In Praise of Shadows and Quiet, Muted Interiors

I’ve been yearning for shadows since June 21st when the world took a tumble towards autumn, trailing crayon-bright, midsummer color and loud solstice revels. Parched by the bleached Scandinavian cottages and austere, no-tint white rooms that are everywhere online, I’m craving soothing darkness and a place to sequester in silence. This stark, in-your-face, white duvet bedroom suddenly hurts my eyes…and my soul. I want more yin, less yang.

Seeking solace, I turned to Japan, and a meditative book of essays, In Praise of Shadows,” by novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. He expresses his nostalgia for the shadowy beauty once so characteristic of traditional Japanese houses, now fallen victim to rapid modernization.

“I would call back this world of shadows we are losing…I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark… I would strip away useless decoration… so that we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

Lucy Birmingham Fujii, "The Living Traditions of Old Kyoto"

Lucy Birmingham Fujii, The Living Traditions of Old Kyoto

Tanizaki writes of a culture and aesthetic radically different from ours. In Japanese homes:

What first strikes the eye is the massive roof of tile or thatch and the heavy darkness that hangs beneath the eaves. Even at midday cavernous darkness spreads over all beneath the roof’s edge, making entryway, doors, walls, and pillars all but invisible…

In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house. There are of course roofs on Western houses too, but they are less to keep off the sun than to keep off the wind and the dew; even from without it is apparent that they are built to create as few shadows as possible and to expose the interior to as much light as possible…

 

Shadows 3

He continues:

“If the roof of a Japanese house is a parasol, the roof of a Western house is no more than a cap, with as small a visor as possible so as to allow the sunlight to penetrate directly beneath the eaves.”

Shadows 4

“There are no doubt all sorts of reasons—climate, building materials—for the deep Japanese eaves. The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s end.”

 

Shadows 5

There is a sublime sense of peace present in these spare, shadowy interiors.

The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life.

The weatherman announced a high of 91 degrees today.

It’s time to take a look around and see how I can create more shadowy places in my home, not only to tone down the temperature outside, but also the decibel level of everyday life. Is this something that might enhance your life as well?

– Susan Dworski

*Photos from The Living Traditions of Old Kyoto

7 Responses to In Praise of Shadows and Quiet, Muted Interiors

  1. johanna 07.22.2014 at 11:47pm #

    in answer to your query at the end of your post: yes, the darker shadows DO give peace and calm to our very tiny but open house.
    at first when we moved in, i thought it was too dark and planned to open it up with some skylights, no curtains, white walls, etc.
    but as time went on, the darker and hence cooler interior gave me such a sense of calm and retreat in a very sharp, bright climate of mediterranean northern california (not SF Bay obviously!), that i completely changed my mind about those first notions!
    thus, i have taken steps in fact, to INCREASE the calmness by using darker cloths and coverings on our bed, chairs, etc, and making the rooms very spare, more functional.
    and in the ”outdoor room” as i call it (a covered patio courtyard surrounded by brick), instead of the translucent roof i was planning on installing to increase light, i am keeping it solid and increasing the ”toned down” nature of this space by further planting night-blooming flowers, more perrennial herbs, shade tolerant edibles other plants and grasses.
    with the main garden, the grazing meadow and the sun, and heat, outside of this space, it really is a nice retreat and an introduction to the inside of our peaceful, functional house.
    voila!

  2. susan dworski 07.23.2014 at 12:03am #

    Johanna –

    Thanks for your thoughtful and perceptive response to ‘Shadows.” I was wondering if anyone would resonate with the idea that perhaps a shadowy interior might create more peace and tranquility in the light of so much whitewhitewhite as promulgated in the current lifestyle blogs. I thought that maybe it was just me feeling fraught because we’re in a serious drought where I live; that I had become super-sensitive to hot, bright light, and desperately craved the grey pitter patter of rain to bring surcease.

    Shadows in our living spaces are not de facto depressing. They can induce a great sense of calm and peace. They allow us to wander and daydream unattended, in the dusky cool, time forgotten, without an agenda.

    Susan

  3. Stephanie 07.23.2014 at 10:19am #

    I have lived with both interior color schemes.

    The All White that Designers Covet so much (hence the reason why I had an All White Interior after Design School) was very beautiful to photograph and that was about it. I found it cold and boring. Impractical at best. I love all white schemes in photographs. They always look so fresh and clean.

    The Shadowed Interior I currently have had is because of the giant Oak tree in my yard. It creates shadows and calls for drama. When I first moved into this space I thought I needed to add light to the small room. All White to the rescue. The white looked dingy and out of place. I decided to go with the dark. When I painted the walls charcoal grey and added a muted gold to the draperies the space came to life. It is cozy, warm, dramatic, and feels larger with all the shadows than it ever did in white.

    I currently am faced with redesigning this space (due to fire) and want to resort to the All White scheme that is of my Design School Brainwashing but I know that the light created by that tree won’t enhance the white and I don’t really want to live in a space that only looks good when it is photographed.

    Although I won’t use charcoal grey again (looks like soot to me now) I know I need to honor that wonderful shade that the tree casts on my house and revel in the shadows and coolness that it brings to my interior!

    P.S. I found that the exact opposite is true: Dark spaces do expand small rooms. It creates shadows where your eye doesn’t know when to start and stop unlike crisp light interiors that define each corner!

  4. johanna 07.23.2014 at 11:37pm #

    Susan-
    I agree, shadows need not be depressing. As I have learned, and as shown by your lovely photo choices, the distinction is a peaceful, subtly inspiring and thoughtful shadowy interior vs. a depressing, unkempt, dark and thoughtless one.

    [love your craved rainy ”grey pitter patter” respite from bright whites :)
    i often crave that too–it brings such relief. And that is from someone who is a self-avowed ”lizard that needs to be on a sunny rock”.]

    I guess that statement should be appended: ”lizard…, when i am outside”

  5. dr 07.24.2014 at 3:40pm #

    This was a great and thought-provoking post. Thank you. It reminded me that the MoMA recently had a film series about the effect of shadow on Japanese film. (A new book out, inspired by the writing of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki prompted it, I think).

    Details here – and for some of the Japanese films that express this beauty:

    http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/films/1449

  6. Sally 07.27.2014 at 12:21pm #

    dr, whoever you are, thanks again for the great info.

  7. Sally 07.27.2014 at 12:22pm #

    I have to say, that although I love and live in a seriously white apartment now, I’ve been enjoying pulling down the shades partly, to block the extreme afternoon sun, cool the space and give it a quiet note. Yes, in praise of shadows!

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