Introducing Wabi-Sabi 

How a growing design trend may be the perfect choice for Richmond.

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The word wabi evokes the gentle acceptance of what makes life and materials unique, even if they fall short of perfect. Sabi suggests the loveliness often found in age and the value of rustic materials that have been quietly tended and sometimes mended. In design, wabi-sabi can bring a touch of solace to frenzied lifestyles and hip homes.

Richmond has no shortage of either. Dotted by groves of trees and flanking the James, Richmond often embodies wabi-sabi, which finds quiet beauty in what might initially appear to be imperfect. It emphasizes nature but makes balance essential. A room decorated in the wabi-sabi style can buzz with technology and modern efficiency, as long as elements of the outdoors bring it equilibrium.

Designer Chris McCray has created cutting-edge designs for homes throughout Richmond and for local retail mainstays such as Pink and Lift Café. Known for his maverick style and for anticipating coming trends, he resists influence.

Yet he admits to his reliance on Asian design. Before wabi-sabi was a buzzword, McCray, along with Ezra Hitzeman, designed a bed using its principles. The striking piece features a bold, walnut backboard with the grain running vertically, while the grain of the ash runs horizontally. Actually ancient in the far East, wabi sabi is a new trend. In the United States, books were being written about it 12 years ago. Now, McCray says, "Richmond is open to it."

We hope so, because it's already here: Our streets feature cement poured yesterday as well as cobblestones placed when horses trod on them. Throughout the city, tattooed hipsters ride beach cruisers while bankers idle in Italian sports cars.

From Brown's Island floats modern music to which text-messaging revelers groove. But jutting from the James beside them is evidence of a bridge long gone. Some of its remaining posts seem to slumber, while others stand at attention, proof that time and materials move on. As McCray sees it, "Transition is everywhere."

This month McCray is in his own transition, leaving his thriving business to relocate to Rhode Island, where he will study industrial design. He calls the move bittersweet. "I love Richmond — it's my home," he says. But he is making the change because he's "hungry for new design."

That move brings us to Marcie Blough, who is poised to take over McCray's clients with her company, Blumarc. "I'm really excited about Marcie taking over," McCray says. "I think she is going to do a fantastic job." Blough's months apprenticing with McCray reflect a similar aesthetic.

But Blough, who met McCray last year when she stood up in a Virginia Commonwealth University classroom to disagree with his critique, has her own approach, too. "I understand and appreciate his clean lines," Blough says. "But we are different in our style."

Blough says the practice of wabi-sabi "is something people have always done. But there's a bit more focus on it, nationally and internationally." While wabi-sabi is still unknown by many, Richmond is rising to its low-key hum.

"It's about a comfort level in your home," Blough says, "decorating with family heirlooms, a minimal amount of things." Blough says that attention to principles of wabi-sabi can help us find the poise we seek in our personal lives. "It's about bringing your home away from work into balance."

Wabi-sabi has yet to take over Richmond homes, but one commercial space winning with its design is Friend House Gallery in Petersburg. The gallery is named for Nathaniel Friend, who built the house in 1816 and who served as the city's mayor from 1812 to 1813.

Carol Meese has reclaimed it. While her son Mark Sprenkle and his musician wife, Regan, tempt palates in the first-floor restaurant, Wabi-Sabi, Carol turns to palettes of a different sort. Showcased throughout the gallery above is the work of area artists, including Meese's own surreal and psychological mixed-media pieces.

Mark Sprenkle purchased the building in 2003 and began restoration a few months later. The couple read about wabi-sabi in an architectural magazine, Regan says: "We thought about it and said, 'That's what we're trying to do.'"

Its principles were ideal, Meese says: "We didn't want it glitzy and slick-looking. We wanted it natural, honoring its history and our ancestors." Looking around, she says, "I like to think the building is a composite of all that came before."

Attention to recycling and salvaging original materials is consistent throughout. In the restaurant, a shelf lining the wall evokes the days the building was occupied by a shoemaker and echoed with the sound of cobbler's mallets. Meese says the building also served for many years as a hotel.

To be wabi-sabi, Meese says, "materials have to be organic: stone, some metal, wood." In the restaurant, yellow pine radiates gently throughout, including at the service bar, which was constructed with boards from the original floor.

The effect is comfortable elegance. "Things in decline are just as good," Meese says. "Things are always deteriorating, really. Go with it." But, she emphasizes: "This is not shabby chic. It's uncluttered and clean. It's about simplicity."

In keeping with the theme of balance, Meese points out the gallery's state-of-the-art lighting. Serrated cracks in the nearly 200-year-old walls work with the patina finish to create a soothing smudged effect. Balancing the flourish of color is the hushed comfort of residential apartments on the third floor.

The snug tavern and music venue in the basement currently features "Skyscape," an exhibit by Rebecca D'Angelo. The Richmond artist finds the space's adherence to principles of wabi-sabi ideal. "The walls aren't crisp and clean. It works for this show," she says, which is about the beauty often found in impermanence.

Across the river, departure imminent, McCray passes the helm to Blough, and Richmond continues to usher in the new while embracing its past.

Very wabi-sabi. S




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