I have told everyone I know to get this book as a starter to the world of Wabi-Sabi-- a beautiful cover also makes it lovely to look at and I like the sepia pages... I have re-examined my life using some of her practical tips. Get it if you are curious about this art of imperfection...
I have read a handful of books dealing with the Japanese concept of wabi sabi (variously translated as "the art of imperfection" or "the beauty of the old and the new"), everything from Soetsu Yanagi to Leonard Koren. This book by Robyn Griggs Lawrence continues in the same vein of trying to put into words for a Western audience an amorphous and ambiguous idea, specifically as it applies to home decor.
For the most part the author gets it right. She gives the reader a little bit of historical background into the idea (its roots in Zen Buddhism and development from the tea ceremony) and then shows examples of how to put it into practice in a Western context. This is not a book about decorating your home in a neo-Japanese style, but rather how to make tangible a Japanese-originated aesthetic philosophy.
In some ways, she goes beyond the strict confines of home decor and discusses wabi sabi in other areas of life, which is appropriate because wabi sabi, as I unerstand it, is really a whole school of thought. In one chapter she delves into crafts, from knitting to woodworking to cooking. I found this interesting because I am a hobby woodworker/furniture maker who is slowly crafting most of the furniture my family lives with.
I realized, in reading this book, that wabi sabi is an aesthetic I have been reaching for in a number of areas without knowing until recently what it was called. For years I have been interested in a variety of topics, including Zen, environmentalism, the voluntary simplicity movement, modern design and architecture, and woodworking. Wabi sabi is the theme that ties these interests together. It is an approach to life, not just a decorating style or, worse, a magical, mystical belief in the power of red satin under your mattress and mirrors above your stove (`a la "feng shui", the popular Chinese-based belief in the flow of energy patterns in a building).
While mostly positive about this book, I do have a couple bones to pick. Griggs Lawrence is a big advocate of shopping in flea markets and antique stores, looking for the piece with just right wabi sabi patina of age and imperfection. Personally, I have no use for other people's old stuff. Just 'cause it's old, don't make it valuable. Why would I want to buy somebody else's history? To me, finding something that is fresh and new, innovative in the way it accomplishes a task, simple and engaging in its design, and gets incorporated into my daily routine is a better expression of wabi sabi than finding an old wash basin at a garage sale and using it as a fruit bowl.
Case in point: Griggs Lawrence has a predilection for a good cup of tea and even takes a swipe at Americans and their need for fancy cappuccino makers. Whoa there! Now she's hitting a little too close to home. My wife and I love a good cappuccino. Last Christmas I bought us what many might consider an extavagant Italian coffee machine. In actuality, it is quite simple (no fancy automatic controls), but it is built like the proverbial Sherman tank. I am quite sure it will survive decades of heavy daily use. After almost a year the gleaming stainless steel exterior has begun to mellow and it has become an integral part of our everyday life. Getting up at daybreak and going through the routine of making my wife a cappuccino with all the love and caring I can has become a sort of daily moving meditation for me. This coffee machine is just as much an expression of wabi sabi as the simple glass vase that displays a single flower sitting on the floating wooden shelf I made in the dining room.
All in all, though, if your are interested in the concept of wabi sabi this is a good book. If you are truly interested in wabi sabi as an aesthetic there are other books that will go deeper into roots of the idea. If you are interested in how the concept has been expressed by artists and craftsmen (perhaps without mentioning the phrase), there are books about that too. Most of these are listed in the excellent bibliography of the Griggs Lawrence book, one of the highlights of the book.