By Ou Baholyodhin
Tuttle Publishing, 208 pp.
"Living with Zen" is like browsing through pictures with a friend, one who
has honed the art of engagement and who can illuminate the mysteries of Zen
and the mechanics of its elusive concepts. The subject is the application of
Zen Buddhist principles to interior design. Listening to this friend, you
can feel the Western mindset of "more and "full steam ahead" opening up to
antithetical ideas like emptiness and mindfulness.
"Living with Zen" author Ou Baholyodhin pulls this off with
brief explanations and beautiful photographs that reflect the simplicity
and serenity, and the life of balance, that are the keys to Zen.
The author is an acclaimed young Thai designer from the United Kingdom. He
was awarded New Designer of 1997 at New York's International Contemporary
Furniture Fair. As a design consultant to an impressive roster of clients,
including The Conran Shop and designers Karl Lagerfeld, Kenzo, and Donna Karan, Baholyodhin has a skilled eye for the aesthetic of clean lines and details. Lush, full-page photographs of upscale interiors and exteriors and a minimum of text (also frequently oversize) make the Zen notion of stripping away all that is unnecessary very appealing.
The book itself functions very simply, as if following the Zen viewpoint
that considers the function of each object--it is this, not artifice, that
is celebrated in Zen. It is simple and direct, like the design itself. "The
emphasis on simplicity makes Zen design or art seem surprisingly modern to
the Western eye," writes Baholyodhin. "Lines are clean, pattern is minimal,
colour is used with restraint."
The book is broken into five sections: Nature, Living, Sleeping, Cleansing,
and Eating. In Nature, a pond becomes "the eye of the garden." "The
impression to strive for is of mysterious black depths (use a black
pond-liner), water lilies, and fish that swim tantalizingly in and out of
view. Water lily clumps would be thought of in Japan as islands in a vast
In the Living section, stunning photographs of living spaces, bedrooms,
kitchens, baths, and workspaces show how to fit Zen into a Western lifestyle.
"Most crucially," Baholyodhin writes, "in assimilating Zen into our daily
lives, we learn to banish clutter, over-decoration, self-importance and
excessive nostalgia--both in our surroundings and in the way we use them."
He makes the case for appreciating the crack in a sculpture found in a flea
market, the use of a tree trunk as side table, asymmetrical groupings of
single blooms in crystal vases, natural light, pale plain bed linens, or a
kitchen where all utensils are not hidden away, but exposed to be praised
for their own merits.
Unlike many design books, "Living with Zen" doesn't require the aspiring
decorator to duplicate the many expensive design ideas shown. It is a book
crafted to inspire and illuminate. You will not find "How-to" sections;
rather, the essence of a Zen principle represented in a photograph is
highlighted with short passages or in the accompanying text. For instance,
you learn that a single twig of fresh lavender on a white linen napkin is
both decoration and a memento for dinner guests. The table is set in an
exterior garden to illustrate the Zen concept of social courtesies. "Table
settings are simple but ceremonious--perhaps with a symbolic gift for each
guest," writes the author.
Throughout the book, Baholyodhin places ancient Zen texts and poetry, like
those from the 13th-century Zen master Dogen or the poet Basho. Other
times more modern verses--Walt Whitman's or the artist Wassily
Kandinsky's--drive home the point. But Baholyodhin's own words are the most
effective. When he talks about the three basic elements of design--light,
space, solidity--the author's own understanding of Zen resonates. "These
three ingredients are the basic elements of spatial design. Notice in the
chair above how light (or space) has a presence that is equal to the solid
wood.... Light and shadow bring out the poetry of form, like the folds in a
kimono that reveal the hidden postures of the body."
The greatest pleasure of "Living with Zen" is how it leaves us--in our own
homes. Now, as we look at the many things we love all around us, we wonder
if we love the thing itself--or just the notion of having it. In the
willingness to look at our homes from the perspectives suggested in this
book, we may find ourselves wishing for less.
Living with Zen