Less is more. We’ve all heard the expression.
But what does it really mean?
Better still, does it have practical applications in our lives today?
German architect and educator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe thought so; ditto for architect, Dieter Rams who followed him. Rohe actually coined the phrase, ‘less is more’ and lived by its mantra, using unembellished crisp lines and rectangular shapes to suggest a symbiotic visual harmony. But actually, Rohe’s was an unoriginal thought; or rather, one merely taken to its next level.
William Beckford’s Vathek: An Arabian Tale, first published in 1786, foretold of a nobleman, chronically dissatisfied with his station in life. Vathek became so all-consumed to learn the secret wisdom of the ages he allowed himself to be swayed by a demonic merchant into the delusion that simply by acquiring more material goods, insidiously marketed to him as nuggets of this truth, he would somehow be granted entry into the halls of enlightenment. Instead, his possessions swallowed up his peace of mind, his logic and his happiness, eventually bringing shame on his family and total abject ruin and despair to him. The parable is fairly well-placed for our modern interpretation of happiness; what it means to have achieved something in our commercialism-driven culture, inextricably weighted in the things we own as a barometer and reflection of our welfare.
Let us be clear: there is nothing essentially wrong with consumerism.
We are, after all, always on the hunt for newer, brighter, shinier things. And yet, this alone should be our first clue something is sorely amiss; as no tangible ‘item’ – once acquired – has ever possessed such magical properties to completely satisfy and quell our desire to consume more things later on; the same things we once thought we could not live without before acquiring them. Witness a similar malaise afflicting young and old today; our obsession to possess ‘things’ distinctly contributing to dissatisfaction when the ‘newer version’ of the same item is made available: the older model, suddenly the tenet of our unhappiness. Like Vathek, we have been duped into believing more is better, and even more insidiously, that without ‘more’ we are doomed to remain unfulfilled when, in fact, the opposite is quite true.
At its core, minimalism is the notion it takes very little to actually make us happy; debunking the constant hunger for material things as absurd because it remains infinite, and like infinity itself, is incapable of ever being reached in just one lifetime – if at all. Minimalism makes two queries to humanity: first, has consuming more made us happier? And second, how much of ‘more’ is required to reach this evermore distancing goal of absolute nirvana?
Over the last 150 years, clever advertising has been persistently disseminating its all-pervasive message, confusing luxury with temptation and greed, plying its marketing stratagems to mask its form of compulsory consumption, complicating necessity by introducing its own definition of ‘the good life’. To live well we need more; more money to buy more things.
Minimalism proposes neither sacrifice nor abstinence from these creature comforts; only for discernment between possessions that will help promote our well-being and those utterly superfluous and, in extreme cases, detrimental to it, because our pursuit sets up chronic roadblocks to ever attaining true peace of mind. Minimalism is not for everyone; neither is it a purge of everything we own or once held dear. It merely beckons for a reassessment of the ‘must haves’, given their proper weight to help us celebrate, thrive and prosper as we have never celebrated, thrived or prospered before. Embracing minimalism is to put a distinct period to rabid consumerism run amuck, while ascribing no blame to owning or wanting to own any material good. It simply asks for our critical reevaluation of both the power and meaning we have ascribed to things, imbued them with dominion over our happiness.
Philosophically applied with due diligence, minimalism strives to eliminate our discontent, reclaim our time, guide us in the truer pursuit of our passions and finally, reawaken us to the extraordinary strength from living life in the moment. It encourages us to create more and consume less; also, to stay focused on our goals, as these will help us to attain the truest sense of self-liberation; rather than to mindlessly continue to follow the newest designer brand or latest billboard ad into an even more slavish devotion of the latest fashion trend.
More concretely applied to interior design, minimalism has morphed into a style all its own promoting sparsity, exploring pared-down design elements as the outward simplification of our more complex lives; our living spaces now open yet focused on functionality more than frills. Minimalism first came to light in the 1960s. It has since gone through several permutations, steadily gaining in popularity. Stricter, oft clinical motifs gave way to softer variances; the sixties verve for very sharp lines, solid surfaces, low furniture, and pastel shades come around to softer shapes, more colors and textures today. The main idea behind minimalism in design is the same as it is for minimalism in life: a simplification of form and content; hence, more spacious rooms utilizing only essential and/or functional furniture.
‘Open concept’ is a more recent minimalist approach to architectural design; furniture, cloth and glass partitions replacing solid ‘walls’ as the natural separators between our living spaces. Layouts are often very geometric and asymmetry; furniture, streamlined and upholstered in neutral tones. Shiny surfaces made of chrome or stainless steel, favoring straight lines over curved dominates the look, offset by natural woods and/or stone tiles. Because of its neutrality, white is the favored hue, though more recently minimalism has been forgiving towards beige, grey and light green with splashes of red deemed suitable too. Windows are left unadorned to create an effect of airy lightness. Because it endeavors to attain a level of perfect balance and organization, minimalism is valued for its simplicity, sophistication, stark beauty and practicality. Because of its sparsity in design, the appeal of minimalism is oft confused as aspiring to some uber-chic and/or ultra-futurist trend when, in fact, it seeks only a healthy contemporary balance between purpose and identity, unencumbered by clutter.
