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This article is part of Sunday Edition: “Minimalisms”.
When one thinks of minimalism, they may picture a sculpture by Donald Judd or a piece of music by Philip Glass. Architecturally, their mind may dwell in the realm occupied by sparse, cubic forms and white, empty window-walled rooms filled with naught but a rug, a monstera plant, and a mid-century sofa, perhaps framed by tasteful stairs. Indeed, this is the aesthetic that has been sold to consumers of high design for decades now in the pages of Dwell and the endlessly scrollable interfaces of websites like designboom and ArchDaily. It’s the aesthetic that has been co-opted by Silicon Valley headquarters, your Instagram feed and AirBnBs alike, one that has described by the critic Kyle Chayka as “airspace”:
“[Airspace is] the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet.”
Minimalism’s ubiquity in the world of “good design” is well known and well documented. However, in the world of the popular commercial vernacular, it’s managed to go relatively unnoticed, likely because it takes a slightly different aesthetic form, one less peppered with the signifiers of modernist good taste. It does this in the same way Chayka’s airspace colonizes cafes and co-working spaces: through media saturation. In order to explain this form and how it wormed into television sets and later into homes around the country requires an explanation of what came before.
Minimalism is one of those words that is reaching a breaking point as to how many things it can possibly mean. Minimalism refers to anything from Marie Kondo’s decluttering ethos to any architectural form devoid of a gable. It has become a stand-in for the equally vague “contemporary.” Succinctly put, minimalism writ large has come to mean a combination of modern design and the ethos of living with less.
Minimalism, in the historic sense, refers to a movement in art and music dating back to the 1960s and ‘70s whereby artists created sculpture, painting, and musical composition using themes of large scale, cubic and geometric forms, industrial materials, limited palette, and repetition. This movement was an extension of the earlier Abstract Expressionist and Op Art movements in art; in music its origins lie in serialism. Ad Reinhardt, an Abstract Expressionist painter whose monochrome paintings are frequently seen by art historians as a precedent to Minimalism, described his work’s artistic underpinnings succinctly: “The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. The eye is a menace to clear sight. Art begins with the getting rid of nature.”
Architecturally speaking, the “less is more” dogma begins much earlier than the 1960s. While Minimalism was not a movement that extended explicitly to architecture (which, in the 1960s was in a very different place aesthetically than art), its ethos can be found in the oft-quoted aphorisms and manifestos of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and other kingpins of early 20th century International Style architecture. However, aside from the obvious aesthetic heritage of European modernism, there is an important and underemphasized architectural link to the Minimalism of the 1960s, namely regarding the places in which it originated.
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The SoHo neighborhood of New York City was once a thriving hub of industrial activity. Its 19th-century cast-iron loft buildings once served as the backdrop of garment manufacturing, machine shops, and warehouses. The loft building, characterized by being three to five stories in height, floors consisting of thick beams of wood supported by thin cast iron columns, was once the pinnacle of 19th century structural engineering, and for centuries served their purposes as sites of light industry. However, by the post-war period, these structures had long outlived their usefulness in trades such as manufacturing or warehousing. Structurally, they were inefficient for the machinery and workflows of modern industrial production, which was increasingly being farmed out to massive sprawling factories outside the city. The lofts’ urban profile — narrow buildings tightly packed together on even narrower streets — made shipping and logistical operations increasingly difficult. As a result, by the 1960s, blight and business abandonment made SoHo a prime target for the mid-century urban renewal schemes — and yet, much of SoHo was spared the wrecking ball, thanks to the efforts of a specific constituency: artists. In SoHo, artists could rent or purchase a large amount of interior space for cheap, all while being close to transit and the previous arts hub of Greenwich Village, which was increasingly becoming unaffordable. There were downsides, however: The lofts were often structurally deficient, and living in a building zoned for commercial or industrial use was illegal, yet, the artists, including such Minimalist luminaries as Donald Judd and Philip Glass persevered — and thus the minimalist “loft aesthetic” was born.
