Esquire's Big Black Book


I was unaware of it at the time, but I opted for the ‘voluntary simplicity’ championed by the social philosopher Richard Clegg in the 1930s as a teenager in a 1970s home stacked with stuff. This included ephemeral gadgets (‘As advertised on TV’) and furniture passed down for generations and harboured by parents with a post-war make-and-mend mentality (‘It’s good enough for us’). There were the keepsakes bought on seaside beanos, and the talismen believed to bring luck: a horseshoe, a shillelagh. It wasn’t simply that the stuff was overwhelming but that it related to the past. In a bleak season of platforms shoes and power cuts - heels were higher than hopes - some of us were preoccupied with the future. At least those of us that believed the future would be minimalist. The clues were there in the designs of Dieter Rams, the award-winning interiors from Kubrick's 2001, and its poor relation - those clunky television series that convinced us the 21st century would be metallic wigs and foil tabards.  That was tomorrow, in those days.

Nearby, the promise of the future belonged to a failed vision from the past. Evident in the sprawling brutalist estates that were a blot on the landscape of south London. European modernism was the impulse behind these doomed monoliths. Concepts that flourished during a decade when Clegg was evangelical about voluntary simplicity, and the foreign fun boy three - architects Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Adolf Loos - were arguing that less is always more. Back then minimalism was intended for the masses. A means of creating functional, uniform abodes that were machines for living.  As Tom Wolfe once wrote: ‘Worker Housing would be liberated from all wallpaper, ‘drapes’, Wilton rugs with flowers on them, lamps with fringed shades and bases that looked like vases or Greek columns. It would be cleansed of doilies, knickknacks, mantlepieces, headboards, and radiator covers’.  But as soon as they had the opportunity the workers opted for stuff, as surely as they later plumped for home ownership in the suburbs. Eagerly they customised their houses. Some shelled out for a horseshoe and a shillelagh. 

Unlike Clegg’s voluntary simplicity my minimalism had little to do with sustainability and anti-materialism. It was a method of creating a clearing in the chaos. Taking control and keeping order. Perhaps even a way of dealing with loss: what you don’t have you don’t always miss. Maybe such stoicism would make it easier when it came to losing the big things in life - hair,  family, faculties. With age the minimalism has become refined. It’s a stance akin to Major Scobie in Graham Greene’s ‘The Heart Of The Matter’.  Whereas other men built up a home by accumulation, Scobie built his ‘by a process of reduction’. Didn't the Pet Shop Boys put it best in the track ‘Minimal’, when they sang of a  a cell without a criminal? I have even less than Greene’s protagonist: one plate, one cup, one bowl, one pot. A single bed. A desk. Two chairs and - like Le Corbusier and Steve Jobs - no sofa. But this is not solely about asceticism - aestheticism is paramount. I adhere to the Rams belief that only well-executed objects can be beautiful.  The crockery is good white bone china. The desk as slick and Finnish as any in the offices of  fictional ad men at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on Madison Avenue’s gold coast. 'Buy once, buy well’  has become more of a mantra than a motto.

But back to the future. It arrived. It was almost everything that George Jetson promised. It was stark white rooms, it was instruments on our wrists and within our hands that allowed us to dispense with the possessions accrued in adolescence and carted into adulthood: records, tapes, paperbacks, CDs, Videos, DVDs. We no longer even needed a television, a lifestyle staple as synonymous with the modern home as the sofa. Ultimately the future came by way of Apple in simplistic, exquisitely designed gadgets that owed a debt to Dieter Rams. The company’s co-founder - Steve Jobs again - lived a sofa-free adult life and spent every day in a black Issey Miyake polo neck. Minimalism is the religion of  tech billionaires.  Sartorially, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg embraces the faith - the groundhog day grey t-shirt - to liberate himself from too many decisions.  Twitter is a paen to minimalism, in which  the complexities of the world are reduced to a hashtag and a 140 characters.  According to its creator Jack Dorsey, restraint inspires creation. This is axiomatic to the minimalists among us. As is the 1990s credo of architect John Pawsom: ‘The minimum is the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve on it by subtraction’. 

Where the billionaires went others have followed of late. Each one a Thoreau of the modern age, documenting their experiences in Ted talks and websites such as Life Edited. Some are attempting to return themselves and their ipads to an idyllic, prelapsarian past that is as mythical as the futuristic utopia those European modernists were banking on. I guess we’re talking Walden pond with wi-fi.  The wired cabin has taken 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, published a book that pays tribute to this trend entitled 'Cabin Porn'. The Minimalists themselves - the duo behind the eponymous website, book and documentary - briefly existed in a cabin in the woods, having jettisoned big homes, big incomes, and big stuff. ‘We want to live a more deliberate, meaningful life’, they announced. It’s a line that chimes with Adolf Loos who believed freedom from ornament was a sign of spiritual strength.

Somehow this recent trend smacks of the ‘extravagant austerity’ the Puritans were once accused of. The term ‘luxury’ is now being redefined to return it to something associated with scarcity, elitism, wealth in an era of cheap, bulk buying. Cynics argue that possessions have become a symbol of poverty and minimalism the preserve of a rich elite.  Although some of us simply missed out the middle man. We didn’t become billionaires and our minimalism was there from the off in that desperate bid to plough a furrow in the chaos that surrounded us.  We've always had the luxury the tech billionaires and their fellow travellers now desire.  In a word, nothing.