7 Must-Know Principles of Japanese Interior Design

This timeless style is grounded in simplicity and a connection to nature.

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 mixing the cultural ethos of both regions into one zen technique. However, to fully grasp Japandi, you first comprehend each region's fundamental design elements.

Japanese design, grounded in simplicity and a connection to nature, features clean lines, rough-hewn textures, a neutral palette, and minimal styling. For Keiji Ashizawa, architect and product designer of Keiji Ashizawa Design in Tokyo, the word that comes to mind is harmony. "We are trying to harmonize, always. We harmonize the color palette and the materials," Ashizawa says, citing the importance of complementary shades and textures.

black staircase and white couch
Courtesy of KEIJI ASHIZAWA DESIGN

Simplicity is also key, says Masa Kaneko of Crafits Design Studio and Ippin Project in Brooklyn, NY. "'Simple' is the keyword, as a basic aesthetic sense related to design, not only 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 removing distracting elements. In other words, Japan interior design abides by the rule that less is more.

Japanese design echoes the country's verdant gardens and architecture, too. "It's such a beautiful culture," Ashizawa says, referencing zen gardens and their timeless beauty. "They are still as beautiful today as they were 600 years ago."

Japanese Interior Design Principles

white living room with tree
COURTESY OF KEIJI ASHIZAWA DESIGN

1. Incorporate Natural Materials & Textures

Looking to capture the serenity of Japanese spaces? Select a concise palette of natural materials, including wood, stone, and glass. Wood plays a significant role, Kaneko says, because traditionally, "the use of color is restrained." He advises using "bright, natural wood with less redness, such as birch or white oak." Both ceilings and floors are often covered in tactile wood boards.

2. Utilize a Neutral Color Palette

In traditional Japanese interiors, "the walls are white or light beige-toned plaster," Kaneko says. His go-to paint colors? Benjamin Moore's Chantilly Lace or Snowfall White, as well as "a little textured Japanese plaster." When color does appear, it is inspired by nature and often displays a subtle gradation, Ashizawa explains. "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 bit of brown."

dining room area with garden terrace in the background
Ben Richards

3. Bring the Outdoors Inside

Japanese architecture is known for its blend of interior and exterior space. Add floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors to expose a garden and let in fresh air. "Go out to the 'engawa' [porch] and enjoy the view of the garden. Enjoy the view from the window of 'yukimi shoji' to capture nature inside," Kaneko says. Green garden views are an active part of the design and serve as moving art.

minimally decorated wooden bookshelf with art objects, books and wooden chair
COURTESY OF KEIJI ASHIZAWA DESIGN

4. Reduce 'Noisy' Clutter

"Noisy is an important word," Ashizawa says, "I try to avoid noisy things. The world is now quite noisy; even on our mobile, we have to keep answering, and many noisy things are in our heads. In design, you can create less noise and feel calm." His best advice? "Make it simple." For Ashizawa, less clutter can mean more freedom, too. "Always stay tidy," he emphasizes.

ikebana flower arrangement
COURTESY CRAFITS DESIGN STUDIO

5. Display Symbolic Decor

In Japan, decorations are placed symbolically (not haphazardly) and with intention. "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 other than between the alcove." Keep walls spare except for something unique. He suggests installing a symbolic ichirin-zashi (single flower insert) or an art panel on a large empty wall. "Symbolically, decorating with your favorite artisan's work may enrich your lifestyle."

white books on table
Courtesy of KEIJI ASHIZAWA DESIGN

6. Integrate Simple Furnishings

Follow the same rules for color palette and materials to keep tables, chairs, and accessories in harmony with interior finishes. Select natural materials (ideally light wood finishes or porcelain dishware), and keep the aesthetic clean-lined and minimal. With similar tones and textures working in tandem, aesthetic harmony is achieved.

7. Feature WASHI Paper and Room Dividers

For a cozy glow in bedrooms, consider the application of hand-worked WASHI paper made by master craftsmen. Integrating this calming texture has the soothing effect of encouraging rest, especially when combined with natural wood, lanterns, and crisp white sheets. The material can be applied to doors and walls alike. "Doors with Japanese WASHI paper or made with Kumiko woodworking are art pieces that are naturally incorporated into the architecture while keeping the space very simple," Kaneko says.

Traditional vs. Modern Japanese Design

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

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