“All great ages have left a record of themselves in their styles of building. Why should we not try to find a style for ourselves?” — Karl Schinkel
Have you noticed how much of the world now looks like an Apple store?
Blue Bottle Coffee is the ultimate example. With white walls and wood countertops, every non-essential item has been removed in the name of efficiency. Retail products rest on bamboo shelves on the edges of the store. Like Apple, Blue Bottle uses the theatrical tactic of hanging its giant logo in the store without the clutter of the company name below it. Noise is dampened with tall ceilings instead of soft surfaces. To make the space as airy as possible, every non-essential piece of furniture has been removed.
The architect Paul Frankl once said that “Style is an external expression of the inner spirit of the time.”
Minimalism is the defining style of our age because it represents utility and efficiency, two of the virtues we treasure most. According to Google data, minimalism peaked in 2007 right with the invention of the iPhone.¹ The rise of minimalism reflects the shape of technological progress during its ascent: in the past 40 years, we’ve hidden as much complexity as possible and watched computers swallow a number of physical objects. In the Microsoft ecosystem, paper became Word, slides became PowerPoint and mail became Outlook. But as objects magically ascended into “the cloud” and technology abstracted the complexity of how things worked, skeuomorphism went out of style. Apple’s ethos of smaller and thinner bled into the design of society. Apple doubled down on minimalism when Steve Jobs realized that the loudest keynote “wows” came from the combination of smaller products and faster computing speeds—futuristic hyper-minimalism, sometimes at the expense of usability. I kept my 2014 MacBook for six years because it had so many ports that Apple removed in later versions, which forced users to travel with so many dongles that connecting them all made your computer look like a power plant.
The problem with minimalism is that it’s boring. Not Apple, with its tasteful balance of wood and glass. But the flood of copycats who’ve copied its design have none of Apple’s feng shui. Contemporary minimalism lacks the flair of the energy that inspires people. Now, minimalism isn’t a bold statement, but rather the path of least resistance, where everything that could stir up a fight is removed. Now that its original design philosophy has played out, there’s nothing novel about it anymore. Minimalism has reached its dead end.
In that way, minimalism reminds me of late-stage modernism.
The Modernists believed that form should follow function. Though their buildings were as ugly as minimalism is boring, the Modernists saw beauty in them because they were cheap, and therefore egalitarian. Like today’s minimalists, they criticized ornamentation and focused only on the essentials. But like minimalism, modernism was cold and uninviting. In the end, it repelled people.
The gold standard of modernism, at least in theory, was the Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, conceived as an “oasis in the desert.” Architectural Digest called the proposal “the best high apartment of the year.” To manufacture equality among residents, the elevators only stopped at the 1st, 4th, 7th, and 11th floors—that would reduce congestion by forcing residents to use the stairs. To create camaraderie, those same floors had communal laundry rooms, garbage chutes, and public gathering spaces. But that paradise was a pipe dream. The world turned against the concrete towers that the Modernists had once pushed for, and local residents kept away from it due to high crime rates. So many people moved out that almost half of the buildings were boarded up by 1971, and five years later, all 33 buildings were demolished. In retrospect, the Pruitt-Igoe mirrors the rise and fall of modernism.
Modernism’s collapse is a reminder that total efficiency is for robots. It was inspired by a noble and egalitarian vision of the future whose reality was as hostile as its vision was inspiring. From it, we learn that humans want to live in a world decorated by color and pattern. A world without ornamentation is as bland as soup without spice—and humans want spice.
Art Deco was spicy. In contrast to Le Corbusier’s focus on utility and the order of straight lines, Art Deco spoke in a vocabulary of maximalism: chevrons, zigzags, wings, geometric designs, and stylized bouquets of flowers. Fashionable in the era of Gatsby, it represented luxury, exuberance, and faith in technological progress.²
The modernists believed Art Deco celebrated wealth to the point of decadence. Even if it did, it spurred technological growth by making people believe that on the ground, transportation would shatter speed records while airplanes dashed through the skies above them.
