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The minimalist concept of “less is more” has been influenced by religion, art, and politics. Dominic Lutyens delves into the concepts and aesthetics of pared-back simplicity.

The term “minimalist” is strictly associated with the world of fine art. It was first used in the early twentieth century to describe The Black Square, 1915, an uncompromisingly abstract work by avant-garde Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, the label was applied to a new generation of like-minded American artists seeking to distance themselves from Abstract Expressionism. The new Minimalist generation traded in wild self-expression for hard-edged or monochrome paintings or sculptures in the shape of grids or crisply rectilinear cubes.

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However, the term was not limited to art for long, and it was soon used to describe music, fashion, and even cooking that shared an aesthetic preference for extreme simplicity. When he converted a former factory in SoHo, New York, into his home and studio, the late Minimalist artist Donald Judd encouraged a crossover between minimalist art and interior design. This space, which is now open to the public, houses his collection of around 200 artworks, which are displayed in gallery-like, sparsely furnished interiors. He shared a top-floor bedroom with his then-wife, dancer Julie Finch, and it featured a sleeping platform designed by Judd, topped by white, floor-level beds, and surrounded by art by Judd, Claes Oldenburg, and Dan Flavin. For centuries, a preference for simplicity in interior design has risen and fallen, influenced not only by aesthetic preferences but, more profoundly, by religion, philosophy, politics, and economics. Osbert Lancaster, an architectural historian and cartoonist, observed this in his 1964 book, A Cartoon History of Architecture, which covered architecture and interiors from the Parthenon to 1960s high-rise housing.  

The Reformation reined in ornamentation inside its churches because it was equated with idolatry

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Lancaster emphasises “the Spartan simplicity of the Norman home” early on in his interiors-through-the-ages-chronicle. However, during the Middle Ages, “the upper classes began to interest themselves in… decoration, and the plain whitewashed walls of their Norman ancestors were hidden behind tapestries, painted canvas, or frescoes, depending on the householder’s financial resources,” he writes. In contrast, the Elizabethan era heralded “decoration for the sake of decoration… The simple linen-fold panelling of Tudor times had given way to acres of woodwork carved and chiselled with patterns of incredible complication and hideousness.” However, the Jacobean era that followed (during King James I’s reign) heralded “a progressive and welcome simplification,” he says.

Interior design was also influenced by religion, according to Lancaster. Because ornamentation was “equated with idolatry,” the Reformation limited its use in churches. “The Calvinist’s problem of adornment was forcefully… solved by the simple device of almost total suppression,” he wrote.

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This yearning for simplicity is still shared by the Shakers, a Christian sect founded in England and whose members first arrived in the United States in the 1780s. Its followers have traditionally made functional furniture, such as skeletal ladderback chairs made from inexpensive woods like pine, while the walls of their simple interiors have featured continuous peg rails to hang the lightweight chairs when not in use. Shaker or Shaker-style furniture was popular in the 1990s, when people were obsessed with minimalism.

Lutheranism, another branch of early Protestantism, was adopted in Finland (then part of Sweden), and its influence later coincided with modernism’s emphasis on form purity. “The Lutheran tradition influenced the development of the Finnish minimalist aesthetic,” says Teemu Kiiski, CEO of Finnish Design Shop, which sells Nordic design. Its asceticism in architecture and interior design, as well as its desire to eliminate all frills, shared the same goals as modernism. Its ideals compelled early modernist Finnish designers to seek minimalistic solutions, which compelled modernist designers to study the simple furniture and tools of Finnish folk culture. Except for wood, Finland’s scarcity of natural resources influenced the minimalist aesthetic of Finnish interiors and design.” Kiiski explains to BBC Culture. “Beginning with Aino and Alvar Aalto’s work in the early twentieth century, designers learned to use materials economically and innovatively, epitomised by Alvar’s simple, functional Stool 60 of 1933, which is still an essential piece in Finnish homes.” The uncluttered interiors of Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea, designed in the late 1930s and inspired by Finnish and Japanese design, were also typical of this aesthetic. According to Kiiski, a significant heir to this tradition is woodworker Kari Virtanen, who worked with Aalto when he was very young and established his workshop, Nikari, in 1967.

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When it comes to modernism, Lancaster admires how functionalism stripped interiors of fussy features, but he believes that by the late twentieth century, this trend had gone too far: “Functionalism, which arose as… a praiseworthy reaction against 19th-Century architectural fancy dress, has been exalted into a dogma so that now nothing is ever left to our imagination.” He did, however, observe that even British modernists resisted plain, angular interiors by domesticating them with plants and ornaments. “The cactus sprouts where once flourished the aspidistra‚Ķ the little bronze from Benin grimaces where smiled the shepherdess from Dresden”.

Radically modern

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However, it was modernism that championed minimalist, open-plan, white-walled interiors wholeheartedly and self-consciously. These spaces emphasised the connection between indoors and outdoors, making rooms appear larger. Adolf Loos articulated the goals of early modernism in his 1908 polemical essay, Ornament and Crime, which was inspired by the simplicity of vernacular architecture. Another modernist luminary, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, championed minimalist interiors, which were complemented by his radically modern, tubular steel cantilevered furniture. Van der Rohe, a director of the Bauhaus from 1930 to 1933, who emigrated to the US in 1937, lived by the motto “Less is more”.

The 1990s saw a trend toward minimalist interior design. Probably in response to one of the key trends of the 1980s, chintzy, frou-frou interiors. According to Michiko Rico Nos√©, author of the book Japan Modern: New Ideas for Contemporary Living, this was boosted by a revival of traditional interiors in Japan as the country sank into recession in the early 1990s. “Possibly the most traditional element in a Japanese house is the washitsu or tatami room, with no equivalent in the West. “It’s a room defined by fixed-size straw mat flooring,” she writes. “By 1965, as most Japanese raced to Westernise their houses, only 55% of homes had such a room. However, there has been a reversal since the bubble years: according to a 1998 study, 91% of houses had a mortgage.

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