Contemporary minimalist interior with antique desk, Thonet chair, and industrial lightning
Photo © Up Interiors
S33 Chairs by Mart Stam for Thonet, 1926
Photo © Adore Modern
Terrace House on the Weissenhof by Mart Stam, 1927
Photo © Hunt Library, NC State
Casa Barragan, the home of Luis Barragán, built in 1948
Photo © Fundación de Arquitectura Tapatía Luis Barragán
A contemporary take on minimalism, inspired by midcentury Scandinavian design
Photo © Studio Cuvier
Contemporary minimalist home outside Copenhagen
Photo © Morten Holtum
Ap Cobogó, contemporary minimalist Brazilian interior by architect Alan Chu
Photo © Djan Chu; courtesy of Alan Chu
Contemporary minimalist home, Höganäs House decorated by Marie Olsson Nylander
Photo © Bill Nylander
A contemporary take on minimalism, inspired by Tolix, Knoll, and Jieldé
Photo © Kaan Kılıçay
Tulip Table and Chairs by Eero Saarinen for Knoll, 1957
Photo © Knoll
Arco Floor Lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Flos, 1962
Photo © Flos
FRONZONI '64 Table and Chair by A.G. Fronzoni for Cappellini, 1964
Photo © Cappellini
Grasshopper Lounge by Preben Fabricus and Jørgen Kastholm for Kill International, 1967
Photo © Frank Landau
Togo Seating by Michel Ducaroy, 1973
Photo © Funky Vintage
Max Bill's home, designed in 1967, photographed for du in 1976
Photo © du Magazine
Glass and Steel Wire Coffee Table, in the style of Paolo Piva, 1970s
Photo © VNTG
Ceiling Lamp by Rodolfo Bonetto for Luci, 1970s
Photo © City Furniture
Seconda Chairs by Mario Botta for Alias, 1982
Photo © Garage
LC95A Lounge by Maarten van Severen, 1993
Photo © MidMod-Design
Geometry Made Easy Lights by Sara Bernardi for MICROmacro, 2012
Photo © MICROmacro
Plantation Hydroponic Planters by Alicja Patanowska, 2014
Photo © Alicja Patanowska
Weight Vase & Cement Wood Lamps by Decha Archjananun for Specimen Editions, 2011/12
Photo © Specimen Editions
Cucina Futurista 2.0 by chmara.rosinke, 2015
Photo © chmara.rosinke
Cotton Bowls by Krupka Stieghan, 2014
Photo © Krupka Stieghan
Peter Zumthor's holiday home in Leis in Vals, 2009
Photo © Peter Zumthor
Walnut Crescent Lounge by Vonnegut/Kraft, 2014
Photo © Vonnegut/Kraft
Balzar Ceramic Hanging Pot by Karis Reiß for R.EH Germany, 2017
Photo © R.EH Germany
Ki-Oke Stools designed by OeO and crafted by Shuji Nakagawa, 2013
Photo © Atelier Coubet
Architect John Pawson's London home, 1992-94
Photo © Todd Eberle; courtesy of John Pawson
Cast Bowl by John Pawson for 1882 Ltd., 2016
Photo © 1882 Ltd.
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 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
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 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 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). Miesian interiors, while sparsely furnished, make generous use of lux materials, like marble, travertine, and richly grained exotic woods. Remember, Mies 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
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."
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.
Kuramata famously 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
In the 1990s, an entire generation of minimalist architects and designers came to prominence—Peter Zumthor, John Pawson, Naoto Fukasawa, Tadao Ando, Jasper Morrison, Maarten 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
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
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.
For more minimalist inspriation, scroll through the slideshow above!
Wava CarpenterAfter 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.
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.
More to Love
Vintage Bauhaus Chromed Stool by Mart Stam for Mücke Melder
Mid-Century French Industrial Lamp from Jieldé
Friedlaender Ceramic Cups by R.EH for Reiss, Set of 4
Large Ceramic Plates by R.EH for Reiss, Set of 4
dePostura from Mario Milana
Vintage Umbrella Stand by Shiro Kuramata for Pastoe, 1986
Cast Bowl by John Pawson
No.19 White Side Table by Studio Pascal Howe
Swam Table Lamp by Monica Gasperini
Levels 1C Concrete Grey Lamp by Adrian Purgał for Galaeria Factory
Vulcano Concrete Lamp in Grey by Bogumił Gala for Galaeria
Levels 3CBA Grey Concrete Lamp by Adrian Purgał for Galaeria Factory
MLLE ARMOIRE [v1] Clothes Unit by Andreas Radlinger
Umbrella Stand by Shiro Kuramata for Pastoe, 1986
Black Troika Stool or Side Table by Vonnegut / Kraft
Dune Candelabra by Vonnegut / Kraft, Set of 2
Ash Wood Crescent Daybed by Vonnegut / Kraft
Shogun Parete Wall Lamp by Mario Botta for Artemide
Ghost Lamp by Shiro Kuramata, 1980s
Minimalistic Dining Table, 1970s
Swedish Pine Side Chair by Carl Malmsten for Svensk Fur, 1950s
Walnut Crescent Lounge by Vonnegut/Kraft
Essenza Floor Lamp by Cicchinè Roberto for Marco Ripa
Chrome and Leather Brno Chair by Mies van der Rohe for Knoll, 1930s