn for peaceful ways to relax and heal, and Japanese style sensibilities offer refreshing alternatives to reenergize and rebalance our lives. Home is not merely a shell of a house. Our dwellings are imbued with our feelings and thoughts, with attempts at building and decorating and with using spaces that suit our activities. A home grows, along with its owners and residents, “not by grand design but by the small celebrations of everyday life,” writes Witold Rybczynski in The Most Beautiful House in the World. This book is an engaging read of the author building his first house after becoming an architect, along with good insights into how homeowner dreams and designs on paper are translated into actual structures.

So what goes into fashioning the most beautiful house in the world to suit our individual purposes? What “small celebrations of everyday life” can we create?

First, these celebrations of everyday life need to be as natural as can be in order to become good habits that motivate and inspire in the course of the daily grind. Second, they must be safe habits that enhance daily living. Third, they are lovely to behold, constantly refreshing our moods by encouraging us to live in beauty and harmony.

Natural style, easy grace
Simple celebrations of everyday life can be as easy as kicking off your shoes at the front door to symbolize leaving behind the harried outer world, then lighting incense and being soothed by the subtle aroma of lavender wafting through the house.

In 1665 a German visitor in a Dutch home observed that, “‘In many houses, as in the holy places of the heathens, it is not permissible to ascend the stairs or set foot in a room without first removing one’s shoes.’ Jean-Nicholas de Parival, a French traveler, noticed the same thing, adding that, frequently, straw slippers were put on over one’s shoes.” In his first book, Home: A Short History of An Idea, Rybczynski called this custom, “a desire to define the home as a separate, special place.”

For most Asian homes, removing shoes at the front door is a mark of respect to the house to honor its cleanliness and purity—by not trudging in outside dirt. The practice prevails in Japanese homes. Shoes are left in the genkan, or foyer, and traded for house slippers, with the gesture being both symbolic and a conscious desire to leave behind the outer world by shedding, literally, the first obvious steps—shoes.

Japanese homes are also unbelievably immaculate, which adds to the feeling of purity—and one that’s enhanced by burning incense. In fact, the Japanese honor “the way of incense,” koh-do (koh for “incense,” do for “the way”), by acknowledging the olfactory senses as a necessary aesthetic contributing to an overall pleasant home ambience.

Since the Muromachi era (1333–1573), the Japanese have embraced the “Ten Virtues of Koh,” the practice of incense appreciation that discreetly removes malodorous odors and purifies the air, indoors and out. According to the Japanese company Nippon Kodo, which started making incense for the Emperor more than 400 years ago, burning quality incense transports the senses to a meditative realm while comforting and inspiring the aesthete.

At the end of the workday, eagerly looking forward to returning home to the ultimate sanctuary that sustains us with its many comforting touches is truly joyful anticipation.

Soak in some quiet time. Ask what brings you joy from the depths of your soul. Be confident with whatever inspires from deep within. For the Japanese, it’s removing shoes to symbolize a return to home as sanctuary. Olfactory purification with koh-do (or any form of aromatherapy) promotes a sweet-smelling consciousness that uplifts the senses. Play with different ideas, and imbue your home with delightful new ways to revitalize your energy.

Going with the green
Japan’s population is about one-half the population of the United States but lives within a 30 times smaller area. Japan’s natural resources are not as abundant, either. But what the Japanese do possess are ingenuity and creativity doubtlessly brought on by force of necessity. An enduring and endearing Japanese cultural trait is a frugality that is not stingy, but one that is respectful of scarce resources and makes the most of what’s available.

That’s what happened in an earlier time in the United States too. As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. It’s building on materials available now that results in satisfaction later on down the road.

And that’s why Japan has a long history of building green while saving bundles of greenbacks. Going green is simply intuition and common sense at work with scarce natural resources. Inevitably, simplicity begets luxury with sustainable results that benefit both humanity and the environment.

Beauty, or God, is in the details
The luxury of incorporating aesthetic details into home and garden can be as simple as a fresh coat of paint that pleases or rearranging furniture to maximize room space and easy flow.

For the Japanese, beauty is “not grand scale nor imposing mass but gracefulness and refinement in an architectural composition. A refined beauty in limited mass and space was [and is the] first and final aim”; this “endless pursuit of elegance” has resulted in the “designer’s practiced sense of beauty,” Hirotaro Ota summarized in compiling Japanese Architecture and Gardens.

Quality workmanship is always of paramount consideration in Japanese construction. And as breathtaking as Japanese design is, its principles are relevant and reasonably easy to emulate today. “The effect of fine materials, the logic of construction, and beautiful proportions, is a genuine architectural beauty in accordance with the ideals of Modern architecture,” Ota suggested.

It takes a keen eye, plus taking the time and doing the extra work, to hone any skill. In the process, what may seem to be an indulgence surfaces as pure devotion to appreciating beauty with practical applications, an indulgence for many to enjoy. Isn’t the goal of being happy similar to enjoying the small celebrations of life, surrounded by comfort and beauty?

In fact, “The Japanese people’s innate feeling for beauty and the high importance they attach to work are characteristics that have continued virtually unchanged from the preindustrial to the industrial age, and many of the industrialized products of modern Japan possess these age-old virtues in modern form,” Mitsukuni Yoshida commented in his essay on “Japanese Aesthetic Ideals,” in the 1980 exhibition catalog for Japan Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.