Pacific Rim Design: Complex Simplicity

by WOHe

While the idea of Contemporary or Modern design may conjure up images of sleek, minimalistic styling and angular edges, there are several emerging variations of this theme. These are the result of an emerging softer side of modernism within the design community, wherein new design sensibilities allow indeed, encourage individual self-expression.

The editors of Metropolitan Home magazine summed up this emerging style when they said: “Modernism has grown, evolved and now prospered into a new wave of Modern, born of the neat, clean, pared-down aesthetics[it] is less aggressive, rigorous, and intellectual, but a lot more sensual. Overt decoration and Tudor hand-crafting sits happily alongside democratic mass market formsand have simply settled in to provide highly personal mixes that results in ‘mi casa, es su casa’ comfort.”

One of the most popular variations on this type of design draws its influence from the concept of East Meets West, where kitchens and baths are influenced by Asian design sensitivities. This is sometimes referred to as Pacific Rim design. Kitchens and baths designed in this style may initially appear to be simple in their lack of adornment, yet they are actually quite complex in their simplicity.

When focusing on Asian design sensibilities, designers trying to grasp the nature of Pacific Rim or Asian design need to first understand how different the definition of beauty is between Western and Eastern artists. Over the centuries, the Japanese have developed a unique design vocabulary focusing on quiet, unpretentious, highly valued objects placed sparingly in interiors so they can be enjoyed without distraction.
The Japanese believe beauty is a sensory experience; beauty isn’t inherent in an object, rather it evolves as the viewer and the object interact with one another.

This definition of beauty is explained by the philosophy of “Wabi-Sabi.” This is sometimes referred to as “Japanese rustic design,” but the term “rustic” is incorrectly used to imply crudeness or a lack of sophistication. Wabi-Sabi is very sophisticated. It is an appreciation of the simple organic elegance of nature’s materials, rich in raw texture and placed adjacent to native objects: Think “complex simplicity.”

Wabi means new and fresh the first blooms on a cherry tree in spring. In art and design, it connotes a modesty of choice and an unassuming naturalness.

Sabi, on the other hand, is old beauty calming, vulnerable, something with a patina of age. Things rustic, worn or tarnished exhibit a quality of maturity, something that can only be achieved through long years of existence. It can neither be created nor induced; it simply occurs through the natural process of exposure to the elements or long years of fond usage.

Therefore, Wabi-Sabi is about embracing the inherent beauty occurring in the juxtaposition of something new and fresh combined with the earned beauty in something well-worn and cherished.

If one appreciates the newness of Wabi and the oldness of Sabi, it becomes easier to see why, for instance, the hand-made Geocrete countertops created by noted designer and sculptor Fu-Tung Cheng of Berkeley, CA-based Cheng Design, can be beautifully enhanced by insetting patterned computer chips.

Likewise, it makes more sense why a design might combine 4″x4″ glass tiles with a rusticated knotty cherry wide plank floor, separated by the sleek elegance of quarter-sawn maple cabinets in a contemporary space. (A good source for information about Wabi-Sabi is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkley, CA.)

A second major concept of Asian culture is the value of naturalness in all things. For example, the Tatami mat flooring in Japan carries an air of sophistication, yet is woven of rice straw a discard at the time of harvest. The true beauty of straw is visible because of the position of dignity in which it is placed.

Man-made or artificial materials no matter how perfect will never be as beautiful as something from nature. At the core of the Asian design philosophy is the pursuit of achieving the same sense of order and balance in interior spaces with new or reinterpreted materials found in the order of nature.

Beauty is not one moment of grandeur or majesty; it’s found more often in simplicity. Therefore, beauty is searched
out in hidden depths, not grand vistas.

In nature, who would not marvel at the splendor of a spring forest ablaze with rhododendron or azalea blossoms? But, it’s that very first azalea bloom as it timidly presses open toward the spring sunlight, or the very last bloom as it delicately clings to life, that far more demonstrates the true nature of beauty. This is the original “less is more” concept that translates so well to kitchen and bath design: less color, less clutter, fewer objects encourages the appreciation of simple statements of furniture or materials in an understated, refined, balanced room.

