When German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe coined the phrase, “less is more,” the concept of minimalism seemed to spread like wildfire. Though it was an artistic philosophy that was long developing, van der Rohe’s popularisation of the concept certainly affirmed its widespread placement in international artistic consciousness.
Half a century later, and we’re seeing minimal design applied to just about everything in the creative fields including art, architecture, fashion, packaging and interior design. And while “minimal design” is a relatively young concept and design approach, it has been developed, reiterated and copied time and time again.
Hence, CID asks industry experts, has minimal design come to a standstill? And perhaps more importantly, is it creatively blocked?
“Repetitions of an idea usually stem from an inspiring or perfect chief concept. Typically something that is deemed exemplary is copied, duplicated and repeated, therefore [being] a compliment of sorts.
On the other hand, I feel that there is a saturation of minimal design that has been diluted from the initial theory of ‘less is more’… which in theory strips a space down to its bare essentials,” explained Bruno Guelaff, design director, studio bruno guélaff.
Minimal design, founded on principles of purity and simplicity, was in part inspired by Japanese traditional design and the ever popular Zen philosophy. Minimal design is a concept where form follows function. Decorative elements are not only unwelcome, they contradict the concept itself. The idea, which centres on the bare essentials, requires design to focus on the item or space’s function, anything more is unnecessary.
However, we wonder with an apporach that appreciates the bare necessity: how minimal can one truly go? Amjad Al-Hajj, managing director, The Horologist, noted: “Minimal design is taking an object and stripping it from the things that are unnecessary, so there’s a certain limit you have to stop [at]—I don’t think it is standing still, I think it is adapting, but ultimately, it’s minimal…you only have so much to play with.”
While it may be true that minimal design is adapting, some still persist that many designs that are being labelled minimal aren’t actually minimal, but embody minimalistic façades that are ultimately lacklustre. Hence the feeling that minimal design is losing steam, which is fuelled by experiencing repetitive designs, is more of a mental folly.
“I think the biggest issue is that the term ‘minimal’ or ‘minimalist design’ has been so over played, that it has become redundant and pointless as a point of reference. [When] critics stereotype or label any work by artists, architects, sculptors, or designers as such, [they] often feel insulted by the use of the term,” explained Paul McElroy, partner, Kinnersley Kent Design, posing the question: “What does that say about the way in which we try to pigeonhole fields of work?”
Using the term “minimal design” has become the lazy go-to description for seemingly barren spaces. Whereas true minimal design is meant to inspire one to function within one’s means, not to deny one of items that serve a functioning purpose. And the overuse of the term “minimal design” has contributed to minimal design’s seeming creative block.
McElroy persisted that minimal design is just often misunderstood, and therefore to even speculate that it’s coming to a standstill is a faulty beginning for examination, since most projects deemed minimal aren’t actually minimal at all.
McElroy said: “Minimal design is often referred to in context in the mantra, ‘less is more’ or even that it is about denial, or subtraction, that is the polar opposite of a decorative approach.
“It is more often misquoted or even misunderstood. It is surely not simplicity in itself, an all too easy ‘label’ to apply, but a more rigorous, intellectual approach that could fill a book (and often has).”
Guelaff added: “From an outsider’s perspective, people often think that ‘minimal design’ is an easy task to achieve, which in turn does not require much creativity. I feel it is far from the truth. A true minimal design takes much creativity not only in the form of stripping down to the essentials, but also in the study of sociological impacts in terms of the usage of space considering the end user.
“Minimal design being creatively blocked may not be the question but in hindsight, maybe it is just not appreciated for what it is.”
Perhaps Guelaff is right. When applied in the purist of forms, minimal design can be difficult for some to connect with and relate to, especially when a region’s traditional culture conflicts with minimal aesthetics.
For designers in the Middle East, there seems to be an urgency to adapt minimal design with ornamental styling so as to attract customers, which would take away from its minimalist foundation and values.
According to Al-Hajj, culture plays a huge role in liking minimal design. He said: “Minimal design is quite niche. The market for it is quite narrow, especially in this part of the world. I always think minimal design is for refined taste, so there’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre with it… And since minimal design is not that popular here, you don’t have the room to experiment with it…I think it’s much more popular in Europe or the United States.”
While minimal design maintains a small group of followers in the Middle East, its effect on design for the past century in Europe and the United States has been long-lasting. And like most concepts that become popularised, it has transformed into a shallow trend that turns out the same designs again and again, cultivating a commercial minimalism, devoid of the philosophy’s original intent and purpose.
McElroy added: “The word minimal or minimalism appears to have become an all encompassing cliché and many people’s work that this term is used to define despise it. One could argue that the media turned it into the latest ‘trend’ to then be discarded as it moves on at a relentless pace for the next new thing without really looking at the deeper meaning behind it—if you believe there is one, of course!”
Whether or not minimal design is creatively blocked, its limits have yet to be met. According to McElroy, technology has been opening doors for minimal design to gradually develop.
“Looking at Apple who gave the world one of the defining products of the modern era, the iPhone and their latest direction for iOS7, they perhaps, give the best glimpse into where minimal is at today,” McElroy said.
He continued: “Jonny Ive, the new head of software, has taken the whole approach to interface design and rebuilt it around a more refined, intuitive interface that has been dubbed ‘minimal’.”
As head of Apple, Ive plays an interesting role in this debate. “Minimalism is much appreciated when we are overwhelmed with the pace of information in today’s cluttered world. And apple carries this philosophy through each of its brand touch points,” McElroy pointedly explained.
The development of interior spaces like kitchens, bathrooms and offices also provide a new arena for minimal design to advance and develop. “Over the years, the philosophy of spaces, like the residential kitchen or the typical office breakout space, is changing and therefore requiring altered forms of daily usage, which in turn gives a chance for minimal design to be applied in new strategic ways,” Guelaff pointed out, before concluding: “All in all, the true concept of minimal design will not change, but how we achieve it by adapting current cultural trends and technology will be the thought-provoking element.”