Zen and the Art of Irrational Decoration
Florence and Fred Wiedemann’s reincarnation of a former ranch-style house.

 
The foyer leads into a somber but pleasingly serene living room; beyond that, the dining room is graced by natural light. While most of Wiedemanns’ collection is kept behind screens or doors, she selects a few to display and changes them out often. Walls are kept intentionally empty, as is the tradition in Japanese design. Shown here, housed in a mizuyah kitchen tansu: antique celadon vases, a Ming pot with gold-filled cracks, and Kyoto teacups. On the wall hangs a wooden Chinese screen which opens to reveal more of the collection.
This is a house that evokes emotions difficult to put into words. But, as its owner would say, being rendered speechless is very Zen. In the Zen way of thinking, words are limiting. Rational explanations are impossible. I will try anyway because, in a magazine, words matter. Our photographs will help, but they are only two-dimensional.

For the moment, walk with me and I’ll explain: Outside, the day is brutal and bright. At the towering dark door there is no bell, only an ancient wooden gong, which one discovers after some searching. Clang it. The sound is rich and resonant. The door opens, and in the wedge of light there is an elegant woman, six feet tall, her jet-dark hair pulled into a slick bun. She is graceful, dressed in a slate Issey Miyake loose jacket and black trousers. With high cheekbones and dramatic eyes, she is imposing and regal, like a former prima ballerina. You already know these things about her: she is a practicing Jungian analyst, a PHD clinical psychologist, book author, and that her grandchildren’s mother is Isabella Rossellini, the former wife of her eldest son. Once inside, calm and silence envelop you like fog. You consider whispering. This could be a temple. Perhaps, in a way, it is.

Natural light illuminates the rooms, all of it from floor-to-ceiling windows that span the entire length of the house, filtered softly by antique Japanese shades. There is almost no apparent color. The stone and brick floors are black. The walls are Donald Kaufman white. There are old indigo textiles and rich, dark-wood Japanese antiques. The owner’s collection of ancient Sung Dynasty pottery - brought back from many trips to Japan - are in hues best described as shadow and ash and soot. In a back bedroom, the walls are papered in a misty green she calls "moonlight in the forest." This is a spiritual house made serene with its subdued colors, calm with its sparseness, and animate by its inhabitants.

 
Earthen colors that are natural and pleasing to the senses help give the Wiedemann house serenity. Shown here: a black lacquer tray highlighted by a sake jar and imperfect, but precious, bowls, and a koryo vase the color of moonlight. They lay on a Japanese kasuri textile in indigo blue. Wiedemann collects these textiles and also uses them as upholstery.

Inexplicably, it will be the kitchen that moves you most. Somber and economical, it is both elegant and rustic, beautiful the way farmhouse kitchens often are. This is the most indefinable room of all, where emotion fills the air like the smell of cooking. There is a kitchen god who resides here, I’m sure of it.

If on our walk together you experienced some of the feelings I did, as others have told me they have, it could be defined in Zen terms as irrational. This is good. It is irrational because it cannot be explained fully with logic and words. If Carl Jung were with us, he might have described our mutual emotions as the collective unconscious or the deep humanity we all share. Choose either, and you will be on the path to enlightenment.

Florence and Fred Wiedemann began their own journey, or Dao, 45 years ago when they bought the house on a cul de sac off Strait Lane. At the time, the house was a common ranch, not yet renovated. In 1966, Florence went to Zurich to study at the famous C.G. Jung Institute. In 1965, they bought their first Japanese antique, a tansu or wooden storage chest, from friend Stanley Marcus during that year’s Neiman Marcus Japan Fortnight. The tansu was the beginning of their passion for collecting Japanese artifacts and antiques.

 
Florence Wiedemann

They traveled to Japan for the first time in 1975, when Florence discovered that Jung had also been a student of Zen philosophy. "There were similarities between Zen and Jung that dawned on me," she says. "Jung talks about how we all have a dark side to us. When you integrate the shadow, you no longer fight the not-so-good side of you. You accept it." Similarly, Zen Buddhism teaches enlightenment and the end of suffering, dukhai, through the acceptance of life’s darkness, she explains.

On subsequent travels to Japan, she stayed with families in rural farmhouses, where she developed a love for simple, useful things, such as pottery and textiles. "Most Sung pottery was done by 10-year-old boys, not by great artists," she says. "People ate their rice and porridge out of pottery bowls, so they produced it in great numbers." Unlike the rarer and hugely expensive porcelains made by the Imperial kilns, the bowls were never signed. "That’s what makes Sung pottery so wonderful - it’s ego-less," says Wiedemann. She has a collection of hundreds of pieces of pottery, most of which is kept from view behind tansu doors. She brings one or two pieces out at a time then returns them to their cabinets after a while. This way, the eye does not tire of an object and it becomes more beautiful in isolation. "Emptiness is a major point in Japanese design," she says. "During the day in Japan, everything goes behind the shoji screens, so that everything is clean and simple and uncluttered. The Western side of her brain fights this aesthetic, so things accumulate. I have to work at it. I go through the house every three months and put things up."