In his book The Lofts of SoHo, Aaron Shkuda succinctly describes this transformation and how it led specifically to the minimalist “loft aesthetic” of high ceilings, sparse furnishings, and an emphasis on natural light:
Taking these challenges into consideration, it is remarkable that a group of relatively poor artists created a new housing form in former industrial space. They did so by transforming the very features that made lofts increasingly obsolete for industry into the hallmarks of a new type of living space: the residential loft. Through hard work and ingenuity, artists (and smaller numbers of non-artists) converted what amounted to factory interiors — cavernous rooms filled with decades’ worth of accumulated trash, old paint, and machinery — into attractive, light-filled apartments and workspaces. Through their renovations and interior design choices, SoHo artists also developed a new loft aesthetic that blended art and industrial space, urban life, and minimalist serenity. Artists were willing to put up with the difficulties of living in lofts because of the community that developed around them, a population that nurtured their creativity and supported their decision to live in a loft both practically and emotionally.
This specific combination of art and architecture — one of adaptive reuse — blended a specific moment in modern art and late-19th and early-20th-century industrial architectural features such as high ceilings, open floor plans, exposed brick and structural elements, and bays of large windows. This mélange would over the years solidify into a highly desirable aesthetic of urban living that would be endlessly reproduced in lofts, daylight factories, and, in the early 21st century, new-build apartment buildings. The origins of Chayka’s airspace lie in the lofts of SoHo and similar urban regeneration stories replicated across the country. By the late aughts, the post-industrial loft aesthetic could be seen in everything from tapas bars to tech headquarters to university dorm lobbies. Its ubiquity can be attributed to a number of factors, namely the availability of empty industrial spaces and thus the spread of tax-deductible, adaptive reuse as a tool for urban regeneration (and, by extension, gentrification); the prestige of the aesthetic’s art history roots; the vast proliferation of identical spaces across social media; the coalescence of high-brow interior design magazines around urban living and a specific style of furnishing; the end of the dominance of postmodern architecture and the subsequent rehabilitation of modernism in the period after the Great Recession; and, finally, the fact that the use of open-plan structures and exposed services and surfaces saves a lot of money for developers wanting to capitalize on a trend.
A side effect of the fetishization of the industrial is that it aestheticizes the backdrop of labor within capitalism, in many ways erasing labor’s histories of toil and struggle. In effect, this both capitalizes on a strange kind of nostalgia for the old pre-Chase Bank on every corner city while offering in exchange a simulacrum of old-school urban life. It’s important to note that the appropriation of the urban industrial landscape by architecture is not new; in fact, the architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham’s book A Concrete Atlantis extensively documents how the industrial buildings of the US were used by European modernists like Le Corbusier as “an available iconography, a language of forms, whereby promises could be made, adherence to the modernist credo could be asserted, and the way pointed to some kind of technical utopia.”
As successful as it may be, this brand of “minimalism” seemed staunchly rooted (somewhat by architectural availability) in urban areas, precisely because of its association with factory labor and old-city nostalgia. Its escape into the suburbs seemed limited to breweries and the inside of Starbucks and Chipotles. By the early 2010s, it was high time minimalism hit the burbs, and waiting, with open arms, was Home and Garden Television and their blockbuster couple, Chip and Joanna Gaines.
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The fetishization of and association with regional manifestations of a labor past is what ties together the minimalism of the industrial loft to an aesthetic that has been increasingly dubbed “modern farmhouse.” Just as the loft romanticizes the backdrop of 19th century urban industry, the modern farmhouse romanticizes the similarly Steinbeck-ian plight of the agricultural worker. It makes sense that an aesthetic marketed towards suburban homeowners would be based off agricultural work, since the history of the suburbs from the Garden City movement to gated communities is based off escape from urban plights and the further-flung expansion into greenfields, or previously agricultural, areas. This fetishized and aestheticized use of the motifs of agriculture also enabled marketing to areas such as the regional South, whose economic production still revolves around agriculture and which never urbanized to the same extent — or in the same way — as the Northeast.