The abolition of virtually all peripheral objects and colors is a hallmark of minimalist interior design. Minimalism is not opposed to color pops, even as it leans toward a monochromatic palette, layering in textures such as wood and wool. The effect is uncanny, producing clean spaces meant to increase our happiness and health. Reorganized areas create graceful and soothing environments; more space, even in small rooms and color choices to propagate serenity in place of chaos.
The key question you should always be asking yourself as you prepare to embrace a minimalist approach to fine-tuning your home décor is, ‘Is this absolutely necessary?’ As the hallmark of any well thought out minimalist space is balance and simplicity, decluttering is a big part of achieving the minimalist look. It begins by recognizing the focus and functionality of your home furnishings. If there are pieces in a room simply there to fill a space, but are rarely if ever used, it is probably high time to retire them. Big clunky pieces have no place in minimalist’s design philosophy. So, try replacing oversized, ornate pieces with more intimate, unfussy aesthetics. Since minimalism is equally about simplicity and focus, wall art lacking coherence and/or overstated window treatments are a no-no. Just because you have windows and walls does not mean you need to adorn them with heavy drapes, baroque valances, a clunky canvasses or metal art.
As minimalism is all about functionality, and concentrated on the essence of an object rather than its ornamental value, if you have accessories you have affectionately come to refer to as ‘dust collectors’ get rid of them, or, if they are in good condition, donate them to your favorite charity. You can also consolidate old photographs into a digital frame, or rearrange them in matching frames on a designated ‘gallery’ wall, leaving the other walls bare for contrast. Also, simplify your color scheme. Minimalism does not necessarily equate to a homochromous palette; but it does encourage you to limit your palette to a few carefully chosen hues as opposed to that more colorful ‘Walt Disney threw up in here’ look.
Because minimalist spaces are stripped down to their essentials, they often take on a futuristic aesthetic. However, whether your tastes lean toward the uber-contemporary or more traditional, minimalism can enable you to live contentedly and expediently with less. A home that is attractive and well-designed requires an artistic eye balanced with sincere restraint; the very antithesis of the ‘layered’ design philosophy.
Minimalism is an eclectic blend of the uber-chic and the industrial. Just remember, minimalism is not about emptying a room; rather, distilling its elements of design down to those select few meant to create an ambitiously pristine harmony, a sense of openness – not emptiness – and an enveloping visual style exuding warmth, ambience and above all else, the practical application of chic good taste at a glance.
Your minimalist checklist just became a whole lot easier. Putting together a minimalist look takes some sincere effort. Whether starting from scratch or working with what you already have, it helps to identify pieces that serve the movement as well as recognizing others that do not.
1) Is simplicity its goal?
Remember less is not only more – but, according minimalism – far better. A minimalist piece concentrates on being an essential.
2) Is it innovative?
This set of criteria is ever-evolving because it is closely aligned to technological advancements. But a ‘contemporary’ piece shows off advantages and inspiration in tandem.
3) Is it functional?
Furniture is designed, and ought to be purchased with the intent to be used. Minimalist furniture should not only be functional, but also satisfy your psychological and aesthetic needs. It should serve a purpose. Tied to this ideology is aesthetics, chiefly to reiterate that only well-executed (functional) furniture is truly beautiful.
4) Is it genuine?
If a piece promises, but cannot deliver on the basics for which it was intentionally conceived; aesthetically comfortable, functionality and stylish, it is dishonesty representing itself as an integral part of the room. Get rid of it.
5) Is it inconspicuous?
A minimalist piece functions like a tool; neither decorative nor affecting an aura as object d’art. It is a neutral, open to varied interpretations and self-expression.
6) Has it been created with meticulous craftsmanship, leaving nothing to chance?
‘Arbitrary’ is not a hallmark of minimalism; rather, care and accuracy in the design process, illustrative of respect for its potential owner.
7) Is it self-explanatory?
Chances are if you have to ask for clarification of a piece’s purpose you don’t really need it or haven’t used it in the past. Either way, it’s not for you. A minimalist product is comprehensible at a glance; its function and style are clearly expressed, leaving nothing to chance.
8) Is it environmentally friendly?
Since the sixties, minimalism has been eco-conscious, inspiring design that contributes to the preservation of our planet and also minimizes both its physical and visual pollutants.
9) Does it inspire longevity?
Remember Oscar Wilde’s quote about fashion expressly made to be unfashionable in a relatively short period of time? Minimalism never ‘gets’ old. Despite changing times, the movement has outlived and outlasted virtually every other trend, even in our postmodern disposable society.
10) Last, but certainly not least of all: does it please you?
Adhering to all the aesthetical criteria is for not if the furniture being contemplated fails to satisfy its most basic criteria: your judgement. There are many paths to achieving a minimalist look for your home. If you intrinsically dislike the aesthetics of a particular piece, then it is not for you, no matter how well it meets all other criteria on this check list.
As previously stated, minimalism is not for everyone. But it just might be right for you.
So, give it a try.
You might be surprised by what the process of achieving it says about you.