The More You Know: How Did Minimalism Get Its Start?

In the last few years, the idea of minimalism and living a minimalist lifestyle is everywhere. With countless documentaries highlighting the streamlined way of living (i.e. Netflix’s “Minimalism” documentary) and decluttering and being rid of things that don’t spark joy aka “Kondo-ing” becoming a verb (referring to master organizer Marie Kondo), it seems that the trend is here to stay. But, is it really a trendy thing that only began in the last decade? The answer is no.

There are many opinions about how minimalism began. Some believe that it has its roots in the modernist movement of the early 1900s, when materials like concrete, glass and steel were becoming more readily available. Other people are of the belief that it began around the 1960s and 70s as a branch off of the Minimalist art movement. In this article, we’ll explore the artists and ideas that made minimalism what it is today and how it moved through the world of art and into the design world.


Minimalism in Art

Even if minimalist ideals came about from the modernist movement early on in the 20th century, the term “minimalism” and representation in everyday life did not come about until the 1960s and 70s art scene. During this time, many artists were creating art in the realm of abstract expressionism with more intricate designs and symbolism. Then, a few artists came along that changed up the art scene and began creating pieces that favored the understated over the dramatic flair of previous artistic styles. Many creations utilized simplified geometric shapes or were created from fabricated industrial materials. This new wave of artists shied away from overly expressive works and instead latched onto the idea of anonymity.

A few of the most notable pioneering artists were Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Tony Smith. Each of these men had different styles that achieved the same end goal, to strip away any sense of biography or story behind the work and create something unassuming yet beautiful in its simplicity.

However, each went about it in a different and unique way that was all their own. Some even were masters of both art and architecture at one point or another and helped push forward the idea of minimalism into design, which, I’ll discuss a bit later in the article.


Donald Judd

Minimalist concrete art by Donald Judd

Donald Judd is widely considered to be the leading artist in minimalism and created a movement, whether knowingly or unknowingly. In the early 1960s, he abandoned painting for more sculpture work and wrote his now famous manifesto “Specific Objects.” In this essay, he argued that traditional European artistic values were illusion and represented space versus real space.

His works that he created inhabited a space that was not classically recognized as either painting or sculpture, and he liked that they were not easily associated with overtly familiar conventions of what art is or is supposed to be. He went on to have plenty of exhibitions at various museums across New York City and some in Europe and continued creating works like the one pictured above.

In his later years, Judd moved on to work also with furniture, design and architecture. He sought to separate his former art from his furniture stating that the purpose and intent behind art is different than that of furniture and architecture. He argued that if a chair is not functional and appears only as art that it is a waste.

He believed part of the “art” of design and furniture was represented in its usefulness. With these ideals in mind, he was able to create works of art and minimalism through the medium of furniture.  

Frank Stella

Frank Smith’s “Black Paintings”

Frank Stella was another artist at the forefront of the minimalist art movement. He got his start in the late 1950s/early 1960s in New York City where he swiftly rejected the expressive painting styles of similar artists of the time. He was not a fan of the abstract expressionist movement and found himself intrigued by the flatter, less obvious surfaces of Barnett Newman’s work and the paintings of Jasper Johns. From this new idea, he began to create pieces that places more emphasis on the picture as the object instead of the picture just being representative of something in the physical or emotional world.

This brought about some of his most famous works and a series of paintings known as the “Black Paintings.” These pieces were identifiable by the regular black paint strokes that were separated by thin stripes of white, untouched canvas. Perhaps his most well-known painting, “Die Fahne Hoch!” was created in this style and is a staple in the minimalist art movement. It is an understated painting that is created on a large chassis that projects from the wall into the surrounding space.

It is an unframed, completely flat abstraction that toes the line between sculpture and painting that was common among minimalist artists of the time. Many argued that art should be pure in whatever form it was created in with no overlap of styles, but Frank Stella challenged this idea perfectly, as did many minimalists.

Tony Smith

Tony Smith’s “Die” 1962

Another artist worth mentioning is Tony Smith. He began his career as an independent architectural designer, creating numerous homes. Then, while recovering from an accident in the early 1960s, he began to create small sculptures using geometric shapes and eventually created his first fabricated steel sculpture known simply as “Black Box.” With this piece, it sparked a passion in Smith, and where others saw a plain geometric shape, he saw a beautiful, mysterious shape.

This led him to creating his now famous sculpture, titled “Die,” which is a six-foot steel cube that quickly put him on the map as an influential artist. Eventually, he worked with the minimalist school to continue creating simple geometrical modules that sparked excitement through their simplicity and scale.


Through this style of sculpture work and the works of the other aforementioned artists, the minimalist movement was able to seamlessly transition into the world of interior design.



Minimalism in Design

A lot of the time, art and interior design go hand in hand. That sentiment was especially true when it came to the translation of minimalism in art to minimalism in design and architecture.

A lot of the time, art and interior design go hand in hand. That sentiment was especially true when it came to the translation of minimalism in art to design. Much like art, minimalism in design and architecture creates a simple, unobtrusive aesthetic by stripping down the subject to only it’s necessary elements. Minimalistic design, while being influenced by artists, was also heavily influenced by Japanese traditional architecture.

Many describe the emergence of minimal designs as a direct response to the chaos of urban life, as around this time (the 1980s) many cities were rapidly expanding and people needed an escape. Many designers at the time, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Buckminster Fuller adopted the idea that “less is more” or to “do more with less.”

It began with the design of homes and rooms, and shifted over to the design of furniture pieces, with many creating décor that had clean, simple lines and were unassuming in any space.

They adopted the same notion as artists during the minimalist movement of the 60s and 70s, and that was to create something (a room, sculpture, or furniture) that was not overly expressive and was the subject on its own rather than representative of a larger story.

This led to the modern minimalism that we know today in that it started a trend in creating a decluttered life, only having what is necessary and determining what we place emphasis on within a space.


Modern Minimalism

Minimalism as we know it today bleeds into so much more than just art and design. It has become something much larger and is a lifestyle that many people choose to adhere to. There have been entire design brands built on the notion of minimalism and their furniture pieces are beautifully unpretentious. This modern design movement created a new way to decorate with clean designs that are free of frivolity and allows for something other than the decorations in a room to be the center of attention, such as the people! Add in the recent popularity of the KonMari method, the idea of removing unnecessary clutter in your life, and you have the full picture of just how influential and prevalent the idea of minimalism has become in society.


Conclusion

As you can see, minimalism has its roots based in history long before it became the trendy thing we see it as today. From the shift in expressive ideals in art to the notion that architecture should be kept simple and stripped down to just the basic necessities, minimalism is engrained in our culture. Today we see minimalism as a complete lifestyle from not only about the architecture of our homes and furniture but also how we organize and declutter. The way we view minimalism may have shifted slightly throughout the decades but the overarching theme has always remained the same. Create something or a space that is free from the loudness and chaos of society and allows for more free interpretation and a modest aesthetic.

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