Zen Design: How to Create a Tranquil Space at Home

zen design hero

After a year in which we experienced a global pandemic, political tension and civil-rights protests, who wouldn’t want to come home to a Zen-like retreat? Whether you crave more Zen design in your sleeping or living areas, or a Zen garden design that invites calm, there’s a huge benefit in feeling sane the minute you step into your doorway. And with many people spending more time at home than ever before, the trend of Zen style and design is at an all-time high.

What is Zen design?

As you can probably guess by the word “Zen,” Zen design is largely inspired by Buddhism. Key tenets of the world’s fourth-largest religion—which was founded as a means to overcome suffering caused by desire and avoid attachment to the self—are to, in more laymen’s terms, clear the mind and focus only on what matters. This allows one to be more mindful. When translated to your home’s physical space, this can mean decluttering your possessions so you’re not shoving aside hangers to find your favorite shirt hanging in the closet, or adopting a monochromatic color palette free of dizzying patterns. Varying tones of creams, whites, beiges, tans, and muted blacks and browns often drive the design.

But Zen design is also about promoting movement and flow throughout a room or space that can also enrich the mind, similar to the art of feng shui, a design practice and philosophy born out of ancient China. The idea is to create harmony between individuals and a living space. This is achieved through the use of natural materials (stone, paper, wood, etc.) and arrangements that coax in natural light. For example, a dining-room table flaunting a slab-wood top or a lampshade cut from rice paper. 

Zen style is strongly influenced by the minimalism movement, a desire to not only own fewer belongings but also “trim the fat” on relationships, community connections, work projects and volunteer commitments that do not feel gratifying in return. Marie Kondo’s how-to book (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, published in 2014) and reality-TV Netflix series (Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, which aired in 2019) have created a movement in recent years, to the tune of 3.9 million followers on Instagram. While it’s never possible to get rid of all your belongings, Zen design promotes seamless storage options where these items are within reach but also tucked away from view.

Dovetailing on Kondo’s popularity, Zen interior design is a growing interest for interior designers. The Nobu Hotels brand (actor Robert De Niro is a part owner) embodies Zen design, too, including a teak Onsen-style Japanese soaking tub in guest rooms’ baths.

Iconic pieces of Zen design

Even if you’re new to Zen design, you’ve likely been surrounded by it without even knowing. Here are four iconic pieces:

  • Platform beds: Less bulky, ornamental and cumbersome than a four-poster bed or a bed with a headboard, a platform bed is crafted from wood (often teak) and lies closer to the floor.
  • Paper pendant light shades: These orb-shaped shades are a nod to artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum in Queens, N.Y., even sells Akari Light Sculptures (handmade paper on a bamboo frame) for tabletops or the ceiling.
  • Butterfly stool: Designed and created by Japanese designer Sori Yanagi in 1954, mimicking the shape of a butterfly in flight, the Butterfly stool is an iconic minimalist design piece.
  • Hanging egg chair: Particularly if it’s born out of rattan, wicker or bamboo—a pod chair suspended from the ceiling is commonly linked to Zen design. You can install this inside or out but when it’s within an interior space the outdoors is more easily evoked.
SORI YANAG Butterfly Stools

Sori Yanagi | Two ‘Butterfly’ Stools, INR200000 via Sotheby’s, Mumbai, India (November 29, 2018)

Isamu Noguchi, Akari Light Sculpture, model 32N

Lot 252: Isamu Noguchi, Akari Papershade Light Sculpture, model 32N, $2400 via Wright, Chicago, IL (April 25, 2019)

Asian Influences

Like any design movement, the goal is not to be too literal in the approach. While Zen definitely traces back to Asia, a designer schooled in Zen design will advise against silk tapestries, tea sets and anything with Asian lettering in abundance. It’s okay to have one or two items in a room that speak to this tradition but the home should not look like it’s in Shanghai.

You will find bonsai trees and calligraphy art in many strong examples of Zen interior design. That’s because these can directly be traced back to Japan or China, where the design originated from. 

bonsai tree

A Place to Practice Yoga or Meditation

You’re creating a Zen living space for calm activities—not to rock out to your favorite vinyl or host lively dinner parties. This is a quiet, meditative place to read books, create art, enjoy intimate conversations with family members, or practice yoga or meditation. Of course, you may also binge on your favorite Netflix series. But if you find energy from busy patterns and a vast array of colors, don’t makeover your entire home with Zen design as you may regret it. Just one room might give you that cool calm you deserve.

Meditation Room

Designing a Zen Garden

If you think a garden is only for a yard, think again. While you may be imagining a wall of bamboo, a teak dining set and artful rock arrangements, that’s not where it stops. Terraces, balconies and patios are perfect little spots to sprout a Zen garden using potted plants, minimal furnishings and plant stands created from natural materials. Instead of wire or metal stands, look for ones featuring bamboo, rattan or wood.

Zen Garden

There are also opportunities to bring in the same calming color palette adopted indoors with gentle nods to the earth’s hues. Steer away from bright-colored ceramic pots and turn to muted tones of yellow, green, white and brown instead, to better sync up with nature. Many gardeners schooled in Zen garden design will even advocate for a rock garden as a substitute for green space. Pushing a lawnmower, holding the water hose nightly, or pruning rose bushes for hours every week was never part of the Zen design plan anyway.

Don’t discount the indoors as a possible spot for your Zen garden, especially because the idea here is to create a low-maintenance green space to enjoy. Potted bonsai trees, Chinese fan palms and bamboo palms are all native to Asia and work well in an indoor space designed with Zen in mind.

Looking for inspiration? Browse Furniture or Asian Art & Antiques for sale at auction now on Invaluable.