Christine Allison On Simple Beauty
Christine Allison on what her grandparents taught her about simplicity and design.
When I was 6, my grandmother, Obaachan, showed me my first still life. She placed slices of a ripe yellow peach into a cracked blue-and-white bowl, topped it with a few grains of sugar, and then poured a tiny stream of milk onto the fruit in slow concentric circles.
When the milk ran out, she set the bowl of peaches on the sunny kitchen table. I thanked her in Japanese (she never really learned English), but I could tell she wasn’t listening. She was studying the bowl. Then she moved it slightly into the shadows so that it wasn’t overwhelmed by light. I vividly recall getting a funny feeling inside. Something akin to butterflies.
My grandparents were obsessed with beauty in a way most Americans are not. The Japanese concept of beauty is tied directly to a respect, even reverence, for nature, and in that way at odds with the Western ideal. Simplicity is preferred over elaborate detail and ornamentation. Subtlety is considered a higher aesthetic than anything that might be perceived as obviousness. Most of all, for the Japanese, beauty is a practice. The placement of objects according to the natural order is at the core of a beautiful life.
Memories of my grandparents came flooding to me when I dropped by the photo shoot at Florence and Fred Wiedemann’s North Dallas house. Senior editor Rebecca Sherman produced a remarkable story on their Japanese-style home. My grandparents didn’t live as luxuriously; they actually occupied a row house in a working-class neighborhood in Minneapolis with modest (and adamantly American) furnishings. Still, their junk drawer wasn’t a dumping ground but a work of art: I remember staring at the stacks of beautifully folded bread wrappers (for a second use); rubber bands sorted by size and thickness; paper clips facing the same direction. In the garden, my grandfather wove nests out of twigs for cradling his cucumbers and squash. Their garbage can was astonishing: Obaachan mindfully flattened boxes and tin cans, and wrapped coffee grounds and fruit peels in packets she made of used paper before layering them in the trash. Their house was so tenderly arranged that even the garbage was accorded a kind of dignity.
In Japan, the New Year is a time for cleaning drawers, organizing closets, putting cabinets in order. It’s much like our spring housecleaning, but there is a spiritual payoff in the process, a gain of mental spaciousness that only can be achieved by simplifying, purging, and ordering the physical world we live in. In our must-have culture it’s difficult to explain, unless you can imagine finding pleasure in a bowl of peaches, or peace in a long ago junk drawer.
Enjoy this issue, and let me hear from you.
Editor and Publisherchristine@dhomeandgarden.com