The Origin of Minimalism

by Inês Morais
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In this article, we’re going to explore the origin of minimalism. It’s important to first understand what minimalism is, to understand that minimalism as a lifestyle – or modern minimalism – is quite recent in comparison with minimalism in forms of art such as visual arts, music, and literature, design, and architecture. The origin of minimalism follows the definition of minimalism. The origin of this movement is quite complex, for its influences are ancient and rich in history. Moreover, the process of globalization helped spread these ideas from one continent to another at an impressive speed.

Are you interested in knowing more about minimalism both as an art movement and as a lifestyle? Learn more about what minimalism is and what it isn’t, the concepts behind it, where it comes from, how it reached so many people who live so far away from each other, and the evolution that this movement has been trough up until now!

What is Minimalism?

Minimalism is a philosophy that lies in the reflection of what’s essential and what’s trivial. It can pertain to many different things such as design, plastic arts, architecture, and lifestyle. The minimalist style requires people to break things down into their essential elements, producing, still, harmonious results. The harmonious results are generally elegancy, organization, and a lot of free space, both physical and mental.

Do these characteristics sound familiar? It almost seems like we could be talking about Scandinavian design. Nonetheless, there are differences. With Scandinavian design, it’s less about the space itself, and more about how you live within it. It’s cozier, with a focus on making the space comforting and welcoming. The Scandinavian design makes use of natural textures and materials to create a space that’s pleasant and livable. Its palette is neutral, very much based on white and grey, with plenty of natural light. It’s simple but elegant, so it doesn’t get messy quickly and it’s pragmatic.

The minimalist design makes use of materials and geometric forms, always keeping in mind the concept of open space. Furthermore, it favors white and black color schemes. It emphasizes simplicity and function in furniture.

The chief difference between minimalism and Scandinavian design lies in the materials. While it makes use of metals like stainless steel, chrome, and lacquered plastics, the Scandinavian design relies on organic materials like wood, hemp, and woven. Still, both styles focus on banning clutter.

how Minimalism Started

The term minimalism was only associated with a way of living far after the minimalist movement emergence in different forms of art. After that, it became more and more famous in architecture and design until it finally became a type of lifestyle.

Yet, it’s not easy to pinpoint the origin of minimalism in a timeline.

The word “minimalism” has been around for quite some time. It was used by the artists and architects in the early 20th century who participated in a movement called De Stijl, which was founded in the Netherlands in the wake of World War I.

In the United States, minimalism started to show its form in the 60s, after World War II. European artistic movements influenced the American counterculture. Like in Europe, visual arts, music, films, and literature changed. The previously established dogmas became obsolete and minimalism emerged. Minimalism in visual art, music, film, and literature was, thus, a Western movement in which painters, musicians, filmmakers, and writers adopted the minimalist style for many reasons, from reactions to former movements to matters of aesthetics and style. For example, painters reacted to Abstract Expressionism and musicians reacted to a complex and sophisticated style of modern music.

Japanese influence and the Zen Philosophy

We can consider Minimalist design to be the origin of minimalism as a lifestyle worldwide because minimalism in art goes back to the Zen philosophy. In fact, about five hundred years before the De Stijl movement, Zen artists in Japan were already applying minimalism concepts in Zen arts, most known in a form of Zen garden (kare-sansui). In turn, the Zen philosophy influenced Japanese architecture and design, which influenced the West. Its visually appealing aspects tied to clean lines and open flow of movement (or, in other words, organization and freedom) drew the attention of people in general. Moreover, the Japanese culture manipulates the Zen culture into aesthetic and design elements for their buildings and for their way of living.

Zen Philosophy

The Zen concepts in Japanese architecture have influenced Western culture since the mid-1700s.

Zen was tied to arts, and minimalist movements started as an art movement. The Zen philosophy places value on simplicity as a way to achieve inner freedom, focusing on the essence of living. Zen simplicity has a moral perception that looks into the nature of truth and reveals the inner qualities and essence of materials and objects. (1) The key principles are finding value in simple forms of nature (wabi-sabi), emptiness, which calls for large open spaces that force contemplation (ma), and stillness, a state achieved through meditation (seijaku). (2) These enforce tranquility and balance.

zen-philosophy

The Japanese architecture, design – well, the whole Japanese culture – is very much based on this philosophy. Japanese homes are designed according to the ‘more is less’ rule of minimalism, giving space to meditation and liberty.

