Creating an Imperfect Home

A new book inspires those who appreciate age and character when it comes to creating a home

Image from Perfect Imperfect by Karen McCartney

Perhaps it’s not surprising to feel unnerved when we look at a face “corrected” by plastic surgery. True beauty, more often than not, is flawed and comfortable showing its age. When it comes to art, objects and interiors, it’s one reason we find ourselves drawn to the vintage and stained over the chiselled and new; the incomplete and irregular over the mass-produced and perfect; the impermanent, the chipped and the strange.

In Karen McCartney’s new book Perfect Imperfect: The Beauty of Accident, Age and Patina, items, rooms and architecture are celebrated for their unique foibles. Many possess a rawness, an authenticity and a muted tone reflected in nature. Wild paint splatters on a chair that came about by accident. An intriguing collection of books and ornaments displayed on a shelf. Neglected “dud” ceramics on studio shelves that, as a motley group, formed the basis of a whole new body of work.

McCartney met a wide range of artists, photographers, designers, sculptors and collectors, all of whom practise, whether or not by design, the Japanese art of wabi-sabi.

Image from Perfect Imperfect by Karen McCartney

“Things wabi-sabi often appear odd, misshapen, awkward, or what many people would consider ugly,” says a quote in the book from its original inspirational source material, Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. “Wabi-sabi may exhibit the effects of accident, like a bowl glued back together again.”

The idea for Perfect Imperfect came about several years ago, as a reaction to what the Australian-based British architecture author and former magazine editor saw as “a global desire for a sustainable, honest approach to living, including gardening and a sense of the unloved, the emphasis on the role of the maker”.

It floundered for a few years as she and her creative colleagues, stylist Glen Proebstel and photographer Sharyn Cairns, pursued other projects, eventually resurfacing with a more contemporary twist in this form. McCartney notes the increase in product designers working with a mix of technology, alchemy and 3-D printing, “while still engaging in the mark of the hand”.

From a gorgeous cabin nestled within the trees, to interiors that match bold modern pieces with whimsical vintage artworks and spaces teeming with bizarre foraged items that appear to have found a home as a collection, turning the pages is a bit like stumbling upon a room of forgotten treasures, as something inspiring and new — or should that be old? — reveals itself on every page.

Image from Perfect Imperfect by Karen McCartney


There is a wonderful quote from Andrew Juniper in his book Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence that says so much that is relevant to this book, but is particularly apt in this chapter. “Wabi sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of things.”

And it is this notion of “melancholic beauty” that resonates deeply with the idea of the weathered, patinaed and, at its most extreme, the desiccated and dead. The effect of nature, of climate and the environment on base materials often amplifies their inherent qualities, as timbers are beaten by the waves, stones tumbled in rivers, bones bleached by the sun...When these elements are brought into the home ... they bring with them all the resonance of their former life: timber from a warehouse, for instance, bearing the marks of honest labour, or wood from a tree bent and twisted from its fight for survival.

Image from Perfect Imperfect by Karen McCartney

The imperfections become their defining quality, and this sits at odds with the new and shiny, where total perfection is the key, leading to an intrinsic vulnerability. A knock or dent can rob such an object of its essence, and render it redundant.

It’s the same when you consider the peeling paint on an old wall. While admired in French villages, we can struggle with the notion in our own homes. Yet, the often-evocative layers of paint and wallpaper tell the history of a house and expose a narrative that is impossible to recreate. The caveat is that both the “imperfect” timber and the peeling wall need to have a certain aesthetic appeal. The artisan needs to choose the right piece of timber or branch and the wall’s character needs to be exposed in the right way. The artist’s eye plays a role in bringing out the beauty of what is inherently there.

The same East-West dichotomy is true when it comes to patina. In the West we like our silver and steel polished and shining whereas the Japanese like it tarnished. “We begin to enjoy it only when the lustre has worn off, and when it has begun to take on a dark smoky patina,” said Junichiro Tanizaki in his book In Praise of Shadows. There are, however, certain exceptions where the transience of materials is embraced. The verdigris on the Statue of Liberty is not subject to relentless cleaning to return it to its rightful copper colour.

Image from Perfect Imperfect by Karen McCartney

I saw a description of heavily crackled paint as “alligatoring”, and wondered how long it would remain in that state — its deeply fragmented beauty relied on a certain fragility and could not forever remain at that point. It is the same with flowers, which we buy at their very peak of freshness when they are upright and proud, and yet the ultimate moment is often as they begin to fail and droop, shedding a few petals — that moment beyond perfection but before decay.

In the concept of wabi-sabi, decay is embraced as part of the cycle of life ... there is poignancy in each and every stage. Sculptor Alison Coates is entranced by shrubs bleached a startling white on the banks of Australia’s Snowy River and designer Guy Keulemans explores the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which visible mends are made to broken items, which may otherwise be thrown away. New life, and new artistic expression, comes from what is traditionally considered to be redundant and done.

Extract from Perfect Imperfect: The Beauty of Accident, Age & Patina by Karen McCartney, $69.99, published by Allen & Unwin.

Image from Perfect Imperfect by Karen McCartney

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