Lastly, the acknowledgement of the perfection of imperfection is at the very core of this design philosophy. A perfect moon creates no energy of anticipation, it leaves no room for the imagination to roam. Perfection is to sit and look at the moon a day or so before it’s completely full and enjoy the creative process of imagining what it will look like at that one fleeting moment of fullness on a beautiful, clear summer night.

By understanding the philosophy of Asian design, you’ll be able to develop your ability to create powerful unified design compositions that richly embrace this beauty of nature. Without such a foundation, you can do little more than look at examples of beautiful rooms and wonder, “How was it done,” or, worse yet, try to copy the look without understanding the spirit of the interior.

The philosophy teaches us to combine beautiful, naturalistic products rich in diversity of texture, color or pattern in a design, rather than concentrating on man-made ornamentation.

This philosophy also lets us appreciate things that are imperfect, incomplete and unconventional. For example, skillfully scribed moldings aren’t nearly as important as the natural wood grain pattern along the face of the timber piece.

In addition, this philosophy helps to free our minds to create a room out of a collection of shapes combined to create a unified space, rather than limiting our talents to connecting long runs of cabinetry.

So, how can this information be used to establish a design guide for the working kitchen and bath designer?

In a recent Kitchen & Bath Design News issue, Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, wrote about drawing from Eastern Asian elements, and she spoke of the importance of long, low linear horizontal shapes and forms within such a room. The use of natural materials in the form of simple yet unusually grained woods, the unusual use of high-grade plastics, stone, steel and glass were also highlighted. She suggested incorporating classic Japanese home design elements: the tansu storage chest (the Asian version of the Western European armoire) and the shoji screen shape, translated into cabinet doors or room divider partitions. Using natural materials presented in interwoven patterns (such as bamboo, cane, reeding) was another recommendation.

Beyond these valuable material suggestions, here are some specific examples of how this design concept can be detailed in the cabinetry and surface specifications of a kitchen.

1. Combine blocks of space rather than connecting runs of cabinets (see Design Concept Sketches A and B, at left): When creating a room, think in blocks of space, not long connected rows of cabinetry. This is probably one of the hardest transitions for a kitchen designer to make when thinking of functional storage space. If the person interested in this elegant, naturalistic environment is a purist at heart, not to worry: He or she probably won’t have a huge amount of the “stuff of life.” However, regardless of the true materialistic possessions, a kitchen will be enhanced by a walk-in pantry, or a tall pantry cabinet. Learn about base cabinet drawer systems fitted to receive dish and glassware, allowing you to move beyond typical wall cabinets.

Examples of how to use building blocks of space include the following:

  • Use intermediate size cabinets: Those units can float off the floor on legs, or be grounded with a sub-base. They will finish somewhere between 38″ and 66″ off the floor (these are called “mid-height” units).
  • Vary the height of a partition wall behind a peninsula or island, or wrap the partition around one end of the island.
  • Do not connect the cabinet sections in the corner. Allow the wall space to be used as a presentation of a beautifully natural product. Or, separate cabinet sections completely along the walls or in a shaped island arrangement.
  • Create a connecting series of blocks or cubes of storage space that highlight different materials. For example, use a section of wood cabinets connected by a stainless steel framed wire mesh L-shaped shelf, with a cube of another wood housing the cooktop.

2. Focus on horizontal lines within the wall cabinet elevation:

  • Minimize the use of wall cabinets. Combine wall units with long open shelf sections.
  • Use varying textures, colors or materials to create a horizontal line. For example, feature a top panel above cabinets in a different wood species or finish.
  • Make wall cabinets shorter 18″ to 24″ tall to create stripes along the wall space.

3. Create an island that acts as sculpture in the room:

  • A T-shape or L-shape may be one way to create something other than a long rectangular space. Frame the island with a special counter edge or separate wall sections of different materials.
  • A dramatic curve shape at one end of an island can connect to a rectangular table or set of cabinets.

