This article is part of Sunday Edition: “Minimalisms”.
In Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles, the titular “queen,” Jackie Siegel, is portrayed as nearly drowning in her own excess. Siegel, a former beauty queen, and her husband, a time-share mogul, were in the midst of building the biggest house in America when the 2008 recession hit. The documentary follows them as their maximalist lifestyle diminishes before their eyes. For many, the outcome seemed morally just, not only because they were billionaires, but because they were billionaires with bad taste. The American dream turned out to be a golden toilet clogged with consumerism. Without domestic workers, the order of their house begins to fall apart, their moral undoing symbolized by the mess throughout the home.
It was in the years following the recession that lifestyle guru Marie Kondo appeared like a fairy godmother dressed in sensible, muted tones. Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists, followed by a 2019 viral Netflix series deploying the “KonMari” method in various American households.
The trajectory of Siegel and Kondo aligns with the inverse relationship between the nosediving of global markets during the Great Recession and the rise of minimalist design and lifestyle. Domestic spaces, and the objects that occupy them, became microcosms for our health, our minds, and our morality. The myth of minimalism, cultivated over the past two decades, presents it as an individual’s response to the societal evils of global greed and useless junk, turning a trend into an ethical and inevitable position. However, the truth of minimalism is that it’s often just as materialistic as the bombastic high life it ostensibly counteracts. If the scale goes from minimalism to maximalism, from KonMari to Versailles, we’re still defined by things.
In his debut book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, Kyle Chayka writes: “My generation has never had a healthy relationship with material stability.” A cultural critic who began his career as an art writer (including for this publication), Chayka mines Minimalism and other histories of art, culture, and thought in order to find a minimalist mindset that isn’t “obsessing over possessions or the lack thereof but challenging our day-to-day experience of being in the world.” He finds in Minimalist art the idea that “what art should do is help us break down the layers of money, taste, and marketing that separate us from pure sensation.” Knock-off tulip chairs in the lobby of a new Williamsburg condo might be called “minimalist” from a design standpoint, but when searching for “pure sensation” they might look as tacky the gilded cherub motifs in Versailles. While art itself should assist us in becoming a discerning public, the trappings of its presentation historically oppose such liberation, as Chayka notes that “the white cube work[s] much like the gaudy nineteenth-century frame around a canvas, reinforcing cultural and historical importance.”
Chayka wants to “uncover a minimalism of ideas rather than things,” but he acknowledges that there is no minimalism of ideas without the objects that carry and circulate these ideas, whether they be pieces of furniture, instruments, slips of paper, or architectural sites. In comparing the staged minimalism of Steve Jobs’s empty home in the 1980s to the “eclectic symphony” of items, “crowded and haphazardly curated” within the home of Charles and Ray Eames, he finds in the latter an “appreciation of things for and in themselves, and the removal of barriers between the self and the world.” While the book contains rich analyses of the works and lives of luminaries of the Minimalist art canon, including Agnes Martin, Donald Judd, and John Cage, it is the domestic spaces these artists and thinkers occupied that most noticeably appear as traces in contemporary design and culture.
Judd’s home at 101 Spring Street in SoHo is preserved and open to the public and, despite being “luxuriously empty,” retains “signs of life everywhere … wine, whiskey bottles, wooden sake cups,” in addition to permanently installed artworks by the likes of Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg, and Frank Stella. There is some irony in pointing to “signs of life” in an unoccupied home, particularly when considering Manhattan’s housing crisis, but it’s a fresh perspective when compared to the commercial galleries and newly built “minimalist” condos that line SoHo’s streets today. Art theorist Rosalind Krauss’ 1977 SoHo home, on the other hand, is “all angular sparseness and none of the improvisational clutter,” the prototypical minimalist condo.
The Longing for Less turns out not to be as critical of materialism as it is of controlled and inflexible aesthetics. What bothers Chayka about Kondo is not her message, which is admittedly anti-materialist, but that her method “promises the illusion of choice” and yet dictates exactly “how you should relate to [your house].” The art and lifestyles he is most drawn to throughout his research don’t fall under a specific style or rule or aesthetic but are “about seeking unmediated experiences, giving up control instead of imposing it, paying attention to what’s around you instead of barricading yourself, and accepting ambiguity, understanding that opposites can be part of the same whole.”
In these precarious times, following a particular lifestyle trend is not a promise for material stability, but we may at least find gratifying experiences through messy encounters.
The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka (Bloomsbury, 2020) is available on Bookshop.