How the urge to simplify becomes more things to buy
Maybe it started with the iconoclastic act of throwing tea off the boat in Boston Harbor, or perhaps with the misperception that North America was simply a blank space before the pilgrims came from England and the pioneers headed West. In any case, the United States is particularly vulnerable to the charms of minimalism.
Something about our belief in the power of self-definition and starting over suggests to us that if we only sweep our floors, we will magically become new people, unburdened by the past. We like to think that we can do without, rough it to prove that we’re not so soft or bound to the past. Our collective impulse to KonMari our closets is merely the most recent in a long history of nationwide cleaning fugues, from Henry David Thoreau’s cabin to the present.
In 1933, the American philosopher Richard Gregg published an essay called “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity” that foretold today’s preoccupations with decluttering, unplugging, and slowing down. “We think that our machinery and technology will save us time and give us more leisure,” he wrote, “but really they make life more crowded and hurried. It is time to call a halt on endless gadgeteering.” Gregg was critiquing telephones and Henry Ford’s motorcars, but also the greed of traders in the newly ascendant stock market that had helped cause the Great Depression.
The solution to this hurried life, Gregg proposed, was an ethos of “voluntary simplicity:” a “singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life.” Voluntary simplicity emphasized “psychic goods” — art appreciation, friendship, and love, for example — over owning things. It was the 1930s answer to “buy experiences, not things.”
Gregg saw voluntary simplicity as a new aesthetic system, in line with what was happening in European modernist architecture at the time. He also cited the experience of visiting a Japanese country inn that sought an overall harmony through soft colors and textures, as opposed to a western excess of furniture or interior decoration. It taught him, “There can be beauty in complexity, but complexity is not the essence of beauty.” Like Thoreau, Gregg argued that the simplicity he advocated could be found in non-Western sources: The Indian Brahman class already lived in enlightened austerity, he said, as did the “leaders of China” (an assertion that might have come as a surprise to Chinese peasants).
Gregg argued that choosing simplicity could provide a kind of “psychological hygiene.” He also thought that simplicity might be a way to solve poverty, because if the privileged decided to live with less as a choice, then the poor would feel better about their own “enforced simplicity,” ridding them of their sense of inferiority and, implicitly, the compensatory impulse to buy things. This is, of course, an ineffective solution to a much deeper structural problem. And yet, we often hear a version of the same narrative today: If only the poor would spend less money, then they wouldn’t be so poor.
Gregg’s essay was influential, but it took a while to become mainstream. Four decades later, in 1977, the trend forecaster and public intellectual Duane Elgin revived the concept of “voluntary simplicity” in a report of the same name, written with the social scientist and consumer futurist Arnold Mitchell. He later turned the report into a bestselling book called Voluntary Simplicity: Toward A Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. It was the 1970s equivalent of Marie Kondo and has been reissued multiple times, most recently in 2010.
In his years working with a government commission on population growth and then for the Stanford Research Institute, Elgin observed a trend of Americans “returning to the simple life,” which the media had turned into a new archetype. Moving to the country, baking your own bread, and establishing cooperative businesses constituted a new social philosophy, he pointed out.
Elgin’s version of voluntary simplicity was driven by a sense of disconnection: Economic and political structures had grown beyond human scale, so people wanted to separate themselves from them. He linked this attitude to a kind of nationalism that he saw as positive, writing that the desire for simplicity is “reminiscent of the stubborn independence out of which was born the American Revolution.” Getting rid of stuff wasn’t only good; it was patriotic.
The “sense of urgency” to simplify that Elgin documented was intensified by a familiar kind of global havoc happening at the time: the threat of chronic energy shortage, the growth of terrorism, the possibility that even before we run out of resources “we may poison ourselves to death with environmental contaminants,” and “a growing social malaise and purposelessness.” Though Elgin assigns a problematic amount of blame to the “growing demands” of “less-developed nations,” we’re still concerned with the same issues now, decades later.
Elgin even predicted the social media era’s obsession with curated authenticity, the kind that we see displayed on Instagram accounts: “each person will consider whether his or her level and pattern of consumption fits, with grace and integrity, into the practical art of daily living.”
