South of the Border

March 7, 2017


Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic and world view centered on the acceptance and even reverence for transience and imperfection. Wabi denotes simplicity, rusticity,  and quietude, and includes an element of happenstance or even a small flaw, which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. Sabi refers to the beauty that comes from the process of aging: the patina of bronze, for example, illustrates the concept that time and use make an object more exquisite and valuable.

I just returned from a month in Mexico. I stayed in a small beach town of about five hundred people. Many buildings look dilapidated or in disrepair, like not-so-ancient ruins. There are piles of rubble around: brick and stone seem to sit at every doorstep and re-bar sticks out in all directions. What looks like a crumbling to the ground is, in fact,  a construction boom. The whole effect is somehow wabi-sabi in reverse: gorgeous, with raw material waiting to be cut or installed next to or even part of buildings that are finished and new.


My apartment was on the lower floor of the lovely Casa Colonial, hastily yet lovingly finished practically as I walked up to it. The periwinkle stucco is exhilarating. I have been traveling internationally since I was thirteen years old.  Aesthetic and other preferences are borne of culture, economics, and necessity. Contemporary design in the US mostly seem to favor newness, though distressed finishes and reclaimed material are more and more popular. As I have written previously, this culture also seems to equate monochromaticity with  beauty and disfavors frisson. This is the opposite of many cultures. Choice of color also comes, of course, from the quality of light in a given place, dyes originally available from local flora or minerals,  and even ontology or specific spiritual practices. All the above can influence the effect of the chosen colors too; in other words, culture may drive perception.

There is no sense in Mexico of dissonance between old and new, finished and unfinished, or strong and soft.  The intensity of  paint color combined with raw materials is astounding. In the building below, there is a density of color and the palette is over-ridingly warm, yet the variegation and texture of the ceiling tile temper the marigold yellow.


In my design work, when paint color  is the major consideration, I  capture this effect through the juxtaposition of neutrals with more saturated colors. In fact, I have been hired specifically because of this: most designers stick to one or the other, mostly neutral. This color relationship occurs naturally in la arquitectura Chacaliya, because exposed brick, wood or concrete act as the neutral. Often, when a client asks to highlight lots of natural material we choose a strong and modulated white; this works well but it should be noted that much of that selection stems from clients’ and architects’ (cultural) preferences.

Luis Barragan

Design (and Art) needs the illusion of spontaneity. This is undeniably true however, many designs (designers) here eschew this fact. I wonder if it is a fear that the work will look like a mistake; that somebody was absent-minded, lost control, and thus neglected to design something. While there are many ways to create this illusion, saturated colors feel inherently spontaneous. They are a bolt of energy into the body. Pink next to orange is surprising for its graphic tension. I am thrilled when someone “lets” me use pink, or purple, or tangerine. Mexicans, Indians, Palestinians, West Africans, and Guatamaltecos do not consider pink feminine and therefore anathema, for example. A pretty color is a pretty color.

Paired with raw plaster, Barragan’s color design transcends a mere combination of painted and unpainted surfaces. Density and sparsity of color create this sense of happenstance. The inclusion of what seems unfinished completes the design’s power; the naked concrete acts both as the flaw and the reverence for time: is the stucco yet to be painted or has the color worn away? Of course, all parts of his composition are balanced and intentional, and the plaster is not a lump but a geometric shape honed by a human hand. Stone bricks are fashioned by masons but the beauty of the workmanship and the stone are equal.

When Toni Morrison’s book Beloved won the Pulitzer I was excited to read it. I had read many of her books previously. I was disappointed. It was so polished and perfect in every conceivable way that I was bored. It was bereft of surprise. Some of her other books, Sula comes to mind, are equally well-written but they contain some element- no matter how small- of unwieldiness, a sense that a character, a plot twist, or turn of phrase escaped her control and took off on its own. That quality makes art come alive.

imagesChristof Niemann

Netflix has a great documentary series called Abstract, which highlights designers from different fields. Design is the communication of an idea or ideas through functionality: abstraction becomes material.  Two designers particularly struck me. Christof Neimann is an illustrator whom you might recognize from his many New Yorker covers, and Es Devlin, a set designer for projects as varied as The National Theater and Kanye West. Niemann explains that after many years of having it backwards, he learned to become “a careless artist and a ruthless editor.” We set a design goal: in Niemann’s case, the magazine gives him a concept to convey.  We must then allow ideas to flow unfettered, after which, we pare away to determine what is essential to communicate the idea and edit out any remaining superfluity. This process cannot be done in reverse. If you edit beforehand, you close off the mind to the novel and possible. You cannot plan everything in advance of or during the creative process. You squelch the exuberant.

Devin’s medium is spectacle. Her and Niemann’s aesthetic completely diverge. While he deals in the spare, she piles on, but nothing she adds detracts from the essential idea; this is because her work is about creating a three dimensional and enveloping experience. For her, there can be no such thing  as beauty for its own sake.


When I compose a blog I do not worry about the perfection of every sentence or the composition as a whole. I belabor nothing, at the beginning. I get every idea on the virtual page:

unforced unpremeditated

ideas take hold practice observation


concise expository poetry

human hand

Design is communication. Simple or complex.

the way a line is drawn

Essential stripping away information adding information

density v sparsity

Heavy next to heavy balanced by flora and and natural finishes

Juxtapose natural material with strong colors

construction everywhere

mirror image of wabi sabi

Likewise when I design, though I know the  effect I wish to communicate, I do not presume to know in advance the best or most beautiful way to create this communication. Through the process of designing (listening, experimenting, throwing ten chips on the wall) the best answer(s) reveals itself. The revelation works through elimination and modification. I edit my writing too many times to count but I hope the liveliness of my thinking is evident. What makes so much of Mexican architecture fascinating to me is the  balances struck. I have mentioned many related to actual colors and materials used but the most impressive thing, which no doubt is due in part to these, is the way the act of creation remains apparent. Everything is not wrapped up in a stultifying  little bow. Yes, the artwork is finished and complete, but somehow it is ripe for the possibilities the user will bring. Past, present, and future are made visible.





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