Japanese home design is also a matter of common sense. Japan is a constant victim of earthquakes. The less clutter you have, the less likely it is for you to get hit in the head by something or get stuck underneath some cabinet.

Furthermore, Zen philosophy essences based on “less” or “least” influenced various types of Japanese traditional arts, from haikutraditional architectureflower arrangementbonsai, tea ceremony, noh theater, ukiyo-e to kintsugi.

Even when it comes to food, the most known dish from Japanese cuisine, sushi, is a simplistic one. It’s one of those foods that seem very unsubstantial but ends up being very satiating.

Minimalism and consumerism

In the Western, minimalism emerges a reaction to the consumerist mentality that began in the Industrial Revolution. Overproduction and advertisements made to manipulate the audience have left the general public saturated. People have realized that they were buying too much stuff, consequently cluttering their houses, emptying their bank accounts and creating their own prisons. The tendency to walk away from uncontrolled capitalism has grown all over the world. But the minimalist lifestyle isn’t making its way just into Western houses. It’s also entering in Eastern houses, namely in Japan, which sounds ironic. Truth is that with the emergence of capitalism in the United States and the consequent formation of global markets, Japan set aside the Zen principles and engaged in the capitalist system. Nonetheless, as happened in many other countries, the consumerism was making people unhappy and borderline depressed. For this reason, Japan is re-embracing its own old system of principles – the Zen principles.

Minimalism as a lifestyle

The idea – or better, the desire – of reducing what feels as excess to become lighter and freer sprawled to the daily lives of people. These people then decided to transform their life according to the Zen philosophy.

Becoming a minimalist is a lifestyle choice to stop relying on your belongings to pursue happiness. Minimalist arts and design find value and satisfaction in less. Less as emptiness or void gives space to spiritual profundity through contemplation. 

Minimalism as a lifestyle is a practice of awareness about your belongings, time, and energy. It’s not living without possessions in the radical sense but rather making choices by telling the difference between clutter and belongings. The goal is to rank and live in a way that feels fulfilling and genuine.

origin-of-minimalism

All of our belongings require time, energy, and money. With minimalism, we learn to manage our belongings in a way that we own them, not the other way around. It comes down to quality and not quantity. Pursuing “more” is a common approach to the quest for happiness: more money, more belongings, more status, and so on.

But interestingly, an increasing number of people are overwhelmed, stressed, and feeling distracted due to owning so much “stuff.”  Thus, the minimalist movement emerged: minimalists decided to give up excess belongings that caused stress and distraction. Decluttering follows the same path: it forces you to go through your belongings so that you come down only to what you happy.

There’s a scientific way to understand what leads to minimalism, amazingly explained by Interaction Green, by using the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance. The law dictates that our performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When the level of arousal becomes too high, our levels of stress and anxiety increase, decreasing the quality of our performance.

Taking a look at Interaction Green‘s graphic, we see there’s an added red line that represents the number of belongings. If you change the “performance” axis to “ability to feel happy,” and add an undeviating line of “the number of belongings”, you’ll understand what minimalism is really all about. There is an optimal point after which our happiness starts diminishing, even if we keep increasing the number of our belongings. 

Final notes

The aesthetics of Zen/minimalist arts are still very powerful and present today. They keep on inspiring and exciting life with “less,” because the “less is more” philosophy works as a catalyst to achieve profound happiness.

Zen has been pursuing the “optimal point of arousal” mentioned in the Yerkes-Dodson law for thousands of years. While we believed – or were made to believe – a linear connection between happiness and the number of belongings that could lead us to ultimate happiness, Zen philosophers already knew that it’s really the opposite.

Our modern minimalist ways are in sync with the Zen philosophy that inspired the Japanese culture because we are now able to grasp how less is more, that is, how owning less stuff, or decluttering, creates room for our thoughts and introspection.

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