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Does minimalism matter?

Does minimalism matter?

It has been the defining style of our era, but now it’s in retreat. Stephen Bayley works out whether less will soon be no more

It has been the defining style of our era, but now it’s in retreat. Stephen Bayley works out whether less will soon be no more

Stephen Bayley | Autumn 2010

Last June I shared a cab with Grayson Perry, one of Britain’s best-known artists. He had just returned from the Basel art fair, where he had been struck by something. “Everything is now happening all at once,” he told me with a roll of the eyes. There was no longer a ruling style or taste, no common agreement on what is avant-garde and what is retrograde. Today the happening thing is just what is happening. We have reached the end of “isms”.

Minimalism was the last, and most curious, ism of all. The late 20th and early 21st centuries were peculiarly receptive to its poetics of purity—in architecture, in art, in food, in design. This autumn it receives what might be either its coronation or its obituary. “Plain Space” is the title of both an exhibition at the Design Museum in London, and a book by its subject, John Pawson—the elegant Old Etonian architect who, more than anyone, turned a cerebral art-world cult into a deluxe style for the stratum of society where fastidious aestheticism meets high net worth.

The exhibition is not, Pawson insists, a retrospective, but an account of work-in-progress. Still, when estate agents are touting properties as “minimalist-style”, you suspect that the vitality of this ism may have left the building. Was minimalism the last absurd, exhausted spasm of neophilia, the cult of the new that so defined modern taste? Or is it still, and will it remain, the ultimate refinement of aesthetic sensibility: the place we go when we have been everywhere else? The answer to both questions is yes.

In one sense, minimalism had a beginning and end as (nearly) precise as the beginning and end of, say, baroque or pre-Raphaelitism. German architects first used the term “Existenzminimum”—referring to low-cost social housing—in the mid-1920s. The term “minimal art” first appeared circa 1965. Journalists writing about interior design began mentioning minimalism in the mid-1980s. But, unlike baroque or the pre-Raphaelites, the minimal aesthetic has been a continuous element in European culture. It’s been with us in some form since the fifth century BC, when Socrates declared that a well-made dung bucket was better than a poorly made gold shield.

In the 18th century architectural theorists such as Carlo Lodoli—creator of the sternly beautiful Pilgrim’s Hospice in Venice—began to play with the idea of “functionalism”: that buildings must not be compromised by decoration. This idea that architecture must be driven by its function would later dominate the Modern Movement of the early 20th century. Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner, H.P. Berlage, Bruno Taut, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier all, in their different ways, stressed the importance of utility and their abhorrence of decoration. Loos entitled an essay “Ornament and Crime”. Le Corbusier studied aircraft and cars, before stating in 1923 that a house should be a simple “machine for living in”. Even Wittgenstein was at it. In 1928 he built a house on Vienna’s Parkgasse, designing every detail with a severe functionalist authority. Created for the gods, it is now the Bulgarian Cultural Institute.

Minimalism’s origins at the very beginning of organised European thought lend it lasting intellectual respectability. Yet its later 20th-century exponents—the sculptors Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, the architects Tadao Ando, Peter Zumthor and Pawson himself—disliked being described as minimalists. This denial is one of minimalism’s many paradoxes; another is that minimalism is not, as its name implies, simple, restricted and ascetic. Rather it is wide-ranging, engaging and nuanced: look at the absurd extremism and occult spirituality of the Bruder Klaus chapel in Switzerland, where Zumthor built a wooden structure, surrounded it with concrete, and then set fire to the core. The result is thrilling and beautiful. Similarly, nothing is quite so striking as the fearless spareness of a minimalist interior, with its repertoire of shadow gaps and perfect flush surfaces.

Nor, when it comes to buildings, is minimalism cheap. It costs a fortune to make things look simple. Flock wallpaper, scatter cushions, swags, sconces and escutcheons are convenient ways to disguise nasty constructional flaws or shoddy materials. Minimalism offers no such refuge. Your waxed white plaster walls and black macassar ebony floors are expensive to create (usually aligned by laser) and to maintain. If there is dirt in a minimalist house, it is tragically obvious. If living with less is the ultimate pose of the very rich, it can also be difficult to use.

A strict-observance minimalist interior has appliances—if it has appliances at all—by Dieter Rams, whose pursuit of stripped-back excellence reached its apogee in domestic machines that were simply white, or black, boxes. The food-mixer Rams designed for Braun in 1957 was a near-perfect exercise in Platonic form: sculptural, disciplined, fuss-free. But when you take the perfect Platonic form into the kitchen, you get cake-mix and shredded carrot all over it. (In 1980 I interviewed Rams for a television programme. Sitting in his office near Frankfurt, he told me that design must be like “ze goot English butler”—ever-present, but inconspicuous. To show how his signature grey or white interiors allowed the vivid colours of nature to sing out, he eyeballed the camera and gestured dramatically at a bowl of tulips behind him. They were white.)

