Open thread: Why is it so hard to be a “minimalist”?

wilson-houseI HAVE THIS THEORY that full-on mid century modern style never really takes hold and endures — because it’s just too spare for most people. It’s minimalist. And we humanoids are not. We like our ornamentation. We pouf our hair and bedazzle our ring fingers. We put bones through our noses, we draw on cave walls, we put feathers and arrowheads into cigar boxes, and we spend hours hunting down rare kitschy creatures for our collections of postwar Made in Japan salt and paper shakers but “animals under $5 a pair only”. It’s a magical, mystical, mesmerizing, magnetic pull — to accumulate. Above: The Wilson House is stunning, but still too… tidy… for me.

I really don’t like to encourage ‘being a meanie’ [a key commenting rule here on the blog is: No one is to be made to feel bad for their choices], but for purposes of today’s Open Thread, I point to this website, Unhappy Hipsters, which lampoons the poses of not-too-happy-looking people in their bare, artful, modern houses. Should we get these folks some tchotchkes, stat?

I spoke to none other than mid century modern design legend Vladimir Kagan recently, and we chatted about this very issue — the struggle to achieve the most noble philosophical aspirations of minimalism.

Mr Kagan:

My designs were influenced by the Bauhaus philosophy, “less is more” – I was raised on this. If you have a bigger piece of furniture, you need less seating elsewhere. The serpentine sofa seats eight people.

Pam: Do you live “less is more” in your own home? (I knew the answer because I had seen the photos of Kagan and Wilson’s New York City apartment on The Selby.)

Mr. Kagan laughs:

Less is more. Except in my own home. Do as I say, not as I do.

Pam: So why did you end up with more is more?

Mr. Kagan:

I wish I could be less is more. I have a yearning to move and start over. You end up with more is more because you like things. Erica and I traveled a lot, and we collected…. We have always acquired never eliminated. To create a clean space is a wonderful thing. I admire it and help create it for my clients. Unfortunately, emotionally I can not down-scale!

So why is it, do you think, dear readers,
that it’s so hard to be minimalists?

Is there something very deep instinctual need to have our stuff?
(Let’s set aside the extremes, please, for this discussion.)
Should we give ourselves a break for being
creatures of domestic comfort?

Or, is there, and *should* we, strive for some sort of more “evolved” “balance”?
Please be *compassionate* in this discussion, okay?

Get our retrolicious free newsletter.



  1. oh Holland says

    My BF always said to live in a spare MCM home, one *must* be thin! I think she’s right … there’s no camo for a fluffy person.

    As I age, I want less and less to care for, and I’ve parted with many things till I’m down to my most beloved stuff. Over a few years, it’s been like peeling away layers as my eye became more focused on what to keep. I love the lightness of the look now, and ease of cleaning.

    But now I really need to drop 20 pounds to fit in!

  2. Jana (Berniecat) says

    If you read Mr. Kagen’s last comment “Unfortunately, emotionally I can not down-scale!” you get some insight into one of the answers to Pam’s question “So why is it, do you think, dear readers,
    that it’s so hard to be minimalists? Is there something very deep instinctual need to have our stuff?”

    If you are familiar with Personality Type theory (Myers-Briggs and the Jung Typology assessment), the answer is yes– but only for some personality types. As people, our external environment preferences are a direct reflection of our internal environments and our personality preferences and comfort zones. Of the four dimensions of our personality preferences, the Thinking/Feeling and Judging/Perceptive domains most directly influence our environments and the decision whether or not we are emotionally attached to possessions and make the decision to keep, collect or minimize and eliminate to reflect our comfort zones. These personality domains also influence our preferences/attractions to certain styles and designs. One person’s ” comfortable eclectic mixture of decades” may be another person’s “chaos in a room” if he/she prefers uniformity and order reflected in the design.

    I teach Education and Psychology at a local college and I have my students take the assessment below. You can learn more about your personality style preferences (and how functioning as a Judging or Perceptive person may influence your MCM minimalist or collector tendencies) by taking the free Jung Typology Test online assessment at: The site has detailed descriptions of some of the general characteristics of each personality type. Its fun and just adds another perspective to the conversation. Based on his comments, I suspect that Mr. Kagen designed like a Thinking and Judging individual, but that his individual personality preferences reflected more of a Feeling and Perceptive personality.

  3. Joe says

    Like a lot of folks on here, my parents were part of that post-WWII minimalist generation. My parents subscribed to all those monthly home and garden magazines, and were forever browsing in stores to see what was currently “happening”. They always said that those minimalist homes only worked in showrooms and magazine shoots, because real people didn’t live that way. I have been working very hard on achieving my own minimalist look because, to me, less is more. I do find some humor in this article – there is currently so much stuff eye-cathcing stuff available to achieve a minimalist look, that you end up with a house cluttered with kitsch!

