Less Is More… More or Less: How Minimalism Rolled Like a Wheel

White interior, featuring a white simple floor bed and one small palm tree in front of it.
From The Bed and Bath Book, by Terence Conran, 1978.

Scrolling through my Instagram feed out of boredom has become a random habit of mine during this everlasting pandemic. Having following a bunch of accounts curating photos related to fashion, furniture, interior, sculptures, painting, and films as my inspo resources, I always found myself liking pictures with similar vibes. Pictures that made me tap my screen twice would always be something that looked pale and quite plain, yet somehow appealing to my eyes. In other words, minimalist-looking stuff would always catch my like immediately. Curious about how Minimalism came to be, I decided to dig around the internet to find out about its origin. I was surprised to found out how the history of minimalism occurred like a full circle.

Catching a catfish with a gourd, by Josetsu, circa 1415.

During the Kamakura period (1185–1333) in Japan, a school of Buddhism from China with a focus on learning about the true nature of self was introduced in the Land of the Rising Sun. This school of Buddhism was known simply as Zen. The term Zen itself was derived from the word chán which was further derived from dhyāna; a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “meditation”. Some times later, various teaching in Zen Buddhism would eventually be adopted into the concept of Ku (emptiness) and Ma (space), which embraces the quality within emptiness. Ku and Ma; as an aesthetic, focuses on the concepts of simplicity and the essential quality of the materials utilized. The aesthetic is often characterized by somehow enchanting drab colors along with pleasantly coordinated empty spaces. Ma appears frequently in traditional Japanese art, architecture, interior design, and music.

Walter Gropius, Year Unknown.

Fast forward to the early 20th century on the other side of the world, World War I have just sparked a transformation of political, social, economical, and cultural landscapes in Europe. Other than changing the state of the world, the four-year-long war has also brought collateral damage upon European countries which left them in ruins. A massive revival was badly needed in these countries. In Germany, while the nationalist gathered and formed a party that would shatter the world once more, there existed an underground movement led by artists and designers that calls for a return to the basics as a response to the damage of World War I. This movement would soon be spearheaded by Walter Gropius, who turned the movement into a German art school and called it the Bauhaus which literally means “building house” in English.

As a school of thought, Bauhaus is a utopian vision that sought to mix utility and aesthetic into a single product that can also be produced en masse, whether it’s art, furniture, architecture, graphic design, or interior design. Bauhaus design can be identified through their linear and geometrical shapes as well as minimal color palette.

Not too far from Germany, another form of basic aesthetic also emerged as an art movement in the Netherlands around these times. Known as De Stijl, which is the Dutch language for “the style”, the movement can be identified by horizontal and vertical lines composed of five main colors: red, blue, yellow, black, and white. De Stijl essentially attempts to remove unnecessary elements within art while at the same time combining form and function to manifest utopian imagery, much like Bauhaus.

In the meantime, Russian artists were also starting an art movement that strived to reflect the modern industrial world that supports the Communist revolution at that time. Kickstarted through the works of Vladimir Tatlin, the art movement was labeled notably as Constructivism. Rather than emphasizing artistic expression, Constructivism instead prioritized science and building by focusing more on construction rather than composition. Often, these works were also contained with a socio-political message to motivate the Russian citizens, especially the proletariats. Constructivist design can be characterized by its simplicity, limited colors, geometric forms, and utopian spirit, quite similar to Bauhaus and De Stijl.

The combination between forms, function, and aesthetic would later heavily influence Minimalism that rose to prominence about 40 years later in the United States amongst a wave of certain artists, such as Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Sol Lewitt. Inspired by previous iterations of minimalist design philosophies around the world, the minimalist art during this era is signified by commonly found material, the absence of the artist’s stamp, and the combination of geometrical forms with a muted color scheme.

In clockwise: Die fahne hoch!, Jill, Zambezi, and The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, by Frank Stella, 1958–1959.

For example, Frank Stella’s series of four black paintings completed between 1958 to 1959 (The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, Die fahne hoch!, Zambezi, and Jill) is composed of black geometric shapes formed into symmetry, which apparently was painted with a commercial paint he used in his day job.

Untitled, by Donald Judd, 1968.

