You hear a lot about minimalism these days. But there seems to be a lot of confusion about what it is. According to Merriam Webster it is “a style or technique (as in music, literature, or design) that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity.” Wikipedia says that “In visual arts, music, and other mediums, minimalism is an art movement that began in post–World War II Western art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s.” But when most people talk about it nowadays, they have no intention of referring to a school of art. Minimalism is a lifestyle choice. But even here there is confusion. What kind of minimalism are you talking about?
Generally speaking, minimalism means living with less, but as it turns out, there are a lot of ways of doing this, and a lot of different definitions of what “less” is, and why living with less is something you would want to do. It is a choice that can be made for dozens of reasons. Some people become minimalists because they like the way it looks. Some live with less because they want to be able to move easily. Some just find that clutter irritates them and that having less stuff can contribute to productivity or happiness.
Apartment Therapy describes 6 kinds of minimalism in an entertaining, but rather tongue-in-cheek article. But I think that we can narrow it down to three main types, each based on a different principle of action. Then we can determine if this kind of minimalism is for you, and if it is consistent with a full, happy, human life.
The Extreme Minimalist:
The extreme minimalist takes as her mantra: “Less is more!” And tries to live up to it. Anything that is not immediately useful is thrown away. Often this kind of minimalist chooses an arbitrary number, like 100, and decides to have no more than that many things. Her clothes are chosen for their versatility rather than any other feature. She has a “capsule wardrobe.” Her cooking is done with the smallest possible number of utensils. She has as little furniture as she can get by with.
Her house is certainly not cluttered, she probably never loses her keys—there’s nothing for them to hide behind—but is it practical?
A full human life, by nearly any definition, includes relationships of various kinds with other people. A complete, happy, successful human will generally have a whole collection of ties to other people. Most adults get married, and have an extremely intimate relationship with their spouses. But it is generally agreed by psychologists, social sciences, and common sense, that you need more friends than just your spouse. Now one of the most basic acts of friendship is to invite people over for dinner or for some other occasion. If you only have 100 things, it is unlikely that within that number you have budgeted for extra plates, forks and chairs, not to mention cups, napkins, etc. You could, I suppose, get paper plates for the occasion and then throw them away, but is this really the best option?
Also, back to the part about most adults being married. If you are married, then you will probably have children. Imagine trying to raise a child without extra changes of clothes, for one thing. Anyone who has ever dealt with a baby knows that they make laundry at a truly astonishing rate. Your capsule wardrobe would probably not be up to the strain, and neither would the baby’s.
Also, besides friends, another excellent way to enrich your life is to have a hobby. Hobbies that require hand-eye coordination and mental activity (that is to say, just about any hobby that isn’t Netflix, TV, or Youtube) can protect people from Alzheimer’s, not to mention excessive boredom. But, sadly, hobbies require stuff. I sew, and this means that I have a few boxes of fabric, a bunch of thread, pins, needles, a sewing machine, and a fascinating button collection. Gardening requires shovels and hoes and trowels, not to mention seeds etc.
Extreme minimalism therefore is only practical for a single person living alone with no friends or hobbies. Which is probably not the person you want to be.
The Aesthetic Minimalist
This is the kind of “minimalism” that you see advertised in the really expensive catalogs. Minimalism in this sense, is mostly a look. You’ve all seen it. Everything is gray or white, and simple geometric shapes. It is clean and almost sterile in appearance. Furniture is chosen for its simplicity rather than for its comfort or beauty. Wall art is generally abstract and simple, like a black and white photo of a dew drop, or a few lines or dots on a white background in a white frame, like this overpriced item at Athropologie. Decorations are simple and abstract as well.
Your house looks like a magazine cover, but is it sustainable?
What is your home for? This is the first question you need to ask before you choose a system for decorating, organizing, or furnishing your home. If your home is supposed to be a display piece, or a background for your instagram life, then this type of minimalism is definitely for you.
But if your home is supposed to serve some other purpose, like being a stimulating and practical environment for raising children, or a welcoming place to invite friends for fun gatherings? Well, let’s think about it.
