The Eternal Debate: Minimalism vs. Maximalism

·3 min read
Photo credit: NIKOLAS KOENIG/OTTO (MINIMALISM); MAX VADUKUL (MAXIMALISM)
Photo credit: NIKOLAS KOENIG/OTTO (MINIMALISM); MAX VADUKUL (MAXIMALISM)


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White walls, a Midcentury Modern chair, a house plant in a textured ceramic vase, bare wood beams. Over the past decade the minimalist aesthetic became dominant to the point of being overbearing. Offices, restaurants, and homes were composed of those blank walls and were sparsely decorated, with few splashes of color. Instagram served up a seemingly endless array of minimalist outfits, white cloth or dun-colored linen that promised to be the last shirt, dress, or jacket you would ever need to buy. Skincare and makeup routines went minimalist too; expensive creams and serums promised to make it look as if you did nothing. Marie Kondo told us to throw out everything that didn’t “spark joy” and seek out only the single perfect example of everything (some of which just happened to be sold in Kondo’s own online store).

Recently, however, something has changed. In part it’s just the regular pendulum of fashion and taste; when one aesthetic extreme is reached, the only possible successor is its exact opposite. In the 2020s we seem primed to obsess over the messy, organic, and extraneous. Clashing colors and patterns are in. Ornament, instead of blankness, is appealing once more. Maximalism has overtaken minimalism. Drake’s newly built mansion in Toronto, an ornate limestone pile designed by Ferris Rafauli, is one case study. But a less fancy iteration can be found on TikTok, where Gen Z users gravitate toward salon-style gallery walls and clashing colors, better for the app’s close-up montages. One root cause is the sudden post-pandemic freedom. Why restrict yourself to austerity after a year of homebound sensory deprivation? It also might be the result of the election. Around 2016, maximalism was associated with one of its enthusiastic practitioners, Donald Trump, whose own taste for gilded, filigreed apartments seemed inextricable from his politics. Now, after 2020, we might be able to embrace material excess without thinking of his tenure.

Minimalism and maximalism, like yin and yang, are in constant tension. On the surface, the impulses seem opposed. The former is the intentional simplicity and bare surfaces of artists like Donald Judd, or the monastic interiors of designer Axel Vervoordt. It’s driven by an impulse to pare down and seek direct, unmediated experiences. As the artist Frank Stella put it in the 1960s, “What you see is what you see.” The latter is about accumulation: indulgent, reveling in symbolism and history, an eclectic collection of artifacts and styles that bring to mind the globetrotting cosmopolitan. (Never mind that so many of the world’s cities are now papered over in placeless minimalism.)

Throughout history, both have taken turns as the pinnacle of good taste. For example, modernist design, the root of the contemporary minimalist aesthetic, took hold in the 1940s and ’50s, while the 1980s are known for the vulgarity of plastic, synthetic fabric, and neon. Civilization tends to turn to one after the other, a ceaseless bingeing and purging of material culture.

Minimalism and maximalism are less opposites than two complementary forces in the larger cycle of style itself, which can never stay the same for long. Humans—and artists in particular—get bored easily, and as anyone who has sat through a too long tasting menu knows, excess can get just as wearying as austerity. Too much moderation is boring too. What we’re really pursuing is variety, a change in the pace of our consumption. In the end, contrast is what’s important, like moving between a hot sauna and a cold pool. Excess relies on simplicity and simplicity on excess. It’s a lesson that some of the deepest minimalism established long ago. One has only to look at a Zen rock garden, like Kyoto’s 15th-century Ryoan-ji, to recognize that stuff is just as important as the void that surrounds it.

This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Town & Country. Subscribe Now

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