What do you picture when you hear the word minimalism? A white room with a white drawer, and a single plant placed on top? Minimalism has exploded in popularity over the last few years, with celebrities and home renovation shows touting its bare, simplistic design. It’s the background in Instagram shots and even workout videos. Millennials are largely considered the key drivers of this movement in recent years and part of its continuing popularity today is due to a pandemic-affected market with consumers simply not looking to purchase in excess, concerns about how gross consumption affects the environment or just aesthetic appreciation. Minimalism seems like an appealing philosophy in theory—the idea that less is more—but when I look at minimalism today, something about it seems more empty than having comforting necessities. What happened to minimalism, and how did we deviate from its original purpose? 

Ideas of simplicity in art and culture have been around since the 1800s, but minimalism as we know it gained popularity in the 1960s. Artists in America such as sculptor Donald Judd, painter Agnes Martin and artist Frank Stella began to turn away from the more dominant abstract expressionism in favour of white space and linear forms in different types of art. In later decades, especially the 90s and 2000s, minimalism became fully incorporated into lifestyle, with people choosing to own less to reject materialistic tendencies.

As one minimalist website puts it, “minimalist living is all about keeping everything simple and removing the things in your life that don’t serve you. By creating an intentional life that focuses on removing anything unnecessary, you find more freedom and fulfillment than in a cluttered, materialistic or overly busy life.” Today, that means purchasing and owning less in a world where consumerist culture has taken over.

Growing up, I loved the idea of minimalism. As someone who tends to get stressed out if my things are all over the place, the idea of bare surfaces holding only the essentials was appealing. It was tasteful cleanliness, a way to let my mind breathe when there was a lot on my plate. They often say that environment influences the way you feel, and that certainly applies to the way I keep my room. For me, a minimalist room was a stress-reliever, a way to keep my priorities in check and a way to ensure that I kept only what I really needed, without unnecessary things cluttering my space. I like the re-evaluative tendency of minimalism. When everything around us happens so quickly and it feels all too easy to get swept up in the whirlwind of everyday life, nothing relaxes me or provides quite the catharsis of cleaning my room from top to bottom and getting rid of the things I do not need. 

Minimalism today, however, seems to have expanded far beyond its original intent. Differences in the interpretation of an idea are perfectly normal, but as social media sites become more involved with the expression of the term, there seems to be a type of minimalism emerging that does not align with its original intentions. 

In mainstream media, minimalism has taken over as the prime aesthetic, and it has become a visual manifestation of wellness. At the same time, minimalism seems to have become more superficial. It has become an aesthetic rather than a meaningful philosophy. As Kyle Chayka, writer of The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism says, minimalism as we see it today “is associated with moral purity and outsiderness, but it’s being adopted by the most insider people possible—wealthy women and tech billionaires.” It has taken on an air of luxury, where the wealthy that can afford to get rid of almost everything show it off the most. When it comes to average people, everyone seems to be more than happy to purchase items needed for the minimalist look, contrary to what the philosophy advocates for in the first place. Chayka explains that it is because of America’s culture that minimalism has become so commodified and points to a very specific type of wellness and status. The principle is good in theory, but its current practice does not seem to follow the original intentions.

What does this mean for minimalism today? It is worth going back to the roots of minimalism again when we think about getting rid of everything. Are we doing it for appearances, or are we truly trying to declutter and hold on to the things that are most significant to us? I myself had to rethink my spending habits and what I truly wanted to achieve from a minimalist outlook. This means looking at whether we are doing things that will make us happy in the long run. For me, that means peace of mind in a room that holds only what I need it to, with items that are functional but can be visually appealing (I’m a big fan of multifunctional objects). It’s not bad to follow a trend, especially one that we like, but it is useful to examine, even briefly, what meaning our preferences hold for us.

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