Though it may not seem obvious standing in the bustling center of Shibuya or Shinjuku in Tokyo, the Japanese perception of beauty is largely based on space, especially space as it is found in nature. Once you understand this, the intricacies of Japanese art and design begin to make sense. In the case of ikebana (生け花) — the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement — space is a central component of design (i.e., of the arrangements). One who practices ikebana sees space not as something to fill in or to use up, but rather as an element to be created and preserved. Proper use of space allows the positive elements in the piece to form lines that are rhythmical and flow, engaging the viewer with the composition. An ikebana artist learns to leave room between the branches to allow the figurative “breeze” to pass through and rustle the branches, just as would occur in nature.
The principle of Ma
A form of space seen in Japanese art forms, such as traditional Japanese gardens, and Ikebana, is Ma (間). Ma means empty, spatial void, and interval of space or time. Ma does not just mean the kind of empty space that is background; the emptiness is often arranged to be a focal point. Space is emptiness, yet it also has shapes. Ma allows for an energy or sense of movement within a design. Ma may show itself in traditional music in the form of silence or pauses. In Ikebana, the idea of emptiness allows for each flower to breath and reveals the contrasts among the elements, as well as the harmony and balance found in the asymmetrical arrangement. Ma is what allows for implied movement to form in the composition and creates the “space” for harmonious relationships to form. Lack of space leads to clutter and disharmony.
In formality there is freedom
To those unfamiliar with the art of ikebana, it may seem like a casual craft with no formal rules, but in fact, there are clear rules governing the art of ikebana. The rules are based on solid design principles and centuries of keen observations of nature by the ikebana masters. While there is a formality governing line and form and materials, and so on, there is great room for creativity within the structure of the rules. And as with all Japanese traditional arts, there are lessons hidden within that we can apply to our own work and to our own creative lives in or out of design. Here are a just a few humble takeaways to think about.
Lessons for your creative life
- Empty space is as important as the positive elements. Learn to see space. Learn to create space.
- Space allows other elements to “breath," to move, and connect — with each other and the viewer.
- Empty space is a powerful amplifier, helping to create a whole that is more engaging than the sum of individual parts.
- Suggestion and subtly in design engages the viewer, allowing her to complete the uncompleted.
- Arrangements (designs) should stimulate the imagination of the viewer.
- In formality there exists creativity and freedom of expression. No structure, no freedom.
- In simplicity there exists clarity, beauty, and meaning.
- Asymmetrical balance is natural, dynamic, and engaging.
- For the designer (or artist), focus, calm, vision, and gentleness of spirit are more important qualities than raw enthusiasm. Slow down your busy mind.
- Careful arrangement of the elements based on solid principles creates beauty and engagement without decoration.