Minimalism: How Less Generated More

Words by Andreas Francisco
Photography by Ina Kristine Andersen


Instagram has 4.6 million images, and counting, with the hashtag #minimalism. Black and white geometric figures, airbrushed faces, symmetry galore with carefully placed watches and pens on spotless furniture. Today we know minimalism as a style. A word that has become synonymous with Scandinavian furniture design, white space graphics, and a lifestyle that wouldn’t have been coined minimalistic had it not been conceived as a reaction to western excess. But what is minimalism, truly? And would we throw it around just as easily if we knew that the word’s history is older than the word itself?

As a response to the over-decorative architecture and design of the 19th century, the minimalist movement gained momentum in the early 1900s and became one of the most significant design movements of the 20th and early 21st centuries. More than just a style or a movement, minimalism is a principle, a philosophy that evangelises a reduction of elements, embracing the notion of less is more. It speaks of efficiency and the unadorned, something stripped down to the most basic and fundamental, exposing the essentials by eliminating non-essential forms.

But you knew that already.

Paradoxically, there’s no definition minimalistic enough for minimalism. Because of its flexibility, the word has penetrated every creative field. It doesn’t even roll off the tongue, though we certainly use it as if it did; throwing it around loosely to describe a bold typography without serifs, an abundance of white space, half-empty rooms, or short and sharp sentences. Stylishly austere.

"We try too hard to establish definitions that cover as much as possible, maybe in order to brand something," says Anders Sletvold Moe, a Norwegian artist renowned for his interest in the minimalistic landscape, monochrome visual art installations and different black hues. "And then the definition fails in its grasping. My work is certainly minimalistic, but it doesn’t encapsulate me. There are so many artists who've found themselves pigeon-holed by that word, just because their work has been part of it."

Maybe it would clarify a thing or two if each field had its own tailored definition? One for architecture, one for graphic design, one for lifestyle, and so on.

"At the same time, I guess we need such words so that everyone can relate," continues Moe, "to help create an image, an idea. Words that can define a common ground."

So, how far back would we have to go in order to find the word’s original meaning, or maybe even our earliest deliberate use of its definition?

It is said that the minimalism we know today has its creative origins in architecture, notably rooted in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who was an important figure for the movement. Born in 1867, Wright had a creative period that spanned more than 70 years. Remembered for his innovative thinking and original building types, he favoured natural, local materials, human scale, warm earth tones and a connection between interior and exterior when creating his philosophy of organic architecture—all of which fits with Japanese concepts. In other words, minimalism has been part of humanity for ages. We just didn’t use that word to define it. Instead, we used philosophies such as Zen Buddhism and its teachings that emphasise self-control, meditation, simplicity and insight into Buddha-nature. Zen is an attempt to understand the meaning of life without being misled by logical thought or language. Zen Buddhists have a sparing aesthetic, with little or no possessions, leavings things unadorned on purpose to let the imagination make that space complete. Or to easier see the inner qualities of yourself and others, untainted by materialism. Just like the minimalist architecture and design it inspired; function over style.

It was German architect Mies van der Rohe who gave the modern movement its unofficial mission statement, ‘Less is more’—though some say it was actually his mentor Peter Behrens who aired it first. The availability of modern materials like glass, concrete and steel was an important factor in why minimalist architecture started taking off, as well as the formation of standardised building, which helped make the designing and building of minimalist structures more effective. Van der Rohe created an aesthetic of extreme simplicity by arranging the numerous necessary components of a building using a functional tactic where every element and detail was enlisted to serve multiple purposes, such as designing a floor that would also serve as a radiator. His architectural style following the First World War laid the groundwork for what we now call minimalist design–striving for simplicity and clarity, a minimum of structural framework, and lots of open spaces.

Minimalism evolved on its own, from Zen to architecture and onwards, organically influencing the entire creative sphere of the early 20th century.

The word’s meaning matured as it reached the art world, where it was first popularised as an insult in 1965, when British philosopher Richard Wollheim used it in his celebrated essay ‘Minimal Art’. He described a group of artists whose work was characterised by ‘minimal art content’—readymades, bricks arranged on the gallery floor, grids of fluorescent light fixtures glowing in large rooms. To Wollheim, this was art that wasn’t worthy of the title.

There was some adversity, as with everything else avant-garde, but a style had been coined, and so the name stuck.