It inspired ambition and a dose of productive hubris. New Yorkers, for example, wanted to build an airship station at the top of the Empire State Building. The group of investors behind it wanted it to rise higher than the adjacent Chrysler Building, and when they learned that they needed an extra 200 feet, they dreamed up a docking station at the apex. The docking station would have been above the 102nd floor of the building, where it would have welcomed passengers from faraway lands like Europe and South America.³ But in this instance, ambition did not triumph over practicality. The winds were too strong, and the landings required too much manpower.
While designers were dreaming of the sky, others were painting on the ground. When I lived in New York, exploring the lobbies of skyscrapers was one of my favorite daytime activities. They were defined by magnificent murals that celebrated flight, speed, and technological might. They sang with dazzling colors, Aztec-inspired motifs, and ceilings that outlined the history of communication. Each told a different story, which often reflected the building’s core tenant.
The Chrysler Building was funded by Walter Chrysler, the head of the Chrysler car company, so the lobby was made to impress automobile magnates. The lobby honors the machine age with a mural named “Transport and Human Endeavor,” which pays homage to “energy and man’s application of it to the solution of his problems.” On it, you’ll find airplanes like The Spirit of St. Louis and a muscled giant who builds in the name of mechanical triumphs.⁴
What’s After Minimalism?
Mid-20th century modernism died because it was as lifeless as contemporary minimalism. The new lobbies in New York all seem to have the same granite walls, the same glass doors, and the same abstract art in the lobbies. None of them stand for anything and they all share the same Airport-like aesthetic. Unlike Art Deco, they say nothing about the contemporary world or the stories of the people who built them.
For the past couple months, I’ve been living in a maximalist Airbnb. Each piece of art tells the story of its eclectic owner, who’s been collecting items for the past two decades. The similarities with minimalism end with the exposed plumbing and the factory-floor steel that supports the house.
As I walk through this home, I see masks from Indonesia, a typewriter that looks like something my grandpa used to use, enough arts & crafts materials to support a third-grade classroom, pillows in every color of the rainbow, a red and green Persian carpet, Tiger paintings from southern India, a Mancala game set, an eyes-closed buddhist statue, and collectibles from a coffee table made out of six tree trunks. Each item is an instrument, and the full orchestra is playing in harmony. It takes talent to bring all that stuff together, and that in itself makes the space feel more human.
A friend once told me that depression isn’t feeling negative things; it’s feeling nothing at all. If that’s true, we shouldn’t be surprised that minimalism is the aesthetic of our age of depression.
After minimalism, I imagine a world where creators can express their style as confidently as people express their personality in the company of loved ones. I imagine a world lit up by shapes and colors that glitter with rhythm and sing with significance. And I imagine an aesthetic that abolishes the homogeneity of contemporary design and injects the world with visions of a better tomorrow.
Like Art Deco, it should have an eschatology of progress.
¹ Minimalism peaked for a second time in 2014, right after the launch of a documentary called “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.”
² In its era, the Art Deco style was known as “Modern Classic” or “Streamline Moderne.”
³ Ambition always lives at the frontier. Sometimes, it transcends what’s realistic. Art Deco inspired ordinary folk to fantasize about a wondrous tomorrow. But today, it’s hard to find exciting visions of the future. In seems humans are rarely inspired by immaterial visions of the future, in part because we’ve evolved to get excited about things we can see and touch. When something feels out of control, we assume the worst which is why we feel such pessimism about what the world of tomorrow will hold. Virtual reality is clouded by the dystopia of Ready Player One, the fear of iRobot, and the apocalypse of I Am Legend.
⁴ Even Le Corbusier, the eventual father of modernism celebrated New York’s energy: “New York has such courage and enthusiasm that everything can be begun again, sent back to the building yard and made into something still greater, something mastered!”
Thanks to my writing coach Ellen Fishbein for working on this essay with me.