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Minimalism: The Design Revolution of the 20th Century
By Switch Modern
3/10/2016 3:59:00 AM  
It is difficult to overstate the impact of minimalism on art, architecture, and design. When minimalism first emerged in the early part of the twentieth century it was an enormous departure from traditional Western design, which had long focused on crafts and ornamentation. The pioneers of minimalism rejected the stuffiness of traditional design and sought to create functional spaces, furnishings, objects, and art that were stripped down to their essential elements.
minimalism - word on chalkboard
Minimalism has penetrated virtually every corner of life and is apparent all around us—from the sleek designs of the smartphones we use (pioneered by Apple) to the cars we drive, to the Internet and visual designs we see and interact with every day.
We’ll explore key concepts in minimalism, the roots and history of minimalist design, and we’ll look at some influential minimalist designers, past and present.
Key Concepts and Characteristics of Minimalism

“Less is more.” –Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, renowned German-American architect
At its core, minimalism is more a principle than a design element. When constructing something according to minimalist principles, the designer asks whether each element is necessary for the proper functioning of the item, or is any part superfluous.
Key characteristics of minimalism include:
  • Emphasis on clarity and simplicity of form
  • Frequent use of monochromatic surfaces
  • Clean vertical and horizontal lines
  • Lack of narrative or anecdotal content/references
  • Elements or layers that don’t intersect, allowing each to exist independently
minimalism in modern home bathroomminimalism in modern home design
Minimalism Takes Root
Minimalism as we know it today was born in the twentieth century, yet it was influenced by things that came before it—among them, traditional Japanese design (more on that later), which is minimalist at its core. Other key influences include:
  • The de stijl (Dutch for “the style”) art movement, which began in the Netherlands in 1917 and lasted until around the 1930s. The movement aimed for simplicity, reducing designs to their essential forms. Use of rectangular forms, horizontal and vertical lines, primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), and white, black, and gray are hallmarks of the style.
  • Architects like van der Rohe. Minimalist architecture incorporates modern materials like glass, steel, and stone. In his style, structural frameworks are minimal, spaces are open, and lines are clean. Perhaps the best counter example of minimalism is the Victorian style, with its unabashed emphasis on ornamentation and opulence.
de stijl art example

An example of de stijl art, by G. Rietveld and V. Huszar. Photo source: Public domain (PD-1923)
Minimalism began with architecture in the early twentieth century, around the 1920s. Van der Rohe was one of the first prominent architects to employ minimalist design principles. Fueled by the availability of modern materials post World War I, such as glass, concrete, and steel, minimalism took root. Building standardization was also emerging, which further helped minimalism take hold. Buckminster Fuller, a prominent twentieth century architect and inventor, designed domes using simple geometric shapes that still look modern today.
While the focus on simplicity began with architecture, it soon spilled over into art, interior design, and even fashion and music.

Minimalism in Art

The 1960s saw tremendous growth in minimalist art, as artists began to reject art they felt was stale and academic, pushing past conventional boundaries between various media. They began using industrial materials in their work, focusing on materiality and anonymity. Painting and sculpture incorporated sleek, geometric lines and shapes that challenged conventional aesthetics. Painters used rudimentary geometric shapes in their work without superfluous decoration—a reaction against abstract-expressionism. In the words of minimalist painter Frank Stella, “What you see is what you see.”
Although minimalist art reached its peak during the 1960s and 1970s, its principles still have a huge impact on virtually every facet of society. As one example, minimalism has carried over into the digital realm and is an increasingly important part of Web design today.

Japanese Design: Paving the Way for Modern Minimalism

One only needs to look at traditional Japanese architecture to see that minimalism is at its core. Clean lines and forms, few embellishments, simple color choices---all perfect elements for contemplation.
mimialism in a japanese home mimialism in a japanese living room
Japanese design parallels Japanese culture, both of which are focused on simplicity and the Zen philosophy—from food preparation and presentation, to traditional stone (Zen) gardens, to architecture and even personal dress (i.e. the traditional kimono).
The Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi (wabi, meaning simple beauty, and sabi, meaning beauty that comes with age) calls for design with no unnecessary features. The Japanese concept of ma emphasizes the essential space between objects—space that allows the objects to stand out and have meaning. Minimalism is heavily influenced by these same concepts.

Minimalism in Design: Practical Tips

While the minimalist approach is “less is more,” this doesn’t have to mean boring, and it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice infusing your personality into your decor. In fact, the quite the opposite is true; when you carefully choose furnishings and objects that resonate with you, the space inevitably becomes a reflection of your personality. Here are a few design ideas for inspiration.

#1: Create a Mid-Century Modern Look

A pop of color in your modern living room space adds visual interest. Choose a monochromatic base, and consider adding a pair of colorful Walter Knoll armchairs for a standout look. Patterned pillows add additional interest without detracting from the overall simplicity of the design.

#2: Make a Statement with Graphic Posters

A classic black and white kitchen with pops of color—a red tea kettle, counter-top appliances, and storage containers—preserves the minimalist ideal while drawing in the eye. A black-and-white graphic poster is an ideal element to add visual interest to your kitchen/dining space.

#3: Make Your Bedroom a Sanctuary

A room free of clutter is important for any space, but none more so than the bedroom: your personal sanctuary. The basics, including a comfortable bed and functional dresser, end tables, wardrobe, and table with minimal embellishments will help you create your Zen space. To create a more dramatic look, consider painting one wall gray, and keep the overall look monochromatic. A Minotti bed, such as The Anderson, is stylish, comfortable, and sleek, making it a perfect addition to anyone’s private retreat.
monochromatic bedroom interiorminotti bed in monochromatic color
“Warming Up” Minimalism

A common complaint about minimalist style is that it’s cold, sterile, and uninviting, but this doesn’t have to the case. It’s possible to add warmth without adding clutter. Let’s look at some ways of doing this while maintaining minimalist principles.
  • Incorporate natural materials—Steel, glass, and stone are core minimalist materials, but without the softening influence of wood and natural fibers, the space can feel cold for some. Add a cluster of branches or a contemporary floral arrangement and an area rug made from a natural fiber such as New Zealand wool to warm up the space.
  • Add color—Rather than adding unnecessary objects to your space, find interesting ways to use color. Colorful pillows, a knit throw, an area rug, placemats, or even a single wall painted another color can create a dramatic effect. Only introduce colors that complement each other, and be sure to pay attention to how colors affect feelings. Only use colors that invoke the feelings you want (and that you want your visitors to experience).
  • Add texture—A rug or other floor covering designed with different textural elements or a pattern that creates a three-dimensional effect adds interest to any space. Opt for a hammered metal bowl or a modern sculpture for additional texture. 
living room with warm minimalism
Notable Minimalists
  • Buckminster Fuller—An American designer best known for his geometric dome designs, Fuller was a visionary for his day.  His designs are still studied and celebrated.
  • Dieter Rams—The industrial designer whose 10 principles of good design are a model for designers today.
  • Steve Jobs—The pioneering information technology entrepreneur and inventor whose Apple technology has forever changed society.
Other notable minimalists include A.G. Fronzoni, an Italian minimalist furniture designer; Japanese furniture designer Tokujin Yoshioka; and Swiss designer Peter Wigglesworth.
Minimalism, the design revolution of twentieth century, has impacted every facet of modern life, from architecture, to interior design, to art and Web design. This innovative movement is functional, unobtrusive, and honest at its core.

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