"Many minimalists back then would stray from craftsmanship and rather work with a clean object," continues Moe. "It was more about the experience of the room and how the art was displayed. The sculpture didn’t need a shelf. The shelf was the sculpture."

Similar to the Dutch movement De Stijl—which was important in the development of minimalism between 1917 and the 1930s—it pushed for simplicity and abstraction, using rudimentary geometric shapes. But minimalist visual art was most strongly noticed in the US, where artists Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre and Frank Stella were just some of the highly regarded minimalists of the post-World War II era, recognised by repetition, neutral surfaces and industrial materials. They favoured the cool over the dramatic, emphasising anonymity over excess, avoiding apparent symbolism and emotional content.

"Minimalist visual art is about honesty. Honesty in its use of material."

This honesty and economy of material is related to the core values of minimalist literature as well, where the writing of mid-century authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski and Samuel Beckett invited the reader to take an active role in their worldbuilding. Not wasting time or words on surface descriptions and adverbs.

At the same time, things were happening in the world of furniture design, more specifically in Scandinavia. And although the term usually refers to only Sweden, Denmark and Norway, in this case it includes Finland and Iceland as well. Scandinavian Design was a movement that slowly started to emerge in the 1930s, but came into full bloom in the 50s and 60s. It was based on many of the same characteristics as minimalist architecture; simplicity and functionality—qualities that became important for productivity in the post-war years. Scandinavian Design was all about humanising natural materials and democratising the use of innovative techniques, in order to make objects at reasonable prices. The purpose was to improve daily life, which is why the focus was on furniture, textiles and lighting within interior design. Names such as Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, Hans J. Wegner, Grethe Prytz Kittelsen and Børge Mogensen are just some who are looked upon as the founders of Scandinavian Design—the ones who not only set the values of its first golden era, but also inspired the values that carry Scandinavian Design forward today: durability, functionality, reliability and simplicity.

Though Ikea does not necessarily exhibit all of these values, it is another example of minimalist design in consumer products, with furniture so simple anyone is able to assemble it without needing the instructions.

From there on, simplicity spilled over into music, where the principle of minimalism represented a paradigm shift. Stripping away instruments, toning down the sound and relying on repetition in order to make a new sort of complexity that would permeate the pop mainstream. It made many of the most popular genres of today possible, from punk and techno to ambient and grime. From classical composers Phillip Glass, La Monte Young and Terry Riley of what was named the New York Hypnotic School, to Brian Eno, David Bowie and the do-it-yourself-minimalists of the early rave era.

Then the realm of digital visuals, where visual and web designers started applying extreme spareness into their designs, choosing readability above all else, with clean fonts and contrasts, strong grid alignments based on predictability and, of course, an abundance of white space to emphasise comfort and help lead the eye. In Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs was an icon of minimalism. Not just for design, but also for lifestyle, reflected in his famously austere 1980s home where he preferred sitting on the floor. This is how strong and influential a principle of minimalism is. It transcends the industry and moves back into the being, where it once began life over a thousand years ago, when ancient cultures refined it.

According to becomingminimalist.com, ‘Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.’ It is not about emptiness for the sake of emptiness, but rather making room to move and think more freely. It is a lifestyle very much linked to The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz’ thesis on how too many options and too many decisions to make, will increase your chances of being less satisfied with the results, regretting the choice you made, even if the result is good. Fewer options to choose from—minimalism, in other words—can lead to more happy results.

The idea here, apparently, is that the minimalist lifestyle can return you to the basic state where you perceive more purely. Less clutter and less distractions, opening up people up to see the world without preconceptions. But this utopian idea has received some criticism, as you would expect. Professor of contemporary art history, David Raskin, calls it a signifier of the global elite; the richer you are, the less you have. And says that the movement is more an act of privilege than a spiritual awakening, because it actually takes a lot—social capital, a safety net and web access—to have little.

Minimalism is such a vulnerable word. Its adaptable nature is its biggest weakness. It has been thrown around every aspect of society for so long, we forget that it’s not a way of presenting, but a way of seeing. It’s not a matter of finding answers. It’s about asking the question: is there another way of looking at the world?

"Yes, I think we use it too lightly," says Moe, winding up our conversation. "But I also think it’s difficult to find a replacement word. It’s almost as if we should just accept the broad use of it. One thing I know for sure about minimalism, is that practicing it isn’t as easy as you think. Just because it’s minimalist does not mean it’s easy."


This article was first published in A New Type of Imprint Volume Nine. In stores now.