 
In the ways of wabi-sabi, beauty comes from the useful and the humble. Here Wiedemann displays early Ming china, Sung pottery, shigarakis, karatsus, and muromachis. On top, are the simple but beautiful boxes that they came in. An early 18th-century Chinese cabinet is home for them all.

There are no paintings on the walls. "When a friend, and museum director, came to the house he said it was beautiful, but we needed to get some good art and put it up. I tried to explain [the house] to him, but he didn’t get it. Most people don’t," she says. Even their books are kept behind sliding shoji screens because she finds the shiny jackets distracting.

"The true beauty of a room lays in the vacant space," she says. "Traditional Japanese houses favor emptiness. No bold wallpaper, no ornate chandeliers, or thick carpets." The concept of emptiness was first written about by the ancient Daoist scholar Lao Tze 2,500 years ago, she says, noting that by contrast, ornate interiors are deemed self-conscious and narcissistic. Like the Japanese, she practices restraint and humility in the decoration of her house. The name for this is wabi-sabi, a term derived from the ancient ritual of the tea ceremony. Wabi-sabi is about the richness of absence, the soul of the humble wooden spoon versus the temporal ornateness of a silver one. "It is the opposite of pretension," she says. "It’s about evolving and devolving. That’s the process of life. We are born. We get wrinkles. When a beautiful piece of Ming pottery gets a crack, the Japanese don’t throw it away. They honor it by repairing it with gold. The crack becomes part of the beauty."

She uses these ideas in her work. "We are all cracked pots. It’s about accepting that you are not perfect. You are able to know your shadow, the dark, not-so-neat side that we don’t want to acknowledge. That is the way toward wholeness and humility."

 
Fred Wiedemann walks through the Japanese gardens in his backyard which were designed by Ray Entenmann. The gardens lead to a creek which runs through the property.

In 1985, the Wiedemanns learned to meditate. As their lives became more spiritual, so did their house. They began to integrate what they believed with how they lived. They stuccoed over the ugly brick fade and added a beautiful roof made of metal. "It sounds like a symphony now when it rains," she says. Floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors were installed throughout, so that the house has unobstructed views of the extensive Japanese gardens in back, which were designed by local Japanese garden designer Ray Entenmann. "If we were in Japan there wouldn’t be glass, there would only be shoji screens, and they would be opened up all the time to the outside," she says. In the fall, yellow and gold leaves rain down gloriously. While photographing the house, a violent afternoon storm blew through, shutting off the power and allowing us to witness nature’s amazing theater as the sky turned chartreuse and trees swayed. Almost as a finale, lightning struck a tree, cracking it in half with a terrifying explosion.

 

WHAT IS WABI-SABI?


"Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional." - Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. (Published by Stone Bridge Press, 1994.)

This book, available at Barnes & Noble, is one of Florence Wiedeman’s favorites, and it does a good job of explaining the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which is often difficult to convey in Western terms. Wabi-sabi correlates with the concepts of Zen Buddhism because the first Japanese involved with wabi-sabi were tea masters, priests, and monks who practiced Zen. From Koren we learn that some of the material aspects of wabi-sabi are:

  •  suggestion of nature

  •  irregular design or form

  •  intimate rather than formal

  •  unpretentious

  •  earthy

  •  simple

Just out with a good review in the New York Times, The Wabi-sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty is by Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor in chief of Natural Home Magazine. (Published by Clarkson Potter, November 2004, $25.)

 

The natural world played a huge role in how the Wiedemanns renovated their house. As in a Japanese farmhouse, the most humble and natural materials were used, such as paper, wood, stone, clay, linen, and straw. Color - or the lack of it - was carefully thought out.

Wiedemann carried river rocks with her whenever she would pick out furniture or fabrics to see if they harmonized. "If the rocks liked it, I’d buy it," she says. The rocks complemented grays, blacks, browns, and other earthen tones like sand and indigo. Self-conscious colors were summarily rejected. "Everything should be totally restrained," she says. "I prefer almost no obvious color."

The kitchen was the last room in the house to be renovated. "By then, we knew exactly what we wanted," she says of both the house’s redecoration and their own lives. Maybe this is why the kitchen resonates. By the time work on the kitchen began, the Wiedemanns had found a way to merge their spirituality with their everyday lives, and it shows. A grayish-celadon color of Japanese paper, or washi, made from mulberry and other trees, covers the walls. For the kitchen cabinets, a craftsman copied the dark wood and style of their mizuya, and another craftsman from Chicago was hired to carve the irregular teak handles. Because the Wiedemanns are tall, they had the counters made four inches higher than normal. The countertops are a dark greenish-black African marble, Uba-tuba. The center table is an old Japanese storage door. The kitchen feels natural and dark, like you are out in the woods. "I really don’t cook," she confesses, "but it’s a very spiritual place."

The house’s reincarnation is as much a part of the Wiedemanns journey as their study of Zen Buddhism and their frequent travels to Japan. "I just recently realized that all of this has been a path," she says. "I am happy to have found my way."