Empty "small" can seem "big"
Emptiness can create spaciousness and a feeling of openness even in relatively small areas. Regardless of the size of the washitsu, because Japanese did not use furniture but sat directly on the warm and comfortable tatami mats (historically at least), the rooms had a feeling of spaciousness. This is because there was virtually nothing else in the room to distract your attention. It is the emptiness or exclusion of nonessential decoration or other items that allows even the smallest rooms to feel more spacious and guide the eye to the focal point of the room. Because the room is not cluttered with myriad furnishings, souvenirs, and other possessions, the eye can more easily notice and then linger on the art contained in the tokonoma. A bare washitsu, built with natural elements, is a design with a close connection to nature. This harmonious balance with nature, and the garden just outside the walls of the room, is reflected in the seasonal contents of the Tokonoma itself. In a way, then, the spaciousness of the room extends beyond the room itself to the vastness of the outside world.
Screens, Scrolls, and Tokonoma
Above: Traditional-style tea rooms (chashitsu) can come in many sizes but are typically 4.5 tatami mats in size. The materials to build the tea room (or a tea house) are simple and rustic in the wabi style. The tokonoma in a Japanese tea room is especially situated so that it is the focal point of the room. Because you enter the tea room directly across from the Tokonoma in most cases, the artistic content is the first thing in the room you will notice. As Okakura Kakuzo notes in The Book of Tea, as guests enter quietly into the tea room, they first make "obeisance to the picture or ﬂower arrangement on the tokonoma." The walls of a chashitsu, and traditional Japanese-style rooms in general, are kept bare and simple.
In this video clip below you can view a good explanation of the traditional Japanese interior and see how screens, scrolls, and the tokonoma fit with the Japanese aesthetic concerning space. For example, the folding screen served a clear function for dividing larger spaces, creating private areas, and even blocking out drafts in the winter, but the screens also became objects of art and beauty in themselves. In large Japanese rooms, the screens could also be used to form a beautiful focal point and form a beautiful backdrop for the occasion.
Lessons from the Tokonoma
A few general lessons you can apply to presentation design and other forms of design as well.
- A powerful focal point need not be overbearing or fancy.
- Emptiness creates spaciousness which assists the viewer in discovering the focal point.
- Subtle contrast can more easily create interest when there are fewer elements rather than many.
- Exclusion of the decorative and non-essential from other areas allows a focal point to be created in a composition using only simple elements (or a single element).
- An intentionally created area of contrast brings the viewer in to the primary focal point and guides the eye to the secondary focal point, the third, and so on without confusion.
- Eschew symmetry in favor of asymmetrical balance where possible.
Below are a few before/after slides. The "after" slides are the kind used in support of live talks where all of the words are coming from the speaker. The slides on the left show a rather arbitrary placement of elements and have poor hierarchy and dominance. There is contrast in the slides on the left but it is not clear why some things stick out and others do not. What are we suppose to look at first, second, third? The eye will tend to wander. The slides on the right have better design priority or focal point. First removing extraneous information from the slides on the left helped in the creation of better clarity for the slides on the right. The samples here are very simple, but the general idea can be applied to more complex slides as well. Just have it clear in your mind where you want people to go first (second, third, etc.) when the visual is shown.
Personal note: Mixing traditional with modern
Early this year, with the help of a great architect, my wife and I designed our new house in the Nara countryside. We'll soon leave the big city for a slower-paced and I hope more reflective life in the country. Although the house would be considered a more modern design, it is a design that includes lots of open space and natural light and includes a washitsu with a tokonoma. Below left you can see the floor plan for the washitsu; the highlighted part is the tokonoma. The picture below right shows the location of the washitsu and tokonoma (arrow) in the house which is still under construction. The elevated room is open to the rest of the house, but the screens can slide shut for privacy when the room is used to house a guest. Though it is a multi-purpose washitsu, we will indeed invite over local Tea Masters from time to time to experience chado or "the way of tea" (tea ceremony). Except for a work of art or two in the tokonoma, the room will remain always empty and free from clutter.