The Sunday Times

Thom Browne 2015

Thom Browne 2015

It was the historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay who coined the term ‘extravagant austerity’ when describing the asceticism of the puritans. Similar could be said of the minimalism being championed nowadays as an antidote to hoarding and consumption. Certainly when you look at the minimalists themselves. Some of whom - I’m sampling Macaulay again -  have a tone of mind  'often injured by striving after things too high for mortal reach’. For minimalists tend to be tech and web entrepreneurs. They’ve made their billions and cash has left a few of them feeling uncomfortable, even though their wealth is a perk of the goal they pursued rather than the goal itself.  Firstly, there are those whose lifestyles reflect the simplicity of their product. The late Steve Jobs cornered this one. The co-founder of Apple lived a sofa-free adult life and spent every day of it in the same Issey Miyake polo neck. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, forever in the same style of t-shirt, embraces sartorial minimalism to liberate himself from unnecessary decisions. He and Jack Dorsey - co-founder of Twitter - are  striving after things too high for mortal etc.  Zuckerberg has said: 'I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything, except how to best serve this community’.  ( The Facebook followers that document the minutiae of their lives online.) It’s been said of Dorsey -  a ‘minimalist' even as a child, when he opted for the smallest bedroom of his siblings  -  he wants to make the world a fairer, kinder and nicer place. Dorsey’s masterwork is a paean to minimalism. How perfect that a child with a speech impediment, who became a man of few words - according to those that meet with him - should create Twitter: 140 characters in which to signal virtues, flag status, and then add a hashtag to bring in back-up.  With one click #blacklivesmatter and refugees are welcome. In seconds you’re a contender -  and the world knows it. If Jack Dorsey hopes to make that world a fairer place, there are others that hope minimalism will make it a happier one. 

They are spearheading a movement intent on liberating us from the shackles of maximalism.  A move that is proving more lucrative than the schemes that brought them troublesome filthy lucre in the first place. Theirs is a credo that fills books, blogs and TED Talks - where every manifesto is guaranteed a captive audience. Graham Hill, 45, CEO of the website Life Edited leads the field. He practices the minimalism he preaches: 'I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did’. But it’s 'The Minimalists’ themselves - Joshua Fields Milburn, Ryan Nicodemus -  the men behind the eponymous website that has 4 million followers, and the authors of best-seller ‘Everything That Remains’, that have become the Wesleyans of the movement taking the message on the road. 

Late last year they pitched their minimalist spiel to a young British audience. The venue was the perfect backdrop: Testbed 1 in Battersea, the ‘distressed’ warehouse and former dairy ripped and stripped by architect Will Alsop. The peeling walls, the abundance of light and absence of windows, the fractured concrete floor gave the impression that something underground - a resistance? - or illicit was happening. The kind of subteranean set-up where you might watch dog-fighting or witness waterboarding, after arrivingin the boot of a car. The only signs of modernity and consumerism the iPads and iPhones documenting the proceedings -  by way of Twitter, Vine, Instagram - in the palms of the people present. Each of them open to the possibility of being cast as a Henry David Thoreau of the digital age. (Am I alone in  thinking Walden Pond with wi-fi?). They were embracing a new form of acquisitiveness. They wanted everything The Minimalists have. In short - nothing.

They wanted it because the34-year old authors have found happiness and liberation. Here’s how it came about: They were friends back there in Ohio with high-powered jobs and six-figure incomes.  'I found minimalism after two great losses,' says Joshua Fields Milburn. ‘My mother died and my marriage ended both in the same month. Minimalism allowed me to get the excess out of the way and re-prioritize my life so I could focus on what was truly important: health, relationships, passions, growth, contribution’. Milburn jettisoned 90 per cent of everything he owned over a period of eight months. He tells me: 'Some of us embrace minimalism to reclaim control of our finances (I was six-figures in debt), our health (I weighed 80 pounds more than I weigh now), our mission, our community, our families, etc. The best way to convince someone to become a minimalist is to show them the benefits that apply to them, and then let them decide whether they want to simplify their life'.  Seeing a change for the better in his friend’s new found freedom, Nicodemus divested himself of almost everything too. Like Thoreau, the pair took themselves off to a cabin. (The wired cabin  is taking over the compact city studio as the home of choice for the 21st century tech-savvy minimalist.  The co-founder of video-sharing website Vimeo, Zach Klein, this month publishes a book that pays tribute to this entitled Cabin Porn. ) They documented their story and their philosophy in a blog, books, and now the documentary Minimalism released next spring. With a programme that brings to mind the 12 steps of AA, The Minimalists offer a 21 day journey to free you from your possessions; to get you clean. So what did the British make of it?  'Ultimately, what we learned from the folks in the UK is that, whether we're American or British, young or old, rich or poor, we're all fundamentally searching for the same thing: we want to live a more deliberate, meaningful life’. It’s a line that echoes the modernist architect Adolf Loos who believed that freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.

