What is Japanese interior design? A Beginner’s Guide to the Minimalist Aesthetic

The serene Japandi design aesthetic, which combines Japanese and Scandinavian styles, is gaining popularity in the US. This peaceful approach to decorating encourages relaxation at home by blending the cultural ethos of both regions into one zen technique. However, to fully understand Japandi, you must first understand the fundamental design elements of each region.

Japanese design, based on simplicity and a connection with nature, is characterized by clean lines, rough-hewn textures, a neutral palette and minimal styling. For Keiji Ashizawa, architect and product designer at Keiji Ashizawa Design in Tokyo, the word that comes to mind is harmony. “We always try to harmonize. We harmonize the color palette and the materials,” says Ashizawa, referring to the importance of complementary shades and textures.


Simplicity is also key, says Masa Kaneko of Crafits Design Studio and Ippin Project in Brooklyn, NY. “Simple is the key word, as an elementary aesthetic sense related to design, not just interior design, but also architecture, products, fashion, etc.”, he says. Contrary to Western beliefs that encourage the addition of interior components, Japanese designs prefer less decoration and promote the removal of distracting elements. In other words, interior design in Japan adheres to the rule that less is more.

Japanese design also reflects the country’s green gardens and architecture. “It’s such a beautiful culture,” Ashizawa says, referring to zen gardens and their timeless beauty. “They are just as beautiful today as they were 600 years ago.”

Japanese interior design principles

Courtesy of Keiji Ashizawa Design

1. Use natural materials and textures

Looking for the serenity of Japanese spaces? Choose a concise palette of natural materials, including wood, stone and glass. Wood plays an important role, Kaneko says, because traditionally “the use of color is restrained.” He recommends using “clear, natural wood with less redness, such as birch or white oak.” Both ceilings and floors are often covered with tactile wooden planks.

2. Use a neutral color palette

In traditional Japanese interiors, “the walls are of white or light beige plaster,” Kaneko says. His favorite paint colors? Benjamin Moore’s Chantilly Lace or Snowfall White, as well as “a little textured Japanese plaster.” When color appears, it is inspired by nature and often shows a subtle gradation, explains Ashizawa. “I don’t use a perfect white; I use a nuanced white,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a white that works with the floor, so it has a little brown to it.”

Ben Richards

3. Bring the outdoors indoors

Japanese architecture is known for its mix of indoor and outdoor space. Add floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors to expose a yard and let in fresh air. “Go to the ‘engawa’ [porch] and enjoy the view of the garden. Enjoy the view from the window of ‘yukimi shoji’ to capture the nature within,” says Kaneko. Views of the green garden are an active part of the design and serve as moving art.

Courtesy of Keiji Ashizawa Design

4. Reduce ‘noisy’ clutter

“Noisy is an important word,” says Ashizawa, “I try to avoid noisy things. The world is quite noisy now; even on our cellphones we have to keep answering, and a lot of noisy things are in our heads. can make less noise and quiet feel.” His best advice? “Make it simple.” For Ashizawa, less clutter can also mean more freedom. “Always stay tidy,” he emphasizes.


5. Display Symbolic Decor

In Japan, decorations are placed symbolically (not haphazardly) and on purpose. “Traditional Japanese-style rooms have an alcove (tokonoma), which is the space for a hanging scroll (kakejiku) and ikebana flowers,” Kaneko says. “Paintings and decorations are not often placed on the walls, except between the niche.” Keep walls clear except for something unique. He suggests installing a symbolic ichirin-zashi (single flower inset) or art panel on a large blank wall. “Symbolic, decorating with the work of your favorite craftsman can enrich your lifestyle.”


6. Easily integrate furniture

Follow the same rules for color palette and materials to keep tables, chairs and accessories in harmony with the interior finish. Select natural materials (ideally light wood finishes or china tableware) and keep the aesthetic sleek and minimal. With similar tones and textures working together, aesthetic harmony is achieved.

7. Function WASHI paper and dividers

For a cozy glow in bedrooms, consider using hand-crafted WASHI paper made by master craftsmen. Incorporating this calming texture has the calming effect of encouraging tranquility, especially when combined with natural wood, lanterns and crisp white sheets. The material can be used on doors as well as on walls. “Doors made with Japanese WASHI paper or made with Kumiko woodworking are works of art that are naturally incorporated into the architecture, while keeping the space very simple,” says Kaneko.

Traditional versus modern Japanese design

Both traditional and modern Japanese interior styles have a minimalist aesthetic. “In appearance, old houses are made by exposing wooden pillars and beams as they are,” says Kaneko, noting that modern Japanese design is sleeker. “If you want to use an older Japanese style while retaining Japanese simplicity, use dark-stained wood for walls or furniture. The color creates a more casual Minka-style atmosphere.”

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