Bringing Wabi-Sabi to Technology Makes Us Appreciate the Effects of Age

Grove iPhone case before and after, courtesy Grove and Joel Johnson

As technology becomes ever slicker and ever thinner, a trajectory pioneered by the smooth curves and sleek lines of iconic Apple products, designers have been going out of their way to give these products a more natural, human touch. The dominant trend these days seems to be for iPhone and iPad accessories that feel more like the handiwork of a 19th century artisan than a Chinese factory. There are screen covers made of leather, protective pouches made from textured felt, and docking stations carved from blocks of natural wood. Then there’s Grove’s iPhone case, made entirely from bamboo. But is there such a thing as being too organic?

Writer Joel Johnson just published a thoughtful piece on his blog considering the aesthetic qualities of wear. A Grove case that he had given to his girlfriend gradually chipped and fractured, but the remaining three-quarters of the case remained, a testament to its use. The photo of the aging case is more reminiscent of a well-loved piece of furniture than broken technology, presenting a “tactile contrast,” as Johnson writes, to the glassy phone it encloses.

The patina of a well-worn chair (courtesy Seabold)

In Japanese, the aesthetic appreciation of wear is called wabi-sabi. “Wabi” signifies rustic simplicity while “sabi” means the beauty or serenity that comes with age. More than a visual style, wabi-sabi is a philosophical outlook that celebrates the imperfection that comes with something being handmade. That quality, which also shows up in wobbly, thumb-printed tea bowls and Zen gardens, is what Johnson is celebrating in the Grove case when appreciating its roughness and tendency to fall apart.

Often, digital technology entirely lacks wabi-sabi. There’s nothing to age in a piece of software and its windows and toolbars don’t become polished with use, though some programs do mimic natural materials and take on the aesthetic’s elegant simplicity (iA Writer comes to mind). The physical gadgets we use also don’t have much chance to become worn — we throw them out, upgrade, or replace them as soon as possible, constantly seeking out the new instead of enjoying their wear. Planned obsolescence, the policy of making products that are simply built to give out, destroys wabi-sabi.

The Grove case’s wabi-sabi quality is organic; unlike a tea bowl made to look rough, the case gains its wear naturally through use rather than the process of its creation. Wood is a great material for gaining character, but the metals and glass of the iPhone aren’t. Writer Joanne McNeil described reactions to her broken iPhone screen (another, more violent, sign of use) as accusatory rather than appreciative. The iPhone represented an artifact from the future, and to break it was to signal carelessness with our technological potential. That feeling betrays less comfort with breakage and wear than, for example, the Japanese practice of repairing ancient ceramic bowls with golden seams.

Like the patina of a leather desktop or the surface of an inherited dinner table, products like the Grove case have the ability to bring us back into a less frenetic mindset. Apple, I would imagine, probably won’t do the same.

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