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Japanese Design

Color Palettes

Interior design in Japan is known for its simplicity of backgrounds. Color palettes typically used are neutral, natural and calming. The interiors emphasize architecture, providing a goemetric order. It is believed that natural colors diminish the feeling of clutter. They are more apt to make their statements through a single strong exclamation of color (like a kakemono (scroll art), a predominant texture or some other single element in the room.

Their colors tend to be pure. Western art is known to mix colors. Eastern art is original. In other words, the initial color or brush stroke is the final result. There is no going back over a stroke or color. While western art is very complex generally, eastern art is simple, strong and graphic.

Black is one of the most important colors in Japanese design, and in eastern design as a whole. In the West, we tend to say black is a non-color. It is the absence of color. In an Asian room, however, black is used to lend definition and form. It is a color in it's own right. You'll often find black as the paint of choice on a white shoji screen, for example.

Textures and Contrasts

When you think of Japanese textures and materials, you'll probably think of cedar, pine, rice paper, bamboo, stone and woven wicker. You probably will also think of tatami floors, silk brocade, kimonos and obis, shoji doors.

The philosophy of Yin and Yang seeks to balance opposites. Japanese design uses this philosophy as well. While the interior finishes can be completely opposing and contrasting, balance is still achieved. For example, it's not uncommon to see heavily textured mats with highly polished floors. How about a rough wooden table displaying a lacquered box? Or a polished black granite ledge around a tub filled with white pebbles.

Display Techniques

Here's something about focal points. While we in the West choose something along the perimeter of the room, like a fireplace or large painting or window, the Japanese will focus on something in the middle of the room. They will choose a hearth (irori), an interior garden, an elaborate still life composition, an alter.

Older Japanese homes, especially, will feature a tokonoma in a room, which is a recessed alcove, if you will. Typically you'll find a kakemono (hanging scroll art) hanging there. There are two types of feelings that can be elicited: 1) a disciplined or ordered feeling or 2) a natural or organic feeling.

To achieve a disciplined, ordered feeling, one would place an even quantity of elements, such as 4 pebbles on a dish. To achieve a natural or organic feeling, one would place an odd number of elements in the space, such as 3 calligraphy brushes in a cup.

Another sign of a Japanese display is that it is "fluid" or in a "state of change". As an example, one week the display might be a scroll. The next week the display might be a set of pots. In other words, the display is rotated on a regular basis. One reason for rotating could be the limited space available. Another reason is that a display could be for a particular season, celebration or expected guest.

In the West we have more of a tendency to display everything, sometimes getting into "over kill". I'm wary of displaying any more than 7 items in one place at one time. While we tend to add things to a display to create balance, a Japanese would tend to take something away to create harmony. In Asian decorating, less is definitely more. Order is harmony. Everythig has it's place but there is not always a place for everything.

The Tea Ceremony

One of the most important rooms in a Japanese home used to be the tea ceremony home. Modern homes tend to be much more Western and many homes now don't even have a tea ceremony room. The tea ceremony room is a place for sharing, for silence and for contemplation. It will typically have a pool surrounded by pebbles. Water and its serenity is very important in the Japanese culture. We can gain more of this in our western homes by bringing in a rock garden or fountains.


When I was growing up in Japan, furnishings were minimal and multi-functional. The main room might be a "living room" by day and a "bedroom" by night. Beds consisted of rolled futon which were stored in a large closet during the day and rolled out at night. Serving trays double for place settings.

Antiques or Reproductions

Here are some classic oriental objects, and interesting applications, one might use to add Japanese influences to your home.

  • A hibachi: A hibachi is not a small tabletop grill. It is a finely crafted, portable fireplace, used in old homes and shops to provide heat and boil water for tea. It was once also the emotional center and gathering place for family friends. Original hibachis were ash receptacles in low wooden boxes. They were also made from ceramics, lacquer, rattan and metal. Large hibachis can be used as display boxes, or bases for end tables. Smaller hibachis, which were once hand warmers, are now champagne buckets or flower holders.
  • Kimono: A kimono is to a Japanese artist, as a canvas is to a western painter. Wedding kimonos and fans are especially decorative and valuable. Kimonos can be displayed in a number of locations in the home by hanging them on clothing stands or decorative rods. Even a haori (short kimono-like over garment) can be displayed on a stand or rod.
  • Obis: An obi is a wide, very long sash worn with a kimono. Obi make excellent table runners, or can be hung in a group, behind a bed, to create a headboard.
  • Tenigui: These are rectangular cloths, which were once used as headbands, but now function as placemats.
  • Keyaki: This is an antique door that could be used for a desk or coffee table top or the front of an armoire.
  • Sake Kegs double as planters, end tables, and lamp bases, depending on their size.
  • Japanese clothing stands can be used as towel racks.
  • Japanese kites make whimsical shower curtains or ceiling or wall decorations for a child's room. Smaller kites can also be used to cover pillows.

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