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Beyond Minimalism

In the realm of architecture and design, minimalism has been understood as a trend where the subject is reduced to its absolutely essential elements. Mies van der Rohe’s motto “Less is more” describes his aesthetic of arranging a large number of necessary components to create a visual impression of extreme simplicity.

Buckminster Fuller adopted the goal of “Doing more with less.” In visual art and music, the term has been used to describe movements where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features. Likewise, minimalism has surfaced in literature, theatre, cinema and industrial design.

In the context of current realities and the realisation of our responsibility to the environment, there is a new brand of minimalism that is struggling to emerge – a brand that steps beyond stark lines and expansive spaces to create a culture of living with less.

The places that we live and work in have been invaded by objects of desire consciously planted by us, driven by perceived needs. These objects have soon assumed a purpose of their own and have proceeded to mutate and multiply and fill our built environment, often relegating essentials to forgotten corners.

In our living spaces, we are indiscriminately adding elements that are only remotely integral to our lifestyle – present or dreamed of. Dream bathrooms that stay as underutilized dreams; super-organized kitchens that have superimposed processes that throttle our traditional culinary art.

At workplaces, the anxiety to impress has overtaken the obligation of providing conducive working environments. Medical facilities and educational institutions have not been left behind in this senseless rush to look contemporary and inviting, disregarding essentials of comfort, safety and functionality.

While the well-intentioned exposure from back-to-back home building material exhibitions and product information from the wealth of publications is educating the consumer on available options, at decision time, we seem unable to prioritise – ending up with a ‘khich’ of every flavour and topping of amenities, finishes and trimmings.

Mark Tabb in his Living with Less: The Upside of Downsizing your Life, explores how to enhance one’s personal character by, among other lifestyle changes, cutting back to a slower pace, causing individuals to question what is of genuine merit in their lives; and makes the point that accumulating ‘stuff’ is not the secret of happiness.

He calls for the need to pull back a bit from the hectic antics of our break-neck-speed world of today.

There is a lesson here for us designers who are entrusted with the task of influencing the way contemporary society lives. We have become prophets of a culture of excess and waste.

As professionals responsible for the creation of spaces that will improve the quality of life and influence behaviour, we are inevitably caught up in this whorl of overstuffed material-infested finishes that we have stretched our spending capacities to acquire, and now struggle to maintain at a desirable level.

I know that these thoughts are likely to evoke vociferous reactions of “How are we supposed to grow the industry” or even “Isn’t this retracting steps of progress?”

However, lest we forget, the 3R’s that we propound as essential elements of our concern for the environment and our green initiatives, are REUSE, RECYCLE, and just as important, the very humble REDUCE.

Perhaps an opportunity is being silently stimulated by current economic realities, to evolve solutions that are minimalist – not just by reducing costs, but by identifying essentials and eliminating the crutches of meaningless materialist superficiality.

Maybe the time has come to develop this brand of minimalism that incorporates the culture of reducing elements to the absolutely essential, which in turn will conserve not only valuable material resources but also reduce the energy embodied in their production and the continuing requirements for driving and maintaining them.

These would appear to be new challenges for a designer who has grown accustomed to a palette of abundance. But then, it is our obligation to adapt and respond to contemporary needs.

And what could be more contemporary and responsible than reaching beyond conventional minimalism of visual elements to solutions that will do more with less?

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June 2020
10 Jun 2020