Minimalism in Design

The Search for Focus and Visual Calm

In today’s postmodern, fast-moving, and hyperconnected world, more and more consumers seek for tranquility and focus again. Manyfold authors claim to be able to provide the only way to a focused and fulfilled life in their books, and minimalism is an excessively used word in these writings. The voluntary simplicity is put on a pedestal and stylized as a go-to lifestyle, especially for affluent Instagram-savvy consumers. Minimalism becomes a luxury, a new status symbol, a synonym for a refined taste. Especially for Millennials and Gen Z, the digital natives, this lifestyle trend spreads into other sectors such as fashion and design, and everything has to be meticulously arranged not to disturb the newly found simplicity. However, a similar phenomenon was already visible in the late 1980s and 1990s, and therefore, minimalism currently experiences a renaissance.

The Origin of Minimalism

Minimalism in design is a movement in the 1980s. It is marked by the intentional absence of ornaments and use simple and clear shapes.As early as 1908, architect Adolf Loos recognized that “the evolution of culture comes to the same thing as the removal of ornament from functional object “. Loos, accordingly, rejected the ornamentation of the prevailing Art Nouveau, claiming that people with sophisticated tastes preferred design characterized by simple surfaces and authentic materials. Thereby, he prevailed the teachings of the Bauhaus’ intentional reduction to the minimum in the 1920s. At the same time, the constructivist at the Higher Artistic-Technical Studios in the Soviet Union followed a similar approach to functionalism with their social aesthetics. 

Industrialization Makes a New Aesthetic Necessary

While in ancient times pompous and meticulously crafted ornaments signaled the wealth of the owner, industrialization made this decoration easily reproducible and also necessary in terms of production technology. Ornamentation made cast iron, for example, much easier to cast, since irregularities were not noticeable. Smooth and straight surfaces, on the other hand, were very difficult to produce. This development created the need for a different aesthetic. The objectives of Marcel Breuer, Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Mies van der Rohe, and others were cheaper production and reproducibility, better mobility, and easier cleanability. However, the Bauhaus aesthetics itself became the objective in the run of time. Ironically, the intended cheap production was never achieved for the broad mass: Most Bauhaus designs had to be handmade and included rare and expensive materials, making them a luxury characterized by purity and reduction and a symbol of “good taste” for the avantgarde. 

Minimalism in the Postwar Era

After the closure of the Bauhaus under the Naziregime, the lecturers left Germany and continued their teachings primarily in the U.S. Starting in 1955, the teachings of the Bauhaus were modernized at the UlmSchool of Design founded by Swiss Max Bill, former student at the Bauhaus. The central model taught purist, poor, and cheap design based on technology and science. Bill left Ulm hence the commercialization of the designs conquered the free and critical teachings due to a boom for functional design in the postwar years. In the 1970s, German Dieter Rams revolutionized the world of design with his ten principles for good design and his central “less but better” paradigm. Accordingly, Rams’ central aim was to create abetter, useful, and functional design for the masses, especially at his time as chief designer at Braun, rather than outstanding luxury products. In the late 1970s, however, functionalism was more and more rejected, especially by theFrankfurt School around Theodor W. Adorno: The former ideal of functional socialist design with straight lines, geometry, and the cube is criticized as a masculine aesthetic, and instead a feminine, irrational design is preferred, characterized by organic shapes, contrasting colors, and random attributes. A pioneer of this colorful, aerodynamic, organic design is the German Luigi Colani. 

The Actual Minimalism Movement in the 1980s

The main minimalism movement in design took place in the 1980s as countermovement to the predominant postmodern and Memphis design. A central change was indicated by the postmodern thinking: Whilst until then, the artefact was in the center of attention and the conceptual idea only secondary, roles changed, making the communicative aspect central and the artefact secondary. The predominant Memphis movement made design the central aspect of objects and denied the functionalism of the previous era:Products do not need to be functional but rather a conversation starter. The minimalism in the 1980s denied this eclecticism: It was no one else than Donald Judd, member of the Minimalism movement, who started applying the art principles to design because of his dissatisfaction in furniture market. Towards Memphis, Judd answers: “A work of art exists as itself; a chair exists asa chair itself. The art of a chair is not its resemblance to art, but is partly its reasonableness, usefulness and scale as a chair [...].” An important collective minimalist design was Zeus in Milan with its intention to reduce design to its mere function and surface, and to rethink product design from point zero by starting with the material and the surface itself. Much like the art movement, the design minimalists play with geometry, dimension, and materials. In Japan, Shiro Kuramata followed a different style, also anticipating postmodern and Memphis elements and mixing them with Japanese tradition. Important materials a transparent acryl, wired steel mesh. Kuramata also was responsible for the minimal interior design of Issey Miyake’s flagship stores where he used Terrazzo and acrylic glass to evoke a floating appearance of the presented objects.

The Supernormal as Evolution of Minimalism

In the 1990s, a new minimalist movement in design called supernormal rethought the former aesthetic principles. JasperMorrison and Naoto Fukusawa invented focused on the essentials of products and a minimalist lifestyle making the goal of design its contribution to an easier and happier life. Accordingly, it is not defined by what is missing, but by the full perception of what is present. Supernormal products are those who outperform others due to their design, without putting it into the center of attention. This aim newly interprets Ram’s “less but better” paradigm.

Jonathan Ive Makes Minimalism a Mass Phenomenon

In the early 2000s, Apple established design as distinction strategy in the mass market with Johnathan Ive’s iconic product designs like the iMac and iPod. Both Jobs and Ive believed in Rams’ “better design” and never denied its influence on Apple’s design language. What first seems paradox expresses the duality of design well: it is a purist and simple design completely avoiding design, but exactly for this reason it should be recognized as a highly designed object. Rams’ design approach as followed byApple also spreads among competitive brands such as Samsung as its success is nowadays recognized and valued.

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