The Minimalism Trend is Not So Simple
When you hear the word “minimalism,” I’m sure a few key things come to mind — chic white button-downs and black slacks, fresh Stan Smith Adidas that make for good contrast against concrete, grid-patterned bags from ASOS, the sparsely decorated but still luxurious high-rise apartments of your wildest Pinterest dreams.
But for a lot of people, minimalism isn’t about things. It’s about getting rid of them.
Apart from characterizing art, the term “minimalism” is used to describe the practice of living simply. This involves purging your house of unneeded goods and carefully considering what it is you truly need in life.
Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who run an eponymous blog and podcast called “The Minimalists,” consider minimalism “a tool that can assist you in finding freedom.” Their belief is that minimalism can free us from “the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around.”
Regina Wong, a London contemporary of Millburn and Nicodemus, says there are many ways to be a minimalist.
“It’s a way of life where you focus on what’s really important and what adds value, and getting rid of the rest of the stuff,” Wong said. “And by ‘the stuff,’ one can mean physical possessions, mindsets, behaviors, habits, relationships, commitments.”
This is something Wong explores on her blog, Live Well With Less, and in her book, “Make Space: A Minimalist’s Guide to the Good and Extraordinary” which serves as a starting point for budding practitioners.
Wong’s journey started about three years ago when she came across the quote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or to believe to be beautiful.” This set a months-long process in motion for Wong. She realized she was unhappy with her job, then came across a TV program about hoarders.
“That was like, ‘Oh my God!’” Wong explained. “Looking at my old place, it wasn’t anything like that. But that got me looking around my rooms. ‘Oh my God, what can I chuck out?’”
She then started reading the work of minimalist thinkers such as Leo Babuta, which led to her first major declutter session. “I got rid of loads of my possessions. And I think that was the first one. Ever since then —it was about three years ago — I’ve had several million declutters, so on and so forth.”
Since then, Wong has become a leader in the community. When The Minimalists went on tour a few years back, Millburn and Nicodemus wanted to leave something tangible behind in each city. Wong was the Londoner who organized the London Minimalists meet-up group. The goal is to bring people together with screenings, activities, and support.
Minimalist trends have also weaved their way into the U.S.—Naomi Schware, a photographer and videographer based in Syracuse, New York, settled for something different. After being released from active duty in the military, Schware started living out of her truck. It was during her service that she gained a perspective on life outside “our Western bubble.”
“It made me realize that material objects just don’t matter,” Schware said in an email. For the past four years, she's been living as a minimalist. While the lives of her friends and family look very different from her own, Schware said they are supportive.
Everything Schware owns fits in her truck. More than anything, she says, being a minimalist is beneficial for her life. “Being a photographer, I can pack up and move to any location at any time. I also save a lot of money because I spend money on experiences, not things.”
When it comes to backlash, Schware said people have questioned her life choices and thought she was crazy. They also have met her under some less-than-flattering pre-conceived notions.
“People just assume that I’m super dirty because I live in a tent. But then they meet me and realize that I don’t smell bad and are surprised,” Schware explained. “For the most part, they just shrug their shoulders and see it as an adventure.”
It’s hard to peg when the minimalist lifestyle started to gain popularity. As always, analysts are quick to pin the trend on millennials. But the term itself, however different the connotations are today, has been around since the 1920s. It came into use in the 1950s primarily to describe emerging forms of art.
Somewhere between now and then, minimalism became what it is today. It’s not hard to figure out what emerging, global, 20th century force (rhymes with “apitalism”) drove people to this point.
When asked about the differences between American and British minimalism, Wong said there aren’t many. It’s really a matter of urban life versus rural.
“You’re talking about life in the cities, where the majority of the population is quite taken by a very consumption-driven mentality. Where it’s common to have the best, the brightest, the shiniest. Loads of stuff to keep one happy."
“You see people, you know, going to Primark, and carting out bags and bags of stuff,” Wong says for example. Primark is a one-stop shop retailer in London that's a bit like Forever 21 meets HomeGoods.
“And you think, ‘Do they actually need all that stuff?’ It’s probably not that good quality anyway. It’s part of the disposable culture we’re currently going through.”
The only point of difference Wong could point to was the tiny house phenomenon. It’s not that they aren’t a thing in London. To the contrary, a 290-square-foot tiny house in London’s Chelsea neighborhood was up for sale this year. The asking price? £600,000. That’s $780,000.
Wong said, “I think for most Brits, it’s not such a big step out to go live in a tiny house. We have small houses, anyway. For Americans, it’s a big jump.”
While many find comfort and peace in minimalism, others are calling bullshit.
Business journalist Stephanie Land recalls for the New York Times how she used to clean houses to fund her college education and support her daughter. The experience made her understand why people, especially middle- and upper-class Americans, are so keen to declutter. And one could even say she was practicing minimalism because she had to learn how to be happy with less in that period of her life.
But she didn’t want to be happy living with less. Downsizing to a 400-square-foot apartment (the average American apartment is around 990 square feet) wasn’t a decision she made with glee. Neither was getting rid of most of her clothes and childhood nicknacks. Neither was trashing cherished books or artwork she had done over the years.
The premise of minimalism is problematic to begin with, because there’s an assumption there. The audience that is being spoken to has to be middle to upper class. They’re the ones with enough stuff to give.
The Minimalists have responded to this sort of backlash, writing that anti-materialist attitudes can go hand-in-hand with some consumerism. The issue is with the value assigned to things.
“Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that’s wonderful,” the Minimalists write. “Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions more consciously, more deliberately.”
When asked about whether living a minimalist lifestyle is a mark of privilege or way to reject consumerism, Schware agreed it is both. On a personal level, Schware recognizes her privilege.
“As a white woman in our contemporary society, I am blessed by the imbalance of being able to feel as if, no matter what, I will find work somehow somewhere, even if it's washing dishes or flipping burgers,” Schware said. She maintains this belief while also strongly rejecting anti-consumerism.
Wong has tackled the myths about minimalism before. The main point Wong drives home is that minimalism isn’t about deprivation, but joy. For Wong, minimalism is about mindful consumption. And more than that, it’s about mindset.
She explained how the members of her London minimalist groups come from all backgrounds: different demographics, ages and professions. Some of them, she says, probably wouldn’t be considered “well-off.” In the same way, you can say a range in consumption habits across class in greater society.
“You’ve got [Mark] Zuckerberg wearing the same thing every day and he’s a billionaire! And then you’ve got a lot of poor people trying to keep up with the Joneses, really maxing their credit cards to make sure they look good,” Wong pointed out.
Buying what makes you happy and minimalism can co-exist, Wong believes. Again, it’s about joy.
“I think it’s down to the individual at the end of day how you want to live your life and how you want to define minimalism,” Wong said. “On your terms.”