Leonard Koren is not what you’d call a design guru. Yes, he has written a dozen books on the subjects of design and aesthetics, but they’re mostly small and paperback, and illustrated with drawings and black-and-white photographs. They have quirky, deadpan titles like “Undesigning the Bath,” “Arranging Things” and even “How to Rake Leaves.” Koren isn’t promoting a line of furniture, bed linens or scented candles; in fact, when it comes to possessions, he’s a firm believer in the idea that less is more. “The reason I make the books,” he says, “is to escape the tyranny of things.” He thinks that rather than chase after the latest design trend, we should be more thoughtful and deliberate when it comes to our homes and our daily lives. Indeed, you could say that Koren has spearheaded the design equivalent of the slow food movement.
Koren’s philosophy is laid out in what is probably his best-known book, “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers,” which was published in 1994. The book, which has spawned a number of imitators, explains the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which celebrates earthiness, chance, unpretentiousness and intimacy of scale. It isn’t about perfection, slickness, mass production or fabulousness. “Things wabi-sabi have no need for the reassurance of status or the validation of market culture,” Koren writes. He calls wabi-sabi’s simplicity “the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means.”
Koren is no puritanical minimalist, though. He includes in his book photos of a Shiro Kuramata chair and a Comme des Garçons sweater in addition to the images of trees and Japanese ceramics you would expect. He advises, “Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize.”
The importance of humanity in the manufactured world is the thread that runs through much of Koren’s writing. His latest book, “The Flower Shop,” which was recently published by Stone Bridge Press, is about a shop in Vienna called Blumenkraft, whose design and flower-arranging sensibility is decidedly edgy but whose relationship to its customers is humanely old-fashioned. “I loved the radical egalitarianism of it,” Koren explains. “They don’t lavish attention only on people with lots of money to spend.” A single flower is wrapped with just as much care as two dozen; the owner walks people to the door after ringing up their purchases. Koren sees this “intersection of good design and good human relations” as a rebuke to “the idea that if costs can be minimized, everybody’s a winner.” The result of Blumenkraft’s philosophy, Koren adds, is that its customers aren’t there just to buy flowers. “All these people were coming there as if it were a church or a temple for their dose of beauty.”
Like the owner of the flower shop, Koren has always fought to balance success with integrity. In 1976, two years after studying architecture at U.C.L.A., he founded WET, an avant-garde publication (its subtitle, The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, referred to Koren’s longstanding interest in the intimacy of bathing environments and rituals). WET helped define the Los Angeles New Wave aesthetic, but Koren shut it down five and a half years later rather than try to grow the business or sell it and risk commercializing its quirky personality. Numerous trips to Japan in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Japanese designers were huge WET fans) fed his enthusiasm for the country’s culture, and it permeates many of his books - not just “Wabi-Sabi” but also “How to Take a Japanese Bath,” “How to Rake Leaves,” “Undesigning the Bath” and “Gardens of Gravel and Sand.” Koren, who seems to be his own severest critic, also wrote a book called “13 Books,” which is essentially a description and critique of his published work. It includes breakdowns of the books by subject matter, approach, profitability and success: 62 percent get a thumbs-up, but by Koren’s standards, success means “pleased or not ashamed.” A self-promoter he isn’t.
He is, in his low-key way, a crusader. He believes that bigger is not usually better and that technological advances come with a price. He calls the iPod an example of something that isolates people, preventing them from engaging fully in civic life. Most of all, he deplores our society’s “headlong rush into sameness” and, through his books, seeks out role models of individuality and civility. “Even if my book on the flower shop has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian problem,” he says, “it’s all connected.” He’s currently mulling Jainism and homeopathy as his next subjects, and although he has no idea where these investigations will lead, he’s sure he’s on the right track. “I may be a small island,” he says, “but I’m trying to make an assault on the mainland.”