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  • Sushmita Charlu

A Mini-mal-practice

Thanks to the internet, designers in India are very much aware of what is happening in the design scene globally. “Minimalism” is one of those trends which has been around for a while, but has recently been embraced with more enthusiasm by the middle class and upwardly mobile folks, giving rise to numerous design studios and retailers proclaiming that their products are “minimalist”. I use the word “trend” and not “philosophy”, or “principle” for many reasons. Read on to find out why!

The idea of minimalism as a foreign concept

I see so many design company websites today, making declarations like so: “In a country where color and decoration dominate, we break away, aligning ourselves with Nordic Minimalism”, or “All our pieces are inspired by Japanese Minimalism” Apparently aligning one’s design ideology with Sweden, or Japan legitimizes it.

Since the arrival of design as a profession post-independence, the holy grail of design in India, has been using traditional crafts to create modern and functional objects. The inspiration for these objects came partially from the Bauhaus influence brought in by the Eameses, but also from the Gandhian philosophy, which called for rejection of opulence and superficial decoration, characteristic of colonialism. It also called for the promoting of local textiles and crafts, rejecting foreign mass-production. That sure sounds like minimalism to me! 

We need to stop touting minimalism as a foreign concept and recognise that most cultures have both extremes - opulence and minimalism - depending on different points and respective contexts in history. Many Indian design studios, specifically in the textile and furniture realms, do exemplify Indian minimalism. It would be interesting to see this transcend to the digital design realm as well. 

Less  ________ is More ________.

It is also common to see the “less is more” ideology being taken literally. It’s definitely a concept that has been widely successful, but there are also numerous examples that aren’t. Being able to pull off minimalism is not easy. Contrary to how it looks, it requires greater decision making to decide what to eliminate.

When I am faced with such decisions, I find it useful to ask myself, Less (of what) is More (of what)?

Here is an example: 

Less furniture is More space to dance around. 

Less furniture is More exposure to the ugly cladding.

Less furniture is More visibility for the marble floor.

Less furniture is More carpet which will have to be purchased.

There are numerous ways it could go, depending on the context. There are no absolutes.

A button, a color palette or a handle that might make something more inclusive should not (ideally) be sacrificed at the altar of minimalism. If it is, then let that be a conscious decision, which the designer has to live with. 

Nature is not a monoculture

A justification often given for minimalism, is sustainability. But again, this is not an absolute rule. You could have a minimalist shoe entirely moulded from plastic rubber, and that wouldn’t be the poster-child for sustainability. On the other hand you could have a shoe made from a combination of plant-based materials, and that could be 100% biodegradable! Knock-down furniture can be a lot more sustainable than something that is carved out of a single block of wood, for numerous reasons - repairability, minimising wastage, easier transportation. If achieving minimalism meant creating a seamless object, where you cannot replace the parts, but need to replace the entire object (like many phones and laptops today), I certainly wouldn’t vouch for it!

This is not to say that there aren’t examples of the opposite - a purely paper bag, or purely pet bottle is easier to recycle than a Tetrapak which has three materials inseparably sandwiched together. But my point is this: when you look at nature, species share habitats, grow together, benefit from each other. While both minimalism and frills are found in nature, they are respective to context and function. A similar approach to design will be greatly beneficial.  

The importance of hoarding - for inspiration

Many designers I know are collectors. We collect art, stamps, matchboxes, ceramics - many things completely unrelated to our practice. But we subconsciously draw inspiration from these things. A brutalist approach to design would mean a practice devoid of inspiration, and this could really affect one’s creative ability. Sure, it would greatly benefit us to cut down on the Pinterest, and it would be easier not have 10 different prototyping software, but hoarding stationery, objects and materials gives us more to play with, and good design is often said to be intelligence at play! 

Losing identity with minimalism

Lastly, it is important not to take so much away from something that it loses its identity. Colors, textures and symbols have significance that transcend language and ability. They are sometimes central to usability, and hence the identity of the design. 

As the minimalism trend starts fading away, to be replaced by glitter-punk, digital cyanotype or whatever the forces cough-up next, it would be beneficial to break away from the labels and work towards authenticity and honest design.

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