Another example of this era’s minimalist art can be seen in Donald Judd’s Untitled (1968), which was his first foray into sculpting. Fully embracing minimalist design, the sculpture is simply composed of square blocks made up of stainless steel and plexiglass, stacked on top of each other and attached to the wall.

Dieter Rams, Year Unknown.

Still in the same decade, a German-born industrial designer Dieter Rams were innovating minimalist electronic gadgets during his reign as the head designer of Braun company products. Thanks to Rams design, the Braun company took off and became a household name among other similar companies. Rams design’s ethos is pretty identical to minimalist art. The ethos consists of ten principles of “good design”, namely innovative, useful, aesthetical, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough down to the last detail, environmentally friendly, and having a little design as possible.

Braun SK4, designed by Dieter Rams & Hans Gugelot, 1956.

Take a look at one of his famous design — the Braun SK4 audio system, also known commonly as “Snow White’s Coffin”. Made in 1958 in collaboration with Hans Gugelot, the record player-slash-radio features a white aluminum and wood enclosure with a crystal clear plexiglass cover on top revealing a neatly placed knobs, buttons, counter, and turntable, separated by small empty spaces in between. From its geometric shapes, limited color palette, and empty spaces, the trace of Minimalism in the design of Braun SK4 was very visible, as clear as its glass cover.

Left: Comme des Garçons, 1986. Center: Yohji Yamamoto, 1988. Right: Issey Miyake, 1987.

Arriving from electronic gadgets, Minimalism eventually also found its way into the sartorial plane not long after the 70s. In Japan, there were three designers who perceive fashion more as an artistic expression rather than a status symbol. These designers are Rei Kawakubo (the founder and head designer of Comme des Garçons), Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake. Contrary to what other mainstream designers would do in their fashion house, the three of them would create garments that looked more like artwork rather than something that people would wear on daily basis. Their clothes were often shaped by playing with body proportion, emphasizing their personal aesthetic rather than following the mainstream demand. Experimentation was these designers primary language, while colors and patterns become their secondary language.

Left: Maison Martin Margiela, Spring/Summer 1990. Right: Maison Martin Margiela, Fall/Winter 1989.

Late to the game, the rest of the fashion world would finally move away from the loudness of the 80s aesthetic and turn its attention towards Minimalism. Eye-catching colors and patterns were discarded in favor of a stripped-down yet innovative design. Initially started by Martin Margiela, his Maison would deconstruct and reconstruct used garments found in thrift stores or flea market. Clothes were picked apart and rearranged into something quirky, focusing more on innovation and less on colors, much like what Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake did a decade before. Soon after, a minimalist approach to fashion would eventually be adopted by Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, Ann Demeulemeester, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan.

Not only used as an approach towards art and design in general, Minimalism has also been used as a lifestyle guide for a lot of people these days. Departing from simplistic art, goods, and fashion, Minimalism starts to seep into philosophy as time goes on. Motivational speakers, gurus, and bloggers began to rave about minimalist lifestyle, especially during the social media boom. Minimalism as a lifestyle calls for simple living, which focuses more on the quality over quantity of the things that we consume every day. Putting more emphasis on the things we highly value and reducing the things that we don’t find to be meaningful.

The quality of the products themselves can be rated in terms of their simplicity, utility, design, sustainability, longevity, or price point. While common people would break their bank buying multiple clothes with various colors, shades, as well as shapes, a person with a minimalist approach to lifestyle would instead stick to a few clothes that they highly value. Some minimalists may prefer complex design and limited colors, buying monochrome clothes with unique shapes. Some may prefer simplistic design and vivid colors, choosing to wear standard clothes with graphics on them. Others may even not even care about design, colors, and all that hassle, opting instead to buy budget-friendly clothes. People with minimalist lifestyles in mind can have different qualitative priorities, yet what they all pursue is the same — quality over quantity.

From its inception in Zen Buddhism to its transformation into a way of living, Minimalism had now come to a full circle, ending up back to where it all started. Other than having a rich and revolving history, Minimalism has also left a lasting legacy towards the creative world as well as people’s lifestyles. Minimalism teaches us how to recognize the true value of things and cherishing the things we already have, by finding joy in the lack thereof.

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