Zen, defined as “Vast Emptiness”, is considered to be a very intelligent design format. Everything in the design is deliberate, both it’s presence and lack of presence in the space. A feeling surrounding a Zen room is one of harmony and tranquility. David Scott of “Simply Zen” says: “It is easier to live coherently and to think creatively in an environment that allows the inhabitants to deal with the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life”.
A note for clarity: Zen is not Feng Shui, and Feng Shui is not Zen. Often, when someone considers going into a “feng shui” design for their home or office, they immediately envision a stark, oriental room. Feng shui can be incorporated into any design style, including a zen design. Also, after looking at many zen style rooms, I can safely say they there are many that could benefit greatly with some feng shui “tweaking”!
Simplicity can be represented by clean, elegant lines. The beauty of sheer geometry comes forward rather than being lost and overrun. This is a key concept in a zen design. As quoted in Simply Zen, Frank Lloyd Wright stresses the value of simplicity as “the elimination of the insignificant. All objects brought in must be intentional, and aesthetically pleasing”. To create a harmonious feeling of flow and a sense of unity, a zen design will use unified flooring schemes, such as all hardwood flooring, or natural stone in an unterrupted flow between rooms. The color scheme is calm and neutral, allowing the residents and very selective objects to “speak” and add color to the rooms.
Beautiful wood, often without heavy finishes, is very common in zen designs. The kitchens and bathrooms are often small. Kitchens are considered workspaces and bathrooms considered a place of spiritual refreshment. The remaining room flow openly and are multifunctional. Zen design does not invite any form of over-decoration. The concept of Shibui is integral to zen design. Shibui is defined a Japanese word referring to the “aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty or acerbic good taste” (Wikipedia). Striving for unostentatious decorations does not mean a cold or boring environment. Instead it can open a door to design that offers intention, highlights quality and brings forth the spirit of the materials. The word Wabi is used to define decorative materials and objects that are simple, humble by choice, harmonious with nature, and simple. The result is sheer harmony. Handcrafted items such as handmade ceramics are perfect to use in your zen design.
Clutter receives absolutely no sympathy or quarter in a zen design. Although the ‘no clutter rule” is a shared value between the two systems, there is a suble difference. Feng Shui recognizes the removal of clutter as necessary to remove energetic blocks and to encourage the chi (life force) to move through the space. While these benefits still apply in a zen design, the actual concept of the now “empty space“ has a specific intention and purpose. The removal of clutter allows the body, mind, and spirit to be free. A clear space with some intentional pieces will allow the gift of focus, rather than creating a sensory overload. With intentional design, focus pieces are chosen for their message, intention and will command attention. They will provoke thought, connect you to the microcosm of the universe and follow the harmony of nature. Often a collection of something natural and as simple as a bowl of fruit can offer an opportunity for a deep meditative insight.
Room designs offer a sense of restraint and discipline and a true sense of Order. Cleanliness is considered vital to zen living, synonomous with the word “Beauty”. Water is thus revered as a symbol of clarity and purity. In a zen design, you will see water as a key focus, from the subtle sound of trickling water in a fountain to the deliberate invitation of a deep soaking style bathtub.
The very integral connection to nature is the heart of zen design. The interior will be incorporated with the exterior wherever possible. Nature is included in every way with gardens, natural light, views, and the use of natural materials such as wood and stone. Materials are high quality as well as natural, and offer a sense of depth and connection. The naturalness of zen design allows us to find peace and harmony with the universal laws of aging, changing seasons, time, wear, and the natural cycle of life. Natural finishes and patinas allow something to “weather” with grace and understanding. The Five elements, also key in Feng Shui: Fire, Earth, Metal, Wood, and Water are incorporated deliberately in the design.
One of my favorite parts of zen design is the concept of adaptable space. Here I see the power of feng shui in Zen. When we create space that serves us, rather than enslave us, we have really learned to expand our own possibilities and thus use space as our own empowerment tool. In Zen design, sliding partitions and translucent screens allow a space to redefine it’s boundaries from small intimate rooms to a large gathering space in a matter of minutes. Storage must be hidden, easy to access, easy to use, and very functional. Storage units are often natural wood and blend into the home as part of the wall. Many use sliding doors to preserve space, and a “genius” combination of storage concepts that create a place for all necessary things – pegs for hanging, clothes, electronics, etc. Tansu trunks are also used, but minimally to store valuables. They were easy to carry to safety during an earthquake, and are always packed and ready to go. Many incorporate casters for easy moving. The Kaidan tansu was used as a traditional stair.
Furniture is very low profile and also adaptable. A good example of zen furniture would be the popular futon, passionately embraced by the West. Futon mattresses can also be quickly stored away allowing a “bedroom” to disappear, and a living area to emerge. In a Zen design, most furniture has a double function such as the Kotatsu, a table used for dining, guests, homework and main gathering place. Actually, under this table top is a low, wooden table frame that has some hidden elements including a heating element, and can be reassembled to serve as a seat for warmth. When not needed, the katatsu can be completely disassembled and stored.
Set your Zen space with Intention and Purpose. Choose only those items that you love
and support your goals and inner harmony.
These wonderful concepts that form Zen design can offer a very healing and connected way to recreate our space. I would recommend that you begin with just one room, and see if the zen lifestyle can bring balance into your life. Cleanliness, order, simplicity, nature, connection, flow and focus are the benefits. Harmony and peace are the blessings.