TRADITIONAL JAPANESE AESTHETIC
What is generally identified as the Japanese aesthetic stems from ideals of Japanese Shinto and Chinese Taoism. Japanese culture is extremely diverse; despite this, in terms of the interior, the aesthetic is one of simplicity and minimalism.
The specific idea that a room's true beauty is in the empty space within the roof and walls came from Laozi, a philosopher and the founder of Taoism, who held to the "aesthetic ideal of emptiness", believing that the mood should be captured in the imagination, and not so heavily dictated by what is physically present. Japanese design is based strongly on craftsmanship, beauty, elaboration, and delicacy. The design of interiors is very simple but made with attention to detail and intricacy. This sense of intricacy and simplicity in Japanese designs is still valued in modern Japan as it was in traditional Japan.
Interiors are very simple, highlighting minimal and natural decoration. Traditional Japanese interiors, as well as modern, incorporate mainly natural materials including fine woods, bamboo, silk, rice straw mats, and paper shōji screens. Natural materials are used to keep simplicity in the space that connects to nature. Natural color schemes are used and neutral palettes include black, white, off-white, gray, and brown.
Impermanence is a strong theme in traditional Japanese dwellings. The size of rooms can be altered by interior sliding walls or screens, the already mentioned shōji. Cupboards built smoothly into the wall hide futon, mattresses pulled out before going to bed, allowing more space to be available during the day. The versatility of these dwellings becomes more apparent with changes in seasons. In summer, for example, exterior walls can be opened to bring the garden and cooling breezes in. The minimal decoration also alters seasonally, with a different scroll hanging or new flower arrangement.
The Japanese aesthetic developed further with the celebration of imperfection and insufficiency, characteristics resulting from the natural aging process or darkening effect. Shinto, the indigenous religious tradition of Japan, provides a basis for the appreciation of these qualities, holding to a philosophy of appreciation of life and the world. Sei Shōnagon was a trend-setting court lady of the tenth century who wrote in ‘The Pillow Book’ of her dislike for "a new cloth screen with a colourful and cluttered painting of many cherry blossoms", preferring instead to notice "that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy". Her taste was not out of place in the ancient Japanese court. In the twelfth century a Buddhist monk, Yoshida Kenkō, exerted his influence on Japanese aesthetic sensibility resulting from his philosophy of life. He asked, "Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? ...Branches about to blossom or garden strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration." The incomplete is also praised by Kenkō, "uniformity and completeness are undesirable". Underpinning or complementing these aesthetic ideals is the valuing of contrast; when imperfection or the impoverished is contrasted with perfection or opulence, each is emphasised and thus better appreciated.
TRADITIONAL MATERIALS OF THE INTERIOR
Japanese interior design is very efficient in the use of resources. Traditional and modern Japanese interiors have been flexible in use and designed mostly with natural materials. The spaces are used as multifunctional rooms. The rooms can be opened to create more space for a particular occasion or for more privacy, or vice versa closed-off by pulling closed paper screens called shōji.
Japanese Zen interior designs draw inspiration from elements of nature as they have immense respect for nature. Their designs have a strong connection with natural elements such as wood, plants, natural lighting, and more.
A large portion of Japanese interior walls are often made of shōji screens that can be pushed open to join two rooms together, and then close them allowing more privacy. The shōji screens are made of paper attached to thin wooden frames that roll away on a track when they are pushed. Another important feature of the shōji screen, besides privacy and seclusion, is that they allow light through. This is an important aspect to Japanese design. Paper translucent walls allow light to be diffused through the space and create light shadows and patterns.
Tatami mats are rice straw floor mats often used to cover the floor in Japan's interiors; in modern Japanese houses, there are usually only one or two tatami rooms. Another way to connect rooms in Japan's interiors is through sliding panels made of wood and paper, like the shōji screens, or cloth. These panels are called fusuma and are used as an entire wall. They are traditionally hand-painted.
Tatami is the basis of traditional Japanese architecture, regulating a building's size and dimensions. They originated in ancient Japan when straw was laid on bare earth as a softener and warmer. In the Heian Period (794–1185 A.D.), this idea developed into moveable mats that could be laid anywhere in the house to sit or sleep on before becoming a permanent floor covering in the fifteenth century.
