Imperfection is beauty.

That's the concept at the heart of wabi sabi, the new "it" theme in popular design that brings nature to everything from cars to kitchen countertops.

Wabi sabi is a catchall phrase that combines the notions of wabi (things that are fresh and simple) and sabi (things that have beauty stemming from age). Rooted in ancient Japanese Shinto, wabi sabi celebrates the soft and fleeting beauty of the natural world.

"Wabi sabi is the beauty of the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete," said Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers Poets & Philosophers. "It’s solace in the less gorgeous way of life, more simple and frugal values."

Koren speculated that the style's current popularity could be a reflection of hard economic times.

"It’s not for times of Ferraris and stainless steel condos," he said.

Pantone Inc., a company that predicts color trends for the home furnishings industry, identified wabi sabi-influenced colors like red earth, wood ash and sage green as a key palette of 2003. And in People magazine's 2003 spring fashion hot and not list, wabi sabi was described as "in" and feng shui, the once-chic Chinese art of positioning objects to create positive effects, as "out."

Sandra Crowley, co-author of Wabi Sabi Style, said one only needs to look around to see wabi sabi's influence.

"Magazines like Natural Home and Real Simple are using matte paper instead of glossy — that quality of restraint is very wabi sabi," she said. "In cars, the new gold is matte, not metallic, and there's a resurgence of muted greens. In the exterior colors of homes, people are getting away from the beiges and the stark whites and moving into more grayed-out cement colors."

Inside the home, wabi sabi is reshaping the way we eat, according to Kitchens.com editor Kate Schwartz.

"The kitchen is becoming a more relaxed, comfortable, less manmade-looking space. It’s not all stainless steel appliances," she said. "Flowing countertops reference the natural world. ...Cabinetry is looking more and more like furniture, with different legs and moldings on it."

Koren emphasized that wabi sabi has its roots in nature-revering Shinto — making the use of recycled materials a good example of the aesthetic.

"Using recycled materials and revering them for the weathered qualities and cracks and flaws instead of refinishing them into perfect things — that’s wabi sabi," he said.

Antiques are another example of the style.

"[The fact that] a 300-year-old chest shows evidence of having lived through many people and lifetimes adds value," he said.

Crowley agreed with Koren that wabi sabi's trendiness may have to do with the flat economy.

"Coming out of the financial boom of the late ‘90s and the tragedies of current events, people are really seeing the importance of having a sweeter approach to life. I think wabi sabi is a reaction to wanting to cherish things in life that are real and eternal," she said.

For Crowley, wabi sabi is more than just a design trend — it’s a philosophy of life.

"For me personally it’s about venerating the essence of an object," she said. "It is the elegance of restraint — the original less is more."