What The Trend For Minimalism Means In 2020
The Longing For Less (Bloomsbury) by Mr Kyle Chayka. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury
Mr Kyle Chayka has been dubbed “a chronicler of the contemporary”. In a viral article for tech website The Verge, the cultural critic coined the term “AirSpace” to describe the identikit industrial interior design that has spread via Instagram from the cafés of Brooklyn, where he lives and mostly works, to seemingly the entire world. In his debut book, The Longing For Less, published this month, the 31-year-old documents minimalism through the ages, from medieval Japan to Tidying Up With Marie Kondo; from the converted Soho factory of mid-to-late 20th-century artist Mr Donald Judd – since taken as the template for paint-by-numbers loft living – to Mr Kanye West and Ms Kim Kardashian’s comically stark Hidden Hills mansion. Spanning both high and low culture with impressive breadth and depth of knowledge, Mr Chayka deftly skewers the shallowest, consumerist form of minimalism while being sensitive to the impulse for a simpler life, historically a response to decadence or chaos, and how the truest expression strips away artifice, challenging us to see things as they really are. As he explains to MR PORTER, there’s a lot more to minimalism than meets the iPhone.
What prompted you to write the book?
Around 2016, I realised I was hearing the word minimalism everywhere. Restaurants were minimalist, cafes were minimalist, people’s homes were minimalist, diets were minimalist, outfits were minimalist, Marie Kondo-style cleaning was minimalist… I have a background in art history, so my association with minimalism was as an art movement, but no one seemed to be referencing that explicitly. I wrote the book because I wanted to figure out why this kind of obscure term suddenly became so popular, and what people actually meant when they said something was “minimalist”.
Your account of using a sensory deprivation tank, “consuming industrialised silence as a luxury,” feels particularly satirical
It was definitely the most absurd, extreme example of what minimalism could mean: a total absence of sensation, removing yourself from the world. After sensory deprivation, calling a lamp “minimalist” seems inappropriate. I am still doing the sensory deprivation tank periodically. It’s super relaxing, but I don’t expect it to change my life necessarily.
A lot of disciples of minimalism talk about it as if it was some kind of spiritual awakening. Is true minimalism a means to awareness rather than a meaningful end in itself?
I think that’s totally right. Minimalism doesn’t have an explicit end or utility. “It just exists,” as Donald Judd wrote. And it doesn’t come just from organising your house. I think the freedom minimalism offers, to kind of overhaul the way you look at the world, is either very depressing or very freeing – hopefully the latter. It can be about finding new meaning rather than losing it.
The link between minimalism and intolerance is unfortunately timely, so even as people withdraw into their minimalist cocoons to escape the brutal reality of the world, are they contributing to that brutality?
Yeah, there’s a way in which our minimalist interiors and AirPod fixation blockade us from really experiencing reality. Maybe that contributes to an overall attitude of ignorance that passively contributes to things such as climate change and political violence. The alternative is to take out the AirPods and better understand your position in the world and work to make everything better. The minimalist thing to do might be to work on a small scale and impact what’s around you.
How minimalist is your own living space and what’s the most recent object that you’ve allowed into it?
I subscribe to the Donald Judd school of interior decorating: have whatever you want, but know exactly what you have and leave lots of space around everything. The super-empty white walls and monochrome furniture are not for me. Judd also lived with tons of art, of course. My favourite recent big purchase was a painting by the artist Eleanor Ray.
Which modern phenomenon are you going to articulate or chronicle next?
I write a lot about technology in addition to art, so I’m hoping to cover how digital platforms such as Netflix or Instagram change how we create and consume culture. I get into it a little in this book – Instagram is so minimalist – but the next one will focus in on that more. Whenever I get to work on it.
Do you have any time left for less rarified cultural pursuits?
Video games are dangerous because I get too into them; I stick to some games on my phone, but I recently got sucked into Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. My relationship to the internet is not minimalist at all. I love random streaming TV shows and have been known to watch Terrace House on Netflix for many, many hours at a time. I think now that the book is done, I’ll have more time for even less rarefied pursuits.