A Critique of Minimalism

Public Domain. Unsplash / Philipp Berndt

Or why the trend toward simplicity is not all it's cracked up to be.

In a lengthy article for the Guardian, Kyle Chayka argues that minimalism isn't the pure, noble aspiration that many people like to think it is. He makes a few observations about the trend that I found to be thought-provoking and wanted to share here, where we've been vocal supporters of minimalism for years.

First, he suggests that the minimalism trend is a natural cultural response to the excesses of the 2000s, "an inevitable societal and cultural shift." The 20th century was defined by material accumulation and home ownership, which were believed to protect a person from insecurity. No one really thinks that anymore. Now people want to liquidate assets (if they even have any) to be more flexible, transportable. Many are minimalist by default – restricted to tiny urban apartments that are so prohibitively expensive that they cannot afford to furnish them. This isn't necessarily a good thing.

And about those furnishings, Chayka points out that the 'minimalist' homes we see splashed all over Instagram, despite being beautiful, are boringly similar. When everyone declutters aggressively and redecorates with Swedish furniture, white curtains, floor lamps, and houseplants, the spaces start to look the same.

"As Kondo conceives it, it is also a one-size-fits-all process that has a way of homogenising homes and erasing traces of personality or quirkiness, like the sprawling collection of Christmas decorations that one woman on the Netflix show was forced to decimate over the course of an episode."

It can even lead to impracticality for the purpose of the aesthetic, which is unfortunate. Think of a sparse living room with nowhere to sit because the owner is so hung up on finding the perfect sofa or keeping the space bare.

Finally, minimalism comes at a cost that is often invisible to its acolytes. All products rely on vast production networks that are messy, wasteful, and human-powered. Chayka uses the example of Apple devices, referencing the company's goal to make phones thinner by removing ports, e.g. headphone jacks. What he didn't say, but I immediately thought, was all the waste created by that move, the millions of headphones now cluttering junk drawers the world over due to a random design change. Chayka wants people to think about what it took to get that iPhone into our hands:

"... server farms absorbing massive amounts of electricity, Chinese factories where workers die by suicide, devastated mud pit mines that produce tin. It is easy to feel like a minimalist when you can order food, summon a car or rent a room using a single brick of steel and silicon. But in reality, it is the opposite. We are taking advantage of a maximalist assemblage. Just because something looks simple does not mean it is; the aesthetics of simplicity cloak artifice, or even unsustainable excess."

It's heavy stuff for a weekday morning, but important to consider. I still like the minimalist idea in theory, and even endorsed Joshua Becker's new book, Becoming Minimalist, that Chayka critiques, but I also see how it can mask other issues and may not be entirely practical for people who cannot afford replacements when they need them or want a comfortable, accommodating house for everyone who visits.

Let me know what you think in the comments below!