AsI write this, I’m sitting in the lobby of a new hotel that used to be an enormous church. Now, under the barrel-vaulted ceiling is a café counter opening onto a vaguely bohemian hang-out full of slow breakfast meetings and office-less freelancers stationed with their laptops. The old stained-glass windows have been replaced with clear panels and the pews with low, plush blue-velvet couches and black hexagonal side tables arranged in repeating configurations, as if it were the chill-out room of a disco.
Online and in print, journalists have described the style of this hotel as “minimalist,” and I’m sure many visitors would agree. It has a certain aggressive cleanliness. The historical remains of the church have been erased by painting the walls pale-blue and the ceilings white. The space has been divided by glass walls and illuminated by orbs mounted on squares of brass. The ceiling is high and airy, left open above a mezzanine, the expanse only broken by a hanging geometric sculpture made out of what used to be organ pipes.
The design draws attention to scale and emptiness, the volume more than the content of the architecture. The building’s religious legacy is only hinted at, as if an amusing joke. Its interior has been covered with the same deceptively simple design that can be found in coffee shops, coworking spaces, retail boutiques, and rooms on Airbnb. In order to succeed, all of these types of places need to make multiple groups of people feel comfortable. Minimalism is a perfect fit because it allows for just enough character to make a space interesting but not too much. The rest gets smoothed over into blankness.
The hotel design is a cultural detective story. How did an unlikely avant-garde phenomenon become the generic luxury style of the 2010s, both an aesthetic commodity and an ascetic philosophy at the same time? It seems like a paradox, but the trend is undeniable: Google’s index of published books shows a fivefold increase in the use of “minimalism” between 1960 and 2008, moving from near-zero to mainstream. Google searches for the term also hit the tip of a massive spike at the beginning of January 2017, the digital archeological mark of the cleaning binge.
The moment that I knew minimalism was truly inescapable was while catching a train in New York City’s Penn Station. A woman walked toward me wearing a black-and-white striped shirt with “minimalism” written on the chest in glittering letters like a Louis Vuitton or Supreme logo would be, as if the word meant nothing at all — which maybe it didn’t. For a while, I figured I had hallucinated the shirt, but then I discovered online that it was sold by the Gap.
Omnipresence usually means a loss of specificity. There are over 13 million posts tagged with #minimalism on Instagram and around 10 new images appear every minute. Millions more are uploaded on Pinterest, where users collect inspiration for redecorating their homes or rethinking their wardrobes. Shots of the blue sky pockmarked with clouds are categorized as minimalist, as are line-drawing tattoos, wrinkled bedsheets, folded clothing, Chemex coffeemakers, spiral staircases, monochrome athleisure outfits, rustic cabins in the snow, and demure selfies.
An archive of material suggests that minimalism entails a lack of patterns, blocks of solid color, organic textures, and desaturated hues. Minimalist imagery has only a few discrete subjects or focal points. The style seems adapted for the internet and social media, where every image must either compete with or match the vacuum of white website backgrounds. It looks good on the screens that contain so much of our visual experience because the abundance of blank space makes otherwise subtle qualities stand out.
The veneer of minimalism becomes like an organic food label, expensive green juice, or a high-end skin treatment replacing cosmetics: It’s another class-dependent way of feeling better about yourself by buying a product. It takes a lot of money to look this simple.
Ultimately, the expansion and devaluing of minimalism happened because the concept has political roots, not just aesthetic. My theory is that minimalism seems to follow social crisis, as it has in the years following the financial crash of 2008. Like Gregg and the Great Depression, Duane Elgin’s theories fit the context of the 1970s, after the social upheaval of the late 1960s had ended and the Vietnam war had come to an unjustifiable end, ejecting scarred veterans.
What Gregg and Elgin critiqued — and what minimalist bloggers struggle with, though they don’t mention it by name — is the state of capitalism itself. Consumerism causes a kind of alienation, in the Marxist sense: When workers are separated from the products of their labor and compensated by an hourly wage, they can’t find satisfaction in their jobs or the remainder of family life. Thus, they turn to accumulating capital as the only form of self-fulfillment. We work only to accumulate stuff and in turn the accumulated stuff dominates us, further distancing us from noncommodified things like joy and community. Labor “is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying needs external to it,” Karl Marx wrote in 1844.
“The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being,” Marx argued. Stuff is therefore the enemy of happiness, but not just because it’s crowding your apartment.