Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Sant-Exupery
Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
Most people live with stuff whose value in their lives is never questioned. They continue to add with little regard to the physical, mental or emotional clutter they are introducing. These practices make it harder for people to find their stuff, it often reduces the aesthetic beauty of a place for others, and, worst of all, it dulls one’s response to those things that are truly beautiful, valuable, important, when one finds them.
I used to love those quotes. I still enjoy them, and I still, for the most part, try to live by them. These are very powerful ideas and, I think, are patently lost on the majority. But I think that these ideas are now so warped by overuse and by overreaching of their meaning as to have become dangerous.
People say, “I love minimalism”, or “I am a minimalist”. Those words ring hollow; they are simply meaningless in the context that most people use them. When I read them, all I see is a person with an imagined value so thin and anemic that it is like tissue paper; I sense that people are afraid that if you were to prod it even slightly you might rip right through it and find that there is really nothing there. And they should feel that way: they are pretending they have a value when what they really have is a preference.
What does “minimalism” even mean? I think I know what people think it means. I think people typically refer to themselves as “minimalists” because they enjoy a lack of clutter, or maybe because they enjoy clean lines in design, or the Bauhaus aesthetic, or, in a way that certainly doesn’t help the perceived arrogance of Apples fans, because they enjoy Macs, iPhones or iPads. None of these are about “minimalism” — if you enjoy a lack of clutter, then you enjoy a lack of clutter, and that is that. There is no need to wrap up those preferences in a word to which people often attribute a connotation of higher value. If you enjoy clean lines, modernism, or Apple products, the same applies.
“Minimalism” is not a synonym for simple, uncluttered, or clean. It is something else entirely. I do think it is about a higher value about how things should be, but when it is used (and abused) so universally as being merely about the physical qualities of the object, that message gets lost.
I have a different idea of what “minimalism” means. It is about something that is entirely and unchangeably honest to its purpose. It may be a graphic design, a user interface, a product, a piece of furniture, a room, a house, or anything of any size and any tangibility. So long as it is unassuming and uncompromising with regards to its intended use, it qualifies.
It’s certainly not an easy definition to pin down, and its application is challenging to say the least. I think the largest objection to this may be on the grounds of just how we can define an object’s purpose, and on that I would agree — the purpose is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Like all deeper values of a thing (as opposed to attributes or descriptions, i.e. “clean” or “uncluttered”), the degree to which something is “minimalist” will not be agreed-upon by everyone. But, and I feel this is key, we do have an innate sense of when something is honest to its purpose (just as we have an innate sense of when something is “right” or “fair”); in many cases, it is clear when something is less or more than its purpose requires (both typically manifest themselves as usability problems).
The one example I think of most when I consider this topic is a desk. A desk can really say so much about a person, and you will often find not-so-subtle undertones of derision or praise when someone’s desk is cluttered or clean, respectively. I used to think that too but, in light of what I wrote in the two prior paragraphs, I changed my mind. I think a desk strewn with papers, books and devices can be so incredibly beautiful, can be a picturesque example of minimalism, if no item is farther out of reach than need be simply for the sake of appearing clean. An artist does not need to organize their pencils and papers neatly if that is not honest to how they use them; if your work is violent and original, why should that not be reflected on your desk? If you need one of a dozen reference books at any given time your desk is no more beautiful or “minimalist” for having them tucked neatly away in an unusable way; in fact, I think it loses much of its beauty as it becomes dishonest, a clean modernist caricature of what it really should be.
I’m guilty of losing sight of this idea sometimes, even though I think about it regularly. I catch myself being attracted to surface “minimalism” even when it clearly comes at the expense of honesty of purpose. I often take form over function to an extreme, far past the point where form adds to function. I’m sitting at large, relatively empty desk, with many items I may have to grab well out of arm’s reach. My desk is clean, but it (and I) are being dishonest, and so it would be wrong to call it “beautiful” or “minimalist” in any but the most superficial sense of the words.
As with all things in life, it’s a matter of balance. I’ll end this with a far better quote than the two at the top of this article, this time from Duane Elgin:
The intention of voluntary simplicity is not to dogmatically live with less. It’s a more demanding intention of living with balance. This is a middle way that moves between the extremes of poverty and indulgence.