There are a lot of philosophies and terms in the history of Japanese architecture and interior design like Notan, Moya, the Ma, the Ken unit and Kanso minimalism concept, to name a few. It wasn't until the 20th Century that the US truly captured the minimalism and architectural approach of Japanese buildings with works of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Antonin Raymond and the newly found appreciation for simplicity and minimalism of the modern movement. At this time, we started to look deeper into the foundations and structures of traditional Japanese buildings, landscapes and philosophies and concepts of Zen, Buddhism and Sunyata, which influenced modern architecture and interior, the relationship of walls to the space and nature and how we interact with a space physically, emotionally and visually.
Concepts like Mahayana Buddhism and Japanese Zen have significantly influenced the style of architecture and interior design in Japan as well as in the US with practices and traditions that emphasize the relationship of human with nature and the style of living that leads to enlightenment and a heighten sense of freedom. Their influence can be seen in architecture and the simplicity of the interiors using woods and natural color palettes with a lot of focus on natural lighting and the flow of the interior spaces.
Ken, Moya & The Walls
Traditional Japanese interiors are truly simple with a main room at the center called Moya that defines the center of the house and the pathway to any other less important spaces. Furniture is usually minimal and spaces are multi functional. Post WWII brought a broader interaction with the modern world and introduced the Western style and modern living to Japanese interiors but modern interiors have stayed true to the roots and principles of the traditional styles.
Traditional interiors are mainly shaped around the core of the building, the Moya. In temple buildings, Moya is often 3x3 Ken surrounded by 1-Ken aisles called Hisashi, as seen in the floor plan of a Zen butsuden. Ken is a traditional Japanese unit and a common unit used in traditional Japanese architecture to define the proportions and intervals of a space.
One of the main characteristics of traditional and to some extent the modern Japanese design is the concept of impermanence and how interior rooms and spaces are connected to each other and as a whole. Everything belongs to a whole. Even the structure and architecture of the building supports these traditions. The post and lintels structure supports the heavy and prominent roof as roofs are a visually impressive element of the buildings like in a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine and often because there are no load bearing walls, the eaves are supported by other means like complex bracket systems.
The interior walls are movable and made out of paper which allows easy adjustment of room size to connect rooms to each other when there is need for more space and disconnect when there is need for privacy. These interior sliding walls or screens called shōji are made out of paper attached to thin wooden frames and they allow the natural light to come through, a very important concept in Japanese design. In summer times, the shōji walls are often replaced by bamboo blinds for better circulation of air.
Space is defined by the interior aesthetic and mood. The removable walls allow for a lot of flexibility and variety in circulation and flow of the space. The exterior walls often open to the nature outside and in summer times they can be opened to let the natural air and light in. This reinforces one of the core values and concepts of Zen architecture which is no absolute separation between inside and outside.
Using construction modules controls the consistency of proportion of spaces in a building which signals the foundation of Notan design and the harmony of Japanese interiors.
Aesthetic, Mood, Atmosphere
The aesthetic and atmosphere of a Japanese space is extremely important and a key element that gives the Japanese interiors its unique look and feel but also strengthens the connection to the philosophies and traditions of Japanese Zen, Kanso and Feng Shui.
One of the key components of the Japanese aesthetic related to the concept of Zen and enlightenment is the connection of the interior space with nature and bringing the elements of nature into the space. This connection defines the key features of the Japanese interior atmosphere like the importance of natural light and using paper or washi and a natural materials and color palette to keep simplicity and stay close to nature. Tatami which is a signature flooring of traditional Japanese houses lets air circulate around the house and a lot of bamboo is also used in the exterior and interior of buildings because of its natural beauty and warmth.
There is always a sense of simplicity and harmony in the interiors of Japanese spaces highlighted by concepts like the Ma and emptiness that we earlier discussed. Clean lines, perfect balance and harmony of negative and positive spaces and focusing more on the concept of the whole rather than an individual element define key characteristics of the Japanese interiors. This atmosphere and the harmony of all the elements in the room creates a calm and serene environment which is an important component and state of being in the Japanese Zen and the path to enlightenment.
Concepts like Taoism, Zen and Kanso have introduced and emphasized the principles of minimalism and appreciating life and the world. Natural materials and their natural aging process and the earthy and natural color palette of the interior blur the lines between the indoor and outdoor spaces while also emphasize the traditions of Shinto. The desire to connect with nature was again emphasized by Yoshida kōnko, a Buddhist monk and his appreciation for incomplete and imperfection that is found in nature, the wabi and sabi.
"Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? ...Branches about to blossom or garden strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration... Uniformity and completeness are undesirable. Underpinning or complementing these aesthetic ideals, is the valuing of contrast; when imperfection or the impoverished is contrasted with perfection or opulence, each is emphasized and thus better appreciated."