Vowels and Shu Ha Ri

Words by Dalya Benor

What does it mean to truly “master” something? What does it mean to be a “master?” The idea of such mastery conjures up Michelin-level chefs working in the minutiae of gastronomy, samurai who have trained for decades, or even a Japanese tea master, practicing the art where Wabi Sabi aesthetics originated. These experts have attained such a high level of precision and skill it’s staggering. Within these upper echelons of expertise, there is also a certain renegade — those that reside in the realms of mad genius and creators, in debauchery and jest at its most extreme. The old adage, “in order to break the rules, you must know the rules” calls to mind these rebels who have rejected conformity with such precision in order to create something truly extraordinary. 

In Japan, a dedication to this level of mastery can be seen everywhere from shop windows to restaurant counters. It’s so ubiquitous it’s nearly impossible to avoid, from tiny Sushiya (すしや) restaurants where the taisho (たいしょう) has devoted their life to simply making “perfect” rice, to furoshiki (風呂敷), gift wrapping stores where the shopkeep has perfected the art of wrapping to a level that calls for deep respect from the recipient. There are hundreds of other examples of devotion in craftsmanship. These things look so innately perfect, it’s hard to wrap your head around achieving the same result. 

The Japanese spiritual teacher and artist Azumi Uchitani notes, “the Japanese way of making looks like “perfection.” However, it is not perfection. What you see in Japanese craftsmanship and manufacturing is "mastery." Perfection is the external achievement to fulfill the criteria. Mastery is inner work. Mastery is the path, the way we approach, the way we make things, the way we work. Mastery is in our mindset, our attitude.”

The concept of “mastery” is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. In Japanese, the term is called Shu Ha Ri. Originally descended from martial arts, it describes three stages of mastery. Each individual term can be broken out into its own definition, which loosely translates to "to keep, to fall, to break away" or "follow the rules, break the rules, transcend the rules.” But how does this philosophy apply to everyday life? 

The first stage is Shu (守), which means "protect" or "obey.” During this phase, the student is meant to obediently follow the “teachings of one master precisely.” Shu is comprised of traditional wisdom, which may include proverbs and hands-on, trial and error learning. In this state, the rules are meant to be followed strictly and unquestioned. According to Uchitani, during Shu, “traditional cultural practices, [such as in] tea ceremony, martial arts, we go to learn from Sensei, our master.” It is important that the student obediently follows the wisdom that the Sensei teaches, which manifests as traditional forms, rules and styles that has been established over generations.

In the film, The Karate Kid (1984), the iconic scene in which the sensei Mr. Miyagi instructs his young disciple, Daniel, to practice the movements of “wax on, wax off” serves as an exercise on meditative discipline. Exhausted and disheartened, Daniel wants to give up, not understanding why he is being subjected to endless, labor-intensive tasks. Although the reasons for these tasks — ones that seem far from karate itself — are still unknown to Daniel, the careful repetition, order and obedience is an important element of mastering the larger practice of karate. The tedious practice of ritual and routine thus lead to the next phase. 

The second stage is Ha (破), which means "detach" or "digress.” It is here where the student begins to break with tradition, finding their own way and forging their own path. Once the forms learned in the first stage become second nature, the student begins to understand the theories and principles behind the tedious practices of Shu. The dots begin to connect, ideas begin to click, and the student begins to discover their own unique way. Even in rigidity and formulaic sameness the student can begin to find deviation and ways to express their own individuality. This is when one begins to innovate, now knowing how, why, and within which parameters one can do so. As the saying goes, “there is a method to the madness,” it is in this stage of Shu Ha Ri where that aphorism starts coming to life. With a firm grasp on the basics, changes made can be intentional and considered, incorporating a distinct rationale or philosophy that grounds and roots the reasoning in doing so. 

Lastly, the third and final stage. In Ri (離), which means to "leave" or "separate," the bird flies from the nest, spreads its wings, and soars. This is where a no holds barred, unimpeded approach comes to life. The student has now practiced, processed, and digested the facets of their craft.  It is time for them to make it their own. The learnings of others have been subsumed by the student, amalgamated internally, and are reinterpreted and revised, leading to a new form. Once you have reached this level of mastery, you are no longer a student of the tradition, you embody the tradition; you become the tradition — you have become a new rule from which the cycle can start anew. In this new iteration of the form the original teaching may be unrecognizable, but the end result is only made possible by way of the formidable training required to get here. Movements become second-nature, embedded in the subconscious, it is intrinsic and natural to one’s being. The practice transcends the physical — the craft is now one with spirit, adapting and responsive to the surrounding environment. 

Consider some of the greatest artists of our time. The painting on the left was done by a young Picasso, fresh out of training in Spain’s foremost art schools, where he studied formal Greek and Roman painting. The painting on the right was done nearly eighty years later as one of his final works. The later painting, reduced to a much more childlike, rudimentary portrait, proceeds a decades-long career as one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century. One can observe that before Picasso became the avant garde at the head of the Cubist movement, he first fully enveloped himself in the classical forms of painting and art. 

Man in a Beret, Pablo Picasso (1895)

Young Painter, Pablo Picasso (1971)

We strive to apply these same principles at vowels. The way we approach design, research and development falls under the philosophy of Shu Ha Ri. Our first capsule collection reflects the tenets of Shu — where we apply the basics of design, mastering craftsmanship and simplicity to the highest level of quality possible. We delve from Shu to Ha, wherein we have use the best fabrics we can source, and incorporate minute details deviating from the standard forms and silhouettes we take inspiration from. We move towards Ri, working towards a level of mastery attained by some of those that came before us. 

True to the mantra of Shu Ha Ri, the debut capsule collection is rooted in minimalist design — but simplistic does not mean unconsidered. Throughout the development of these pieces is our attempt to follow an order and a process — to display our understanding of the rules while allowing space for interpretation and experimentation. As with the Shu Ha Ri philosophy, vowels as a brand is rooted in Japanese craftsmanship, drawing influence from the beauty, innovation and respect that is given to the form. With time, we hope to continue to evolve vowels in this thread, opening our work up to the potential to interpret new forms of expression in design.





Shuhari - Wikipedia

Shu Ha Ri - Martin Fowler

SHU HA RI - The Japanese Art of Mastery

The Karate Kid (1984) - Wax On, Wax Off Scene


Scans of: Casa Brutus Volume 47, February Issue. February, 2004 and i-D Japan Vol. 2, No. 1, January 1992