4. Think of new ways to treat the backsplash (see Design Concept Sketches C, D and E): In Europe, the backsplash height is often 18″ to 24″, while here in North America, it’s 15″ to 18″. Regardless of the height, however, you should create a new storage level along the backsplash to add visual interest and appeal.

  • Utilize one of the hanging systems to provide utensil, cookbook or spice storage.
  • In larger rooms, pull the cabinets from the wall and create a very low raised splash level with a 6″- to 12″- deep ledge as a landing space or shaped to receive stainless steel or aluminum containers for storage/ draining.
  • Avoid the typical North American 4″ space. Keep it as little as 1″ or vary the backsplash height based on use. Consider horizontally dividing the space by attaching a shelf or ledge that’s part of the cabinet section rather than the countertop section.

5. Design a countertop edging (see Design Concept Sketch F): Create a countertop edge that incorporates intriguing ways to add complex simplicity to the countertop edge.

  • Provide negative space with a large reveal between the countertop and the top of the cabinet. This can be created with a step-back, channel or a change in color.
  • Combine dissimilar materials with simple connecting edges, rather than elaborately carved or detailed edges. For example, use concrete combined with stainless steel in a layered approach of a section view.
  • Add to the horizontal linear interest of the countertop by making it a thicker surface: Change its thickness based on varying counter area responsibilities or introduce cubes of other types of surfacing materials.

To successfully create an Asian-inspired design, you need to understand the philosophy, change the way you think about space and combine your aesthetic view with a practical one. You need to become technically proficient in the use of aged metals, stainless steel cabinetry and accent pieces, as well as commercial kitchen stainless steel equipment. Find area sources to add to your current business partnerships.
Meet with your current countertop specialist and/or expand your countertop resources to become an expert in the durability, as well as the vulnerabilities, of naturalistic materials such as soapstone, honed granite, concrete, slate and limestone. All of these tops are more porous and need a regularly scheduled professional application of a sealer, or an aggressive schedule of at-home maintenance to protect them from staining and scratching.

However, do not assume that this is a disadvantage. Remember the concept of the perfection of imperfection. As a North American designer, your education and training has been grounded in Western European sensitivities and the American Puritan ethic of perfection. The underlying theme of perfection in imperfection found within the Asian definition of natural beauty means the viewer is not offended by the aged look of these surfacing materials.

Become a veneer specialist. It’s critical for you to understand the costs associated with the type of veneer you specify, know the grades of veneers available, become familiar with the way veneer is sliced (impacting its end appearance), and be thoroughly educated in the differences of sequence matching/book matching/blue print matching.

Several helpful hints from veneer specialists include the following:
1. Typically, door stock is different than cabinet component parts: the mill source may even be different. Therefore, ordering separate door-type end panels and appliance panels will ensure even consistency in wood graining. If open cabinets are mixed with enclosed units, you must contrast the materials or make sure that you and the cabinet manufacturer have clearly agreed on the veneer specification and resulting procurement and assembly costing.

2. Realize veneers never match solid woods, and when you curve veneer doors, you stretch the wood’s molecular structure. Therefore, the grain can take stain very differently.

3. When specifying a veneer job, you should already have a working relationship with a local furniture refinisher or antique specialist because you’ll need to perform very sophisticated touch-up work in the field on sequence-matched veneer panels.

4. Realize veneer jobs are rarely quoted with a per door method. Size of the job, rarity of the species and height of the doors all impact the price of the veneers being ordered. You also cannot sell a job off an existing door sample because each veneer flitch is different.

And, that’s just the beginning!

It’s a design challenge to create a room that richly expresses the beauty of nature’s order, celebrates the patina of aged materials and the fresh bloom of something sparkling new, and meets the criteria established for a functional kitchen space customized to the family’s way of life. I hope this overview of Pacific Rim design details and the complex simplicity of it helps you along the way. KBDN

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