books design

Book review: The Beauty of Everyday Things, by Soetsu Yanagi

Soetsu Yanagi (1889 – 1961) was a philosopher and art historian who came to specialise in the folk crafts of his native Japan. The Beauty of Everyday Things collects several of his essays into one volume celebrating the simplicity and anonymous artistry of Japanese handicrafts.

For the author, the humble beauty of well made household things is more important than the showy beauty of fine arts, because we encounter it every day. “There is no greater opportunity for appreciating beauty than through its use in our daily lives.” This kind of beauty, and the satisfaction it brings, is accessible to everyone. “Society cannot be proud when a product is available to only a select few” says Yanagi. “Equating the expensive with the beautiful cannot be a point of pride.”

Instead, the book celebrates things that are “wholesomely and honestly made for practical use”, or Mingei to use the Japanese word for folk crafts that the author coined. The first couple of essays define folk craft and why it matters, and then it goes on to explore a range of examples, such as traditional fabrics, pottery and woodblock prints. Readers who are more familiar with Japan will no doubt get more out of this, though I appreciated the chapter on Japanese aesthetic perspectives and enjoyed Yanagi’s uncluttered prose and sense of joy throughout.

There is a certain irony to reading about handmade objects in a mass produced Penguin paperback, and it feels like the book deserves something more tactile. But then that would make it expensive, and that would undermine the point too. One thing it certainly could do with is a few more photos. There are a handful, but not enough. There’s a whole chapter extolling the virtues of the monk and sculptor Mokujiki, but no pictures of his art to demonstrate what Yanagi is on about. Still, the book is a fine introduction to a philosophy of the everyday that I found enriching, and  that I think is sorely needed in our throwaway consumer culture.

And that’s why I’m reviewing the book on a sustainability blog. The approach to material objects that Yanagi describes here is the opposite of consumerism. Even when mass produced, the objects he describes are created with skill and pride,  made to last, and appreciated for what they are. They are not disposable. They are mended if they break. They are in no way consumed.

If our possessions are timeless in their design, we will feel no great need to upgrade them. If they are durable, we will keep them for longer. If we like them and enjoy using them, we’ll take better care of them. The cure for consumerism is not to be less concerned about our material things, but more concerned – choosing everyday objects that we value.

For Yanagi, that meant the handmade artefacts and craft traditions that were disappearing as Japan industrialised. What it means for us in the 21st century is up to us to decide, according to our own tastes and preferences. Save up for quality kitchenware, well made furniture and timeless fashions. Choose fewer and better made things. Find objects you like and keep them forever. Write with a good pen on quality stationery. After all, “quality is how the heart and soul of a civilization should be measured”, says Yanagi. “How can bad paper and high civilization possibly be bedmates?”

6 comments

  1. This made me think that there is something about the sustainability of knowledge and ideas, too. Traditional, folk designs are probably good because they are the end result of generations of honing and perfecting, and this needs to be understood. Too often I see examples of modern makers taking traditional designs off in directions that lose the essence of what made the design good. The perfection of a design may not be fully understood, even by those currently making an item – it has just “always been done this way”. It is no simple matter to understand the important aspects of any received knowledge and to know how to preserve what is still important and when to update what is no longer relevant.

    1. That’s true. I think of that any time I pour from a jug or a kettle that drips. People have been making things that pour for thousands of years – there’s no reason not to learn from traditional forms that got it right.

  2. The San Diego folk art museum is the Mingei International Museum. Though it probably states it somewhere, I didn’t know the origin of the word Mingei last time I visited. Now it completely makes sense. It’s currently undergoing renovation, but I can’t wait to return with my new insight into the meaning of the word, which will reframe how I view each object. On another note, I read your blog post as I drank out of a handmade mug from Malawi that I’ve had for 20 years. Never gets old.

    1. Nice! A favourite mug is probably the first example that comes to mind for a lot of people. I had a handmade mug that a friend from Kenya made me, but the handle fell off years ago and I decided not to tell him…

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