When I was very young and a goldsmith’s apprentice, I learned the word “Shibui.” It was, I was told, the goal we were to strive for in our work. It was presented as the ideal of craftsmanship and beauty in my trade, and I came to love the word. And, as I grew, I came to better understand it.“Shibui” is almost as difficult to define as it is to achieve, but these abridgements from the August 1960 issue of House Beautiful come close:Shibui describes a profound, unassuming, quiet feeling. It is unobtrusive and unostentatious. It may have hidden attainments, but they are not paraded or displayed. The form is simple and must have been arrived at with an economy of means. Shibui is never complicated or contrived.It is a knowing exploration of its methods’ and material’s inherent capabilities. A thing shibui must have depth worth studying after first being noticed. It must not reveal itself all at once. It is interesting, with intrinsic quality and depth of character. Its beauty is imperfect and unique, enhanced by particularities.
If a color scheme is to be shibui, the large areas should be dark, rich, and unobtrusive, but with a touch of sharp, astringent color to add interest. Shibui is the essence of controlled understatement, and requires an attitude of modesty and humility.
When I opened my own store, I called it Shibui to honor my childhood and the ideal of beauty I strive to bring my customers. Though my action was of pure intent, most older Japanese generations would find it laughable: No one advertises himself as Shibui! No one calls himself “Shibui.” It goes against the very nature of the word!
But my mistake was sincere, and I can only hope it will add to the richness of this store’s history. Though I have grown less naive, Shibui maintains the earnestness and honesty with which it was named. Because they are part of what we are. And we are still Shibui. However elusive, we will continue to pursue that ideal.
**Interestingly, younger Japanese generations have appropriated the word “Shibui” for themselves. In hip young circles, Shibui now means “cool” or “rad.”