Consumption used to be a disease that killed you. Now it’s a way of life. Find the perfect house and fill it with as much stuff as you can afford. “Then you're trapped in your lovely nest,” wrote Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club, “and the things you used to own, now they own you.”
It’s a maxim that’s stuck around, becoming ever more popular in recent years as a way to mitigate the stresses, strains and hyper-speed of modernity. “I think in our busy lives, we want to make our daily routines easier and more efficient,” says Francine Jay, the author of The Joy of Less. “When you don’t have to dig through piles of stuff to find your shoes or car keys in the morning you feel much calmer. Without the clutter, our daily lives flow more smoothly and gracefully.” Like Tyler Durden before her, Jay believes the popularity of minimalist design can also be explained in part by a collective adverse reaction to capitalism run rampant. “More and more people are becoming disenchanted with consumerism, and interested in living simpler, more sustainable, more authentic lives,” she motions. “I think people are finally starting to realize that stuff is not a measure of success, and that having more time for the activities and people they love is far more rewarding.”
Critics of the movement often say that rather than truly being motivated by anti-consumerism, minimalism can in fact be the most ostentatious display of wealth of all. Buying statement pieces of furniture and having enough storage space to hide away essentials doesn’t come cheap, but Jay disputes the idea that you need to have a lot to give the appearance of having less. “You don’t have to be wealthy to be a minimalist,” she says. “Once you’ve covered your basic needs, like food, clothing, and shelter, you can be minimalist by choice. It simply means putting consumption on the back-burner: instead of looking for more to buy, you free up your time and resources for more fulfilling pursuits. In the words of Epictetus: ‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.’"
On the other side of the world, in Seoul, South Korean designer Jeonghwa Seo also creates furniture noted for its simplicity and smooth, clean lines. Although, he draws on a broader color palette than Afteroom—a nod to the influence of the De Stijl movement he picked up while studying at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. Having travelled the world as a student and designer, Seo argues that minimalism is an idea that transcends countries. “These days images and shapes are spread so fast through social media that the border is blurred.” And yet, he does add that in some ways his work is subtly influenced by the artistic tradition of his home country. “The concept of the ‘void’ is something that makes a difference in how we understand minimalism,” he says. “It is not empty, but rather it is the space where things and concepts can be connected. Korean traditional drawings have a lot of unpainted spaces, whereas Western painting tends to fill all of the canvas. The same applies to architecture and furniture. Thinking about ‘nothing’ is a very important step in design.”
It’s easy to understand the appeal of minimalism as a salve against our increasingly cacophonous world. It also makes sense to a generation who are more likely than ever before to regularly move house, city or even continent. Your things may still end up owning you, but at least there aren’t quite so many of them to lug around.