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?”