Less is more. I looked at the statement my mom put in front of me for “impromptu speech training” (I have a competition at the end of the week, and impromptu speaking is one of the categories—two minutes prep time and three to five minutes talking) and utterly blanked. I’m not even going to lie. In the case of impromptu speaking, I found, less might not entirely be better than more.
Less is more. This morning, I walked into the office of our school’s PR manager in order to discuss with her the Christmas poster I’d designed for the music department a couple of weeks ago. Personally, I was quite proud of it. It was minimalist, or so I thought, with one light block of text for the body, a neat header, and a bauble dangling in front of a cherry-blossom background which thankfully, with the saturation turned down, looks from a distance like snow on a tree. Slightly more christmassy than cherry blossoms, wouldn’t you agree? Anyhow I walk in with this poster and the PR manager lowers her lids halfway down her eyes in seeming exhaustion and sighs at me, before turning to the poster. It, apparently, wasn’t minimalist enough. She deleted the bauble, which ‘detracted from the background’, and explained to me that the secondary aesthetic had to be far more mature, minimalist, and most importantly, removed from the cluttered, joyful primary posters. (I feel like the primary kids had more fun making theirs… also, I’ve decided never to become a graphic designer. I’d die…)
At the time, I thought back to my own primary days, when ironically enough I heard the phrase “less is more” for the first time in my life. We were making leather pouches out of a rubbery blue material my slightly delusional art teacher had allegedly bought to the price of real leather, stabbing our fingers with hazardously sharp needles and all the rest of it. Thanks to that suggestion, I recall that one of my classmates completely gave up on the string of beads she was trying to stitch, left the pouch blank, and upon my teacher’s equally blank looks upon seeing the final product, claimed that “less was more.”
In hindsight, I find it fascinating that both these situations occurred at around Christmas.
For what season is more exciting, more filled with gaudy colours and sparkly glitter than Christmas? Isn’t Christmas supposed to be filled with bright presents scattered as haphazardly as possible around a tree? Isn’t it the one time in our lives we can introduce a plant into our homes without it necessarily having to perfectly match the room’s colour scheme, because it’s a damned Christmas tree and Christmas trees are allowed, even encouraged to look out of place? (Some Bauhaus person has probably made one which works well with steel and naked concrete houses—I’ll have to ask my mom about that—but personally, I’d go for a natural one any day). Christmas is the season in which we give people stuff. It’s allowed to be messy.
When I tried to think of a solution, my thoughts immediately went to a trend which has become ever more apparent in design over the course of the twentieth century. As a society, we have been gravitating away from the entire idea of a Victorian Christmas extravaganza, at which time the principle of ‘opulent mess’ was born and enhanced. Back then, if you had a lot of stuff, a lot of patterns, a lot of colours, and a lot of ugly gold fittings in your house, it was likely that you were stinking rich. Thus, Victorian chaos became the ultimate desirable thing to have. We now find ourselves in the modern age, holding small, darkly-glassed devices which many people claim are their ‘lives’, and without which they ‘would die’. (I don’t doubt them. Has death by boredom been written on a tombstone yet? If the world’s iPhones suddenly gave out we’d likely be faced with a far greater concentration of them.) We sit in front of paper-thin computers with incredible processing powers. The design of all these devices is symbolic of the overall trends we see in design, whether interior, architecture, or web—the less you can put on something, and still have it be user intuitive, the more successful your design will be. iPhone’s signature home button, or Amazon’s rapid transition from a kindle with a physical keyboard to optionally backlit touch-screens, are perfect examples of user intuitive minimalism. Even the code in their guts is constantly on a diet, as smaller, efficient programs grow more desirable, as my computer science teacher regularly preaches, eyebrow raised as he scans over my attempts at writing Java.
Our homes too, are losing ever more… stuff. We have less patterns, less curtains, less colours, less materials, white walls, and as little furniture as possible. Hell, recently I stood around in a hotel lobby, looking around for places to sit, and found that the only two (orange-slice!) chairs in the immediate vicinity already occupied by an entire family, the children sitting on their parents laps. Space seemed like a sarcastic joke.
In short, we are regressing to a Spartan lifestyle. Were a Victorian person to walk into one of our houses, they would either faint in disbelief, fall into an immediate coma, or stalk out of the place screaming incomprehensible obscenities about how we dared to claim that this peasant’s hut was the residence of someone who still had surplus cash after going on their weekly grocery run.
My belief is that all this is happening to counter the increasing clutter in our inside lives. We are being battered by unceasing torrents of data, and unable to hold off the flow of mental stimuli and emotional chaos they bring to our minds. Being surrounded by a peaceful house is therapeutic in ways only a person with white walls, plain furniture, and a back bent from staring into computer screens for too long can appreciate. Though many of us do (… I say as I scrutinise my own desk) we just don’t feel comfortable in a cluttered environment anymore, and so our sense of style adapted. We work better, we think better, we live better in emptier environments.
For, as Mies van der Rohe said, “Less is more.”