Inspired by the roots of Minimalist design


In Essence

By Wava Carpenter

In his landmark 1908 treatise, Ornament and Crime, the truculent but prescient Austrian-Czech architect Adolf Loos wrote, “The development of culture is concurrent with the removal of ornaments from objects of daily use.” Railing against the over-florid decoration flowing forth from the Art Nouveau movement at the time, he argued that the most sophisticated among us prefer furniture and domestic accessories that feature plain surfaces, honest materials, and what would—much later—be dubbed minimalist aesthetics.

Today, of course, we’re more democratic about taste, and it’s perfectly respectable to appreciate both the Baroque and the Spartan. But for those who favor the super simple, read on to discover how the great moments in minimalist design history can be mined for contemporary inspiration.

 

The 1960s Art Movement The Soho apartment of Minimal artist Donald Judd, 1960s Photo © James Ewing; courtesy of Judd Foundation

The term minimalism grew out of the New York-based Minimal Art movement of 1960s, which gave us the platonic-geometric work of Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, and others. Ironically, many Minimal artists created sculptures that were inspired by the clean forms of modernist design. One of the greatest masters of Minimal Art, Donald Judd, sparsely appointed his own Manhattan loft with rectilinear, raw plywood furniture that he designed and set alongside classics from modernist pioneers like Alvar Aalto, Gerrit Rietveld, and Thonet. Since that era, the term “minimalism,” has been deployed to refer to any object or interior featuring a marked reduction of form. Choosing tried-and-true designs that favor raw function over plush forms remains a key component of minimalist interiors to this day.

 

Learning from the Bauhaus Bauhaus masters Marcel Breuer & Bruno Weil for Thonet, 1930s Photo © MODERN XX/ Galerie Modern Design Berlin

Before minimalism was called minimalism, the Bauhaus School in Weimar in the 1920s advocated for designs that used the least amount of material possible. Marcel Breuer, Mart Stam, and their cohorts articulated this goal for a number of practical reasons: less expensive manufacturing, greater portability, and easier cleaning. In time though, the stripped back Bauhausian aesthetic became an end to itself. All those slender cantilevered chairs and bent tubular steel structures occupy less space. And minimalists are all about embracing the light and airiness that comes with lots of empty space. Minimalist interiors feature not only restrained silhouettes, but also fewer objects overall.

 

Less is More (But God is in the Details) The minimal-lux Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1945 Photo © FarnsworthHouse.org

The famous adage “less is more” originated with midcentury German-American master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—although some say it is his mentor, German designer Peter Behrens, who deserves the credit. Given that this phrase encompasses so succinctly all things minimalist, one can be forgiven for thinking that Mies van der Rohe was in favor of austere designs. But nothing could be further from the truth. Take his iconic Barcelona Chair (1929); it’s as sleek as can be but was always rather expensive to produce, and its tufted, leather-clad cushions were crafted for royalty (quite literally for the king and queen of Spain). Mies van der Rohe’s interiors are sparsely furnished, but he made generous use of lux materials, like marble, travertine, and richly grained exotic woods. Remember, he also said, “God is in the details.” The number of elements may be limited, but each can contribute mightily for maximal impact.

 

Less, But Better Dieter Rams's 620 Chair Program for Vitsoe, 1962 Photo © Vitsoe

One of the most widely revered proponents of minimalist design is German designer Dieter Rams. A consummate champion of thoroughly thought-out designs, he’s deemed beyond reproach by just about every serious design lover.  “Good design is as little design as possible,” he wrote in his Ten Principles for Good Design. “Less, but better—because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity; back to simplicity.” Here Rams reminds us that when you go minimalist, you should plan first, taking into consideration the way you live and how you want to feel while going about your everyday. Another minimalist pro tip: choose quality materials and craftsmanship, so you know your stuff will last.

  

"Minimalism is defined by the rightness of what is there and by the richness with which this is experienced."

Shiro Kuramata's Glass Chair (1976) & Issey Miyake shop in Ginza (1983) Photo © Phaidon

 Monochromatic, Transparent, Unified

Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata achieved international fame in the 1980s at the height of the Memphis craze, to which he was a key contributor. But he took on postmodernism in his own way. His designs drew upon a much more limited palette of materials than his contemporaries. And instead of adopting the riotous aesthetic of the era, Kuramata created objects that seem to disappear, using transparent glass and acrylic, or, in the case of his interiors, using the same materials on multiple surfaces of the room. He said, "My ideal is to see objects floating in the air with no support…. I am attracted to transparent materials because transparency does not belong to any special place but it exists and is everywhere, nevertheless." Nothing makes a minimalist interior pop like an ultra-limited palette of colors and materials.

 

The Purist Pleasures of the ’90s Baron House by John Pawson, ca. 2000 Photo © Jens Weber; courtesy of John Pawson

In the 1990s, an entire generation of minimalist architects and designers came to prominence—Peter Zumthor, John Pawson, Naoto Fukasawa, Tadao AndoJasper MorrisonMaarten van Severen, and more—each in his own way reacting against the excesses of the late-20th-century design industry. Living simply, banishing the unnecessary, and focusing on what matters most became their shared rallying cry. But no one said you have to purge pleasure from your life. As Pawson has explained, “Minimalism is not an architecture of self-denial, deprivation, or absence; it is defined not by what is not there, but by the rightness of what is there and by the richness with which this is experienced.” Embrace what gives you joy and makes your life easier. Chuck the rest.

 

Strive for Supernormal Supernormal designs at the Jasper Morrison shop in London Photo © Jasper Morrison

In the 21st century, Morrison and Fukasawa went on to develop the concept of the Supernormal, a term they used to praise everyday designs that work exceedingly well and make our daily tasks more enjoyable—especially when the formal qualities of these objects have a subtle, humble demeanor. "The objects that really make a difference to our lives are often the least noticeable ones that don't try to grab our attention,” Morrison has said. “They're the things that add something to the atmosphere of our homes and that we'd miss the most if they disappeared. That's why they're 'super normal.'" From scissors and dish drains to sofas and lamps, a minimalist lifestyle requires that the few you things you own perform their duties to the highest standards.

 

Create ! Moments Thin Black Lines Collection by Nendo, 2010 Photo © Nendo

Japanese studio Nendo, led by Oki Sato, started making design waves in the early aughts and remains one of the most sought after talents on the international design scene today. Like Kuramata before him, Sato has a penchant for using monochromatic palettes, reduced forms, and even transparency to tremendous effect. This is what Sato calls “giving people a small ‘!’ moment.”  Just look to the optical feast that is Nendo’s 2010 Thin Black Lines collection. Using nothing more than black enameled steel bars—a preferred minimalist material—Nendo’s collection electrified critics and collectors. Sato explains it like this: “I like my designs very simple, but I don’t want to make them cold. It always needs a pinch of humor or friendliness.” While the principles of minimalism include serious directives—reduce forms, limit palettes, eliminate waste, and leave plenty of open spaces—there’s always room to have some fun.

  • Text by

    • Wava Carpenter

      Wava Carpenter

      After studying Design History, Wava has worn many hats in support of design culture: teaching design studies, curating exhibitions, overseeing commissions, organizing talks, writing articles—all of which informs her work now as Pamono’s Editor-in-Chief.
  • Text by

    • Órlaith Moore

      Órlaith Moore

      Originally from Ireland, Órlaith studied French and history, and inevitably fell in love with architecture and design while working as a tour guide on the Eiffel Tower. Since moving to Berlin, she’s committed to creating a beautiful, encyclopedic guide of vintage designers for Pamono, mastering the complexities of German grammar, and discovering every Biergarten in the city. 

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