The appropriation of rural aesthetics for use in the interiors of suburban homes is not new. Its origins lie explicitly with the Colonial Revival of the 1970s in anticipation of the American Bicentennial, where barrel chairs and stuffy plaid valances began populating kitchens all over the country. Post-Bicentennial, this appropriation evolved into the popular 1980s and 1990s practice of theme-ing rooms. Examples of wicker basket and reclaimed wood-laden primitivist kitchens can be found in decorating books by popular designers such as Mary Gilliatt as early as 1983. These later transformed into the popular “country kitchen” of the ‘90s, categorized by shabby chic furniture, glass-paned cabinetry, and Little House on the Prairie-esque gingham textiles popularized by decorators such as Martha Stewart. (In the 2000s, the kitchen became more aesthetically ornate and more influenced by theming revolving around the European countryside, specifically in France and Tuscany.)
In the late aughts, the previous generation of the HGTV line-up, concerned with the practice of buying and selling real estate, began to shift in response to the bursting of the mortgage bubble. Its offerings, which were once more diverse in that they also featured shows devoted to easy redecorating, landscaping and crafts, began almost entirely centering around “flipping” — that is, the exterior and interior renovation of older properties. After discovering that the sledgehammer scenes were popular with male viewers, HGTV pivoted hard towards this content, and, by association, an aesthetic that involved, well, knocking down a lot of walls.
The modern farmhouse style came into public consciousness with the smash hit show Fixer Upper, which first premiered in 2013. By 2018, the aesthetic had reached such dominance that, according to the real estate site Zillow, homes with modern farmhouse interiors and architectural features sold at an average of 30 percent above expected value. Modern farmhouse as a style is characterized by an emphasis on the imitation of historical American vernacular architecture: large, open floor plans and natural light; a neutral, often white or gray-dominated color scheme; furnishing that is sparse, neutral, yet traditional in its aesthetic profile; shabby chic or upcycled furniture and decorative elements; and the use of specific materials such as shiplap siding, rustic lighting fixtures, and reclaimed wood or building materials. While many of us may not associate painted signs that say “Gather” as representing minimalism, the aesthetic itself is certainly more spare than anything HGTV has ever offered and much of the ethos and even the materials themselves are very similar to those that are emphasized in the minimalist lofts of yore. The loft and the modern farmhouse both place an emphasis on vast, open, high-ceiling spaces, neutral paint schemes, natural light, rustic elements, historic architecture, reclaimed materials, and the meticulous curation of displayed objects, accessories, or clutter.
The now prototypical white kitchen, featuring white walls, white subway-tile backsplash, white quartz countertops, and white or neutral-painted cabinetry, has become a universal feature of new-build apartment buildings and suburban McMansions alike. Combine that with the nationwide popularity of things like the Tiny House phenomenon (another HGTV hit) and Marie Kondo and you’ve achieved peak levels of normie minimalism. The marketing genius of the modern farmhouse movement is that it manages to repackage urbane design in a way devoid of so-called modernist urban elitism by harkening back to the humble rural farmer — even if that harkening requires affixing an old plow to the wall above your (white) dining room buffet.
If you search real estate listings nowadays, sparseness is unavoidable. Houses with period interiors, whether it’s Victorian-era parlors or mid-century kitsch or dated ‘90s theme-ing or even 2000s MTV Cribs McMansion chic, are becoming an endangered species. Every interior, from the priciest New York City condo to the humblest exurban rancher, exists in a singular spectrum of gray, Marie Kondo-ed to perfection, absent of any clutter or unnecessary touches, each accessory and wall hanging meticulously selected and expertly placed. From their ceilings dangle rusticated light fixtures aglow with Edison bulbs; their kitchens are clad in quartz and subway tile; their wall art ranging from huge reproduced metal signs to huge reproduced David Hockney prints; their furnishings boasting either Pottery Barn white sofas or $11,000 showpieces from Design Within Reach, all atop a streaky, faux-distressed oriental rug. Every realtor, in increasingly aggrandized text boasts each instance of charm and authenticity, each listing’s Real-American-ness, be it in the form of tasteful urbane liberalism or rural chauvinism — all available in knockoff form from West Elm or Joss & Main. Their commonality lies in the same impulse for vacuous, petit bourgeois taste to launder itself in narratives of nostalgia and cultural legitimacy. When thinking of minimalism, one can only wonder what the once-avant-garde cadre of artists and musicians would think about this hyper-commodified end product of their ethos, practice, and even their living circumstances. Either way, somebody’s making a lot of money.