But it’s an approach that isn’t entirely new. Back in the 1930s one Richard Clegg advanced his philosophy of ‘voluntary simplicity’ as an antidote to the burgeoning consumerism that threatened to brainwash the masses. A far cry from the turbo-charged consumption of the present, in which hoarding is cast as the new obesity. Oddly, it was the depression era in America, with similar occurring on these shores before the gear shifted to austerity and rationingin the post-war years. The generation borne of that experience became our parents and we became akin to the avaricious 1970s adolescent in the Jim Shepard short story ‘The Mortality of Parents’: ‘Money dictates our children-of-the-Depression parents’ mantra, the bottom-line creed by which they live: If it’s good enough for me’. At the close of the story, now a middle-aged man in the 21st century he asks: ‘When exactly did their It’s good enough for me become our I need more? How did we let this happen?'  These are the questions that occupy Graham Hill. 

Here’s someone that had the midas touch when it came to money-making.  He made his millions selling sites like Treehugger - his attempt at striving for things beyond mortal reach by saving the planet. Life Edited was his attempt to save himself.  After travelling the globe with his girlfriend he woke up, looked around his beautiful house, and like a character in a Talking Heads song asked - How did I get here? The charge levelled at Hill is a familiar one: kicking out the stuff is an easy stance to take when you’re rich.  It’s difficult to get rid of everything when you have nothing. And some people just might want the opportunity, the experience of having possessions before giving them up. When Hill laid out his story in the New York Times there was a backlash: 'In a majestic display of guileless narcissism, Hill, an Internet multimillionaire, congratulates himself for downsizing his life and getting rid of all the stuff—the homes and cars and gadgets and sectional sofas and $300 sunglasses—he accumulated over the past decade’. I’d argue that there is a paradox here - and not entirely a new one - whereby the modern ‘progressive' wants to return us to some idyllic, pre-industrial utopian past that never was. What distinguishes the likes of Hill, Klein and Milburn from the Richard Cleggs of the past is the reliance on 21st century technology.  'The modern version of minimalism, tries to objectify our objects’, says David Friedlander, 39, Director of Communications a Life Edited. 'Technology is neither good nor bad. It’s a tool. So the big question becomes “Am I using this technology - this smartphone, this app, this whatever - to enable me to connect with my life or am I using it to take me away from it?" Take Facebook. I can use it to connect with people or I can spend four hours watching cat videos. Facebook isn’t the problem. How I use it is'.

This approach further echoes the European modernists that had specific ideas of how the common herd should live - but now it’s more about sustainability than aesthetics. All those foreign theories about the house as a machine, ornament as a crime, and less is more . As Tom Wolfe writes in The Me Generation: ‘They had things figured out for the woking man down to truly minute details, such as lamp switches. The new liberated working man would live as the Cultivated Ascetic’. But of course the aspirant prole took off to the suburbs or customised his abode when he got the opportunity. Not only did he not embrace asceticism, but his idea of aesthetics was an affront to those that believed themselves to be the arbiters of good taste.  Which is how minimalists often see themselves.  ‘The members of every socioeconomic bracket can and do deluge themselves with products’, according to Graham Hill. By which he means the ‘wrong’ products. People spend less on more by buying cheap and in bulk, discarding it, and forking out for the next lot of stuff. 'If anything, people with fewer resources, especially those with less money, can benefit most from minimalism’, Milburn believes, 'because a minimalist lifestyle helps people determine what truly adds value to their lives — what things actually serve a purpose and bring joy’. Yes, but again, maybe people need to be shallow and rich before settling for the virtues of extravagant austerity.

Although some of us simply missed out the middle man. We didn’t become billionaires and our minimalism was instinctive from the word go. It remained with us partly from necessity, partly as a way of finding a clearing in the chaos of life and taking control.  Or is having less simply a better way of dealing with loss? If we can live without a kettle and a sofa, maybe we can cope better when losing the big stuff - hair, family, home, faculties. The less we have the less we fear losing. Like Jack Dorsey, I was a child minimalist. My parents never had to tell me to clean my room because I was always throwing things out. This morphed into an asceticism in adult years that is dramatically monastic: one-pot stove-top cooking, one white plate, one white bowl, one white cup, one knife, one fork, a single bed, two chairs. The absence of cutlery and crockery leaves no reason to entertain at home. While Jack Dorsey’s credo that ‘constraint inspires creativity’ applies to cooking with a single pot. It’s possible to take on ghoulash, kedgeree, cassoulet, and an adaptation of Julia Childs boeuf bourguignon. Time was when I allowed an ironing board to double as a dinner table - and later, a writing desk. Perhaps the Pet Shop Boys put it best in the track ‘Minimal': ‘a cell without a criminal’.  In hindsight I was anticipating the future. Because the future back then - when our depression-era parents were in their it’s-good-enough-for-me mode - was simple and minimal. Where everything we needed would be contained in a device on our wrists or in the palm of our hands; where we’d live in clinical all-white cabins where everything was operated by remote control. Now that future has arrived and it’s all we expected to be - and more.

But inevitably there’s a downside. Some argue that possessions have become a symbol of poverty and minimalism the preserve of a wealthy elite. ‘A modernist monastery where the religion is Apple itself’, was the charge levelled by one critic. I don’t entirely agree. The consumption ofthe minimalist is simply less conspicuous - even though suitably aesthetic. As technology becomes smaller and smaller it contains more and more apps that are less and less essential. While this ambition to continually modify our tiny technologies is  the anthesis of the oh-so English minimalism championed by the architect John Pawson way back in the 1990s, before the internet and Apple became the giants they are today. In his book ‘Minimum’ he writes: ‘The minimum is the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve on it by subtraction’.