Melete Chair, Courtesy Afteroom

Art & Architecture

Simplicity Can Equal Elegance—with the Right Design

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.”

So you get rid of your stuff. You pare your life down to the bare essentials. You become a minimalist. Is a happier life at the end of the cleanse? As a society we seem unsure. It’s an aesthetic that can sometimes seem lifeless, boring—or worse. When you think of Patrick Bateman’s sterile, white-as-teeth apartment in American Psycho, you’re not picturing the home of a happy and well-adjusted man. In the film adaptation, Bateman’s condo is full of furniture designed by the pioneering modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the fathers of minimalism. Mies took a phrase from Robert Browning's 1855 poem about the Italian painter Andrea Del Sarto and made it into a design for life: “Less is more.”

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.”
Of course, if you do get rid of your stuff you still have to figure out how to make the bare minimum you’re left with look good. Classical minimalist interiors draw not just on Mies van der Rohe’s work, but also on the simplicity of traditional Japanese design and the De Stijl art movement, known for its straight lines, primary colors and geometric forms. It has been popular in the West since at least the 80s and 90s, when the British designer John Pawson published his influential book, Minimum, which spoke of “the excitement of empty space.” The success of Apple products like the iPod and iPhone owed something to their minimalist design, so it’s no surprise that Steve Jobs’s 1980s apartment was so austere he had to sit on the floor. Done well, minimalist interiors can create chic, sophisticated living areas which offer a sense of serene calm to those who inhabit them. It’s about attention to every tiny element, especially those touches that wouldn’t be noticed in a busier room. Every item should be necessary. Along with “less is more,” Mies van der Rohe had another favourite aphorism: “God is in the detail.”

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.’"
Wherever you go in the world, you’ll likely find designers adhering to Mies’ “less is more” philosophy. Take for example Afteroom, a Stockholm based design studio which was founded by Hung-Ming Chen and Chen-Yen Wei. Their beautiful collections of chairs, tables, sideboards and even coat hooks—all in either black or white—are created using smooth clean lines and would catch the eye even in the most spartan room. The pair tell me that they came to their minimalist design philosophy by following their instinct to strip away everything that wasn’t needed. “In the process of creating each design, we do not use minimalism as the basis for our design,” they explain. “Instead, under the premise of enhancing aesthetics, we are accustomed to deleting unnecessary structures or elements and simplifying everything. The purpose is to keep the work eternal and let it remain neutral rather than burdening it in life, thereby making it difficult for the user to get tired of it and not easily discard it.”  The pair add that in Sweden, minimalism isn't another option for home design, but a way of thinking. "Its existence depends on how much the individual attaches importance to it.”

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.

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