Contrarily—again—pure minimalism makes few concessions to function. One London restaurant with a splendidly minimalist men’s room discovered, by unfortunate trial and error, that customers found it difficult to “read” what was what and, in an urgent retro-fit, it had to label its thrillingly discreet features with helpful instructions: “WC”, “tap”, “basin”. It is said that the late Joseph Ettedgui—who sold rails of minimal little black dresses at his Joseph shops—wrapped in white paper every book in his library. They looked beautiful, but were impossible to identify. Convenience and logic are not chapter headings in “The Minimalist Handbook”.

John Pawson readily accepts minimalism’s inherent contradictions. Sometimes I suspect he even cultivates them. I fondly recall the moment when, in order to install some long planks of Douglas fir in his own living room, he had—not at all frugally—to take the roof off his house, hire a crane, and shut down the street for several days. But then no one else has been so inspired a channeller of minimalism’s spirit.

We first met in 1981 at Terence Conran’s design studios. I worked there; he was a young man in the lobby who showed me his drawings while waiting to meet Conran. I immediately liked what I saw. In John Pawson is all the componentry of minimalism. Le style est l’homme: he tends to wear the same outfit of black suede Gucci loafers, chinos, white shirt and off-white cable-knit cashmere sweater. Some critics—and Pawson has several—find this affected, but he simply says that a uniform cuts out the fuss. “Some people are dreaming about what they have not got,” he once told me. “I am trying to forget what I have already had.”

Pawson’s inspirations are as layered as minimalism itself. In his 20s, escaping his family’s Yorkshire textile business and a failed relationship, he went to live in Japan. He apprenticed himself to an austere Japanese designer, Shiro Kuramata, who taught him both the tricks of the cabinet-maker’s trade, such as shadow-gaps, and the philosophy of wabi-sabi, the untranslatable concept that evokes the mysterious essence of things. Back in Britain by 1979, aged 30, Pawson enrolled in architecture school, and became close to both the writer Bruce Chatwin and the contemporary-art dealer Hester van Royen. In 1983 van Royen helped Pawson land a commission to create a new space for Waddington Galleries—so adding direct contact with the minimalist art of Judd, Flavin and Andre to the twin influences of Chatwin’s romantic primitivism and Kuramata’s aesthetic discipline.

For years Pawson worked hard to establish himself, sometimes falling out with clients when they failed to share his own high standards, but still creating a sequence of potently beautiful restaurants, galleries and private houses. These included the Neuendorf House in Majorca, which Pawson calls an “empty cube within a cube”, and the white-walled London flat he converted for van Royen, through which a black floor flows like water.

In 1995 Pawson designed the magnificent Calvin Klein store in New York, all limestone and glass. In 1996 he built a branch of Jigsaw on New Bond Street in London that was a pop song of praise to Cistercian monasteries.  In 2005 came the Baron House, a private holiday home in southern Sweden, simple but powerful. In 2006 he built the Sackler Crossing, bridging a central lake at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew with a sinuous ribbon of bronze, steel and granite that contrasts with nature while also being at one with it. Perhaps the most visited of his buildings are Cathay Pacific’s first- and business-class lounges at Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong, opened in 1998. But the most important is his monastery at Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic—a superlative realisation of Cistercian design principles, commissioned by a group of Trappist monks in 2004 after they saw pictures of the Calvin Klein store in a book of Pawson’s work. It’s no coincidence that Pawson is the only architect ever to have built both a monastery and an airport: these are places, and designs, that define our moment and its ambivalent possibilities.

Philip Johnson, the architect who was New York’s most influential tastemaker in the second half of the 20th century, used to say that the great thing about minimalism is that it was easy to copy. It has certainly been much imitated. A minimalist kitchen—the kind where a solitary pepper sits on an unbroken limestone worksurface—is today’s default interiors option, available for £150,000 from a German manufacturer, or £1,500 from a DIY store. Cynical hoteliers and me-too loft-developers sell mere emptiness and no-budget-for-furniture as entry-level minimalism. The most important product of recent years, the iPod, is a perfect little essay in minimalist design—everything is hidden, subordinated to a ruthless formal perfectionism. The Apple Store, with 295 branches at the last count, has taken the limestone-and-glass look around the world.

So there is some truth in the view that minimalism turned what was once flagged as art’s final solution into merely a slick style. But it doesn’t matter if one day Elle Decor and Wallpaper* forget about it, as they will. John Pawson will not be deterred. He designs not for fashion, but from compulsion. It may be an absurd vanity to strive, as the Cistercians did, for timeless perfection, but as vanities go, it is an admirable one. Pawson is incapable of clumsiness. His minimalism proves that simple is not the same as commonplace.

Indeed, “simplicity is the final achievement”, as Frédéric Chopin wrote. “After one has played a vast quantity of notes…it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Minimalism takes Occam’s Razor to mess. It is a grandiose aesthetic of tidying up the world’s visual noise and material clutter. I was saying this to Pawson one day, stroking the secret cupboard doors in his London flat with an appreciative hand, when a touch-latch sprang open and out poured a torrent of cushions, toys, CDs and old magazines. Great art and great artifice are only two syllables apart.

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