Minimalism’s Natural Habitat
I’ve been thinking about minimalism wrong for a few years now, and it took my first trip to Japan for me to realize it. If you had asked me before my trip, before November of 2019, I would have said that simplicity was the point of minimalism. This sounds like a tautology, because my logic was flawed — I thought simplicity for the sake of simplicity was part of minimalism’s ultimate goal.
There are elements to modern Japanese design that are breath-taking in their simplicity. I’m thinking here of the single perfectly pruned flower in a vase, or the whorls of sand around a stone in a garden, or the striking architecture of a temple gate leading off a city street. I use “breath-taking” because it conjures a feeling of surprise, and that’s part of what I mean. I was surprised by some of the simple beauty that I saw, but the nature of surprise means that what I’m seeing was different than what I expected.
What I came to expect as I wandered Tokyo was not minimalism, but a sensory assault. Tokyo is a city that wants you, the visitor, to buy things, and buy lots of them. Encouraging you to buy requires advertisements. The only ads in Tokyo that are truly minimal are for perfume, and most of those appear to be placed by Western companies. Minimalism is highly present in Tokyo, but in my experience the minimal spaces were the spaces designed as an escape from the life outside. Our hotel room was sparely furnished, and those furnishings were simple. After a day in Tokyo that minimal space, which would have felt like a cloister cell in California, was a welcome relief for our senses. I was surprised by the minimalism in Japan constantly — because it was so different from what my mind became trained to expect.
Minimalism surprises, and minimalism highlights. The element of surprise gets all our senses focused on what the artist is trying to highlight. The simple design of Japanese restaurants focuses attention on the food the chef is preparing. The simple architecture of a home highlights the color and beauty of formal Japanese dress. The crowd and noise and signage of the streets highlights the peace of the temple.
Before Tokyo, I thought about Minimalism wrong because I wasn’t using the simplicity to surprise and highlight. I was advocating for simplicity for the sake of simplicity, with no clear subject to focus on. Minimalism’s natural habitat is in crowd, so that through it’s calmness it can point out what matters most.