Tatami is suitable for the Japanese climate because they let air circulate around the floor. Bamboo is prominently used and even expected in Japanese houses, used both for decorative and functional purposes.
Bamboo blinds, sudare, replace shoji in summer to prevent excess heat inside and also offer greater ventilation. Country dwellings and farmhouses often use it for ceilings and rafters. The natural properties of bamboo, its raw beauty with the knots and smooth surface, correspond to Japanese aesthetic ideals of imperfection, contrast, and the natural.
The use of paper, or washi, in Japanese buildings is the main component in the beauty and atmosphere of the Japanese interior, the way variation of shadow combines to create a "mystery of shadows". A range of papers is used for various purposes in the home.
Wood is generally used for the framework of the home, but its properties are valuable in the Japanese aesthetic, namely its warmth and irregularity.
A recessed space called tokonoma is often present in traditional as well as modern Japanese living rooms. This is the focus of the room and displays Japanese art, usually a painting or calligraphy.
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868 A.D., Japan's relations to Euro-American powers became more prominent and involved. This spilled into a broader interaction with the modern world, which in terms of interior design, resulted in the introduction of western-style interiors, while the vernacular style came to be more associated with tradition and the past. The typical interiors found in Japanese homes and western homes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were vastly different with almost opposing attitudes to furniture, the versatility of space, and materials.
Many public spaces had begun to incorporate chairs and desks by the late nineteenth century, department stores adopted western-style displays; a new "urban visual and consumer culture" was emerging. In the domestic sphere, the manner and dress of inhabitants were determined by the interior style, Japanese or Western. One of the examples is the Hōmei-Den of the Meiji era Tokyo Imperial Palace, which fused Japanese styles such as the coffered ceiling with western parquet floor and chandeliers.
There was a push by bureaucrats for Japan to develop into a more "modern" (Western) culture. The modernising of the home was considered the best way to change the daily life of the people. Much of the reason for modernisation was a desire to "present a ‘civilised’ face to the world, thus helping to secure Japan's position as a modern nation in the world order". Even with governmental encouragement to transform the home, the majority of Japanese people still lived in fairly traditional style dwellings well into the 1920s, partly due to the economic situation in the early 1910s that meant western style was out of reach for the majority of people. It was also difficult to incorporate furniture into traditional dwellings due to their small size and intended flexible use of space, flexibility was made difficult to maintain when bulky furniture was involved; it was impractical, but aesthetically incongruent too.
INFLUENCE ON THE WEST
Some of the earliest influences on the West came in the form of Japanese art, which gained popularity in Europe in particular, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In terms of architecture and interior design though, the influence on the West is much more centered on the United States of America.
Before the twentieth century, very little of the West's knowledge of the Japanese building was gained in Japan. Instead, it was gained through exhibitions the Japanese partook in such as the 1876 A.D. Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. The early influence of such exhibitions was more in the creation of enthusiasm for things Japanese instead of something more authentic. The result was exuberant Japanese decoration, the simplicity of Japanese design lost in the clutter of Victorian ostentation.
During the twentieth century though, a number of now renowned architects visited Japan including Frank Lloyd Wright, Ralph Adams Cram, Richard Neutra, and Antonin Raymond. These architects, among others, played significant roles in bringing the Japanese influence to Western modernism. Influence from the Far East was not new in America at this time. During the eighteenth and a large part of the nineteenth centuries, a taste for Chinese art and architecture existed and often resulted in a "superficial copying". The Japanese influence was different, however. The modernist context, and the time leading up to it, meant that architects were more concerned with "the problem of building, rather than in the art of ornamenting". The simplicity of Japanese dwellings contrasted the oft-esteemed excessive decoration of the West. The influence of Japanese design was thus not so much that it was directly copied but rather, "the west discovered the quality of space in traditional Japanese architecture through a filter of western architectural values". The culture that created traditional Japanese architecture is so far removed from Western values philosophies of life that it could not be directly applied in a design context.