The first thing that everyone knows about small children is that they make messes. Now having fewer toys is actually good for your children, so the toy mess might be manageable, and you might be able to put all the toys in a perfect storage cube that would effectively hide them out of sight. (You do have to live with the possibility that your child may prefer playing with the storage cube. My baby’s favorite toy seems to be the wastebasket.) But what about your older children and their hobbies? Will they fit in with your décor? Will your white carpet or your pale gray sofa withstand the efforts of marker-wielding toddlers? Or will your magazine-perfect home become a war zone where you side with your house against your children?
So much for practicality. What about other factors? Children need beauty and order and mental stimulation. Children’s books with attractive pictures and such things are good for your children’s development, and while your baby books can probably also go in a storage cube, what about their hobbies when they get older? A home that encourages independent pursuits and hobbies will probably not be ready for a photo-shoot. And that’s okay.
And lastly, even if you don’t have kids with hobbies or dirty diapers, does having an Instagram-ready house actually make you happy? Or does it put you right back in the mainstream of consumerism? Despite the counter-cultural vibe of aesthetic minimalism, it can be just another way of being consumerist and keeping up with the Joneses, or maybe even the Kardashians. If minimalism, rather than liberating you, becomes another source of stress and conflict in your life, then you might want to try something else.
The Practical Minimalist
Now, you are probably getting the idea from all this that I think minimalism is stupid. But I am in favor of a less consumerist way of living, and I really don’t like clutter. I even like Marie Kondo, who a lot of people love to make fun of. But I think there is a balance, and that an anti-consumerist lifestyle should be practical, fun, stimulating, and inexpensive too.
So what would practical minimalism look like?
Well, let’s focus on the practical first. You want a home that’s easy to care for, so that you can spend your time doing things like spending time with friends, reading books to your small children, or engaging in hobbies instead of having to do housework all the time. Not that housework can’t be fulfilling or enjoyable, but there are probably more worthwhile things to do than dusting a fancy collection of glass figurines.
So, to be practical, you wouldn’t have sixteen shelves full of delicate glass figurines. Walls are nice, they don’t need to be hidden behind stuff. Or if you really have to hide your walls, try flat wall art, wall hangings, like this awesome one, or anything that’s not hard to clean. This will also have the benefit of making your home feel less cluttered.
Next, if you have things that are useful, but not attractive, or hard to keep neat, like certain kinds of kitchen tools, or computer accessories, you can put them in boxes or cabinets that organize and conceal them. A lot of craft stores have great sales on pretty storage boxes once or twice a year. This is a great time to stock up. Covering these types of things makes your house feel less cluttered and makes it easier to keep it clean.
Kid’s toys should have places too. A storage cube is a great idea, but you can do other things too. (I just covered a diaper box in white copy paper and colored tape the other day because I needed a box for my baby’s toys and I didn’t want to spend money.) The great thing about having a toy box is that you can make sure your kids’ toy collection doesn’t get out of hand by making sure that it can fit in the box. If it gets too big, you can start weeding out. Then your kids won’t feel overwhelmed by having to clean up their toys, and they will actually be able to play with and appreciate the ones they have. Psychologist John Rosemond has a fantastic chapter on kids’ toys in his Six Point Plan for Raising Happy Healthy Children, (which I highly recommend).
Now for the minimalist part: The practical minimalist makes it a rule not to buy anything that isn’t necessary, definitely going to be used within a reasonable time frame, or so beautiful (decorative items) informative or interesting (books etc) that it’s worth the money, time and space it will require. She also tries to find items that serve multiple purposes, like storage ottomans, and she tries to prioritize the function of the items she buys. For instance, sofas are for lounging comfortably, so they should be comfortable, and of a color and material that holds up under wear and use. Following these simple rules will make it easier to resist ads for the latest gadget, and incidentally, stay within your budget. It should also prevent the buildup of clutter.
This simplicity has many benefits. It should streamline housework, and I’m a big fan of anything that streamlines housework. It should minimize conflict, as the furniture and other items are meant to be used, not gazed at or photographed, and there will be fewer fragile items laying around to break. And it should liberate the minds and hearts of the people in the home, allowing them to seek beauty, peace and fulfillment without the pressure of having to conform to some advertising ideal.