  4. says

    Use minimalism sparingly, use clutter sparingly. As several commenters said, there’s a balance you can strike. When we’re on our couch, watching television, there’s very little ornamentation on the credenza, and the wall artwork is carefully arrange to allow for easy-on-the-eyes resting.

    But then check out our tschotchke china cabinet in the dining room–Star Wars toys, Daffy Duck, a big glass head, a souvenir double-decker London bus toy–all in the sweet confines of the cabinet. Guests love to peruse our toys, and we love digging through our boxes o’trinkets in the basement to swap them out. So there’s room for everything. That said, I have two kids under 4, so if we wanted to be truly minimalist we’d never let them out of their rooms. A family should never be a slave to aesthetics!

    The beauty of MCM furniture is that is has natural, clean lines and finishes, which means that your eye can look past the stack of magazines on the table and rest on an elegant curve. I see the ornamented furniture out there and to me, that would just bring the house down around us. Too much!

  5. Just another Pam says

    I’ve often wondered, as collectors of things past and unique, if we don’t have a harder time being more minimalist. If, God forbid, I could only have new things then most likely I’d be a minimalist out of sheer lack of interest instead of being somewhat burdened down with, say, way too many fab-u-lous light fixtures and lamps.

  6. Just another Pam says

    I just looked at the Kagan/Wilson house and find all the aggressive colour far more overwhelming and claustrophobic than the treasures. Apparently anything you can hang on a wall doesn’t read as clutter to me….wish I had more walls.

  7. AuzzieMozzie says

    I work in a fashioable area of Sydney and I always watrch to see the progression of new minimalist stores into something else. They open their doors for the first time, a shiny and new, with minimal everything, Then after a couple of months they begin to change. A picture here, a lightshade there. New product stands pop up, Counters become cluttered with everyday stuff. Patterned curtains appear. I’ve never seen a instance where this didn’t happen. And the other problem is that everything has to be in top shape for minimalism to look good. As soon as the walls show scuff marks or the cushions begin to sag the whole look just seems to fall apart.

  8. patrick says

    It IS hard to be a mininalist (its even hard to type it – so many vowels.)
    I love that room pictured. would love to sit there and read, talk, unencumbered by stuff in my sights. it is what i aspire to, and have achieved it in small corners here and there in the house, just so i can enjoy the peaceful view of openness. Sometimes it is just a view from one chair that has nothing extra in the viewshed. And, I have a long hallway which could so easily be wall to wall prints, but I have forced myself to hang nothing there and I’m happy about that decision. Each time I am tempted to hang something there, I remember how much I like that sparse hallway.

    BUT, I’m a woodturner, and a sometimes potter, so I don’t just collect stuff, I make it, as a goal. I have learned to replace and store stuff. I have closet shelves stuffed with pottery that I’ll switch out on occasion when I realize i miss seeing something. the real problem is that my friends as you might imagine, are craftsmen also, and I tend to find myself at studios and places to buy more. I love to support artists, but even when I have the money to do so, I end up with yet more stuff, albeit beautiful stuff, especially prints.

    One thing that works for me is to realize that each piece usually looks best without much around it. I do have an office with walls and shelves chockfull of work so that satisfies that part of me. Also, and this would be for someone looking to move into a new place, i have a wall of windows in the living room, so I can’t hang anything there and it helps keep the piece peace.

    Oh yeah, my favorite artwork is outsider art, and i can tell you, it is not easy to put painted metal, crazy colors, wild wingdings, painted found wood and objects into a minimalist home.

    So, if I showed you just some pictures of home, I may look like a minimalist, but don’t turn the page to the other pictures.

  9. Richard Douglass says


    The Unhappy Hipsters site is SOOOOO funny! I could not stop laughing and only got to page 6.

    If I want minimalist, I can go hiking in the wilderness, where it is not contrived.


  10. says

    I don’t even have to read the comments here to realize that many people that read this blog piled on and weren’t super fond of minimalism. I am. I am as an ideal and as a goal. I get tired of the stuff. I get tired of collecting the stuff. I get tired of dusting the stuff. And I get tired of not having money for retirement because of buying the stuff. Do I like the stuff? Yes!!!! But my house just isn’t that big. So the fun for me in minimalist goals is going through the house, selling what I don’t love anymore, throwing out the junk, and paring it down. I am no hipster (old by any standard), but the ideal and the aesthetic I can admire and appreciate. If I can keep the objects to a low roar, I can see them easier and appreciate them easier. So am I a real minimalist — NO…. but do I amass tons of stuff into my house without regard for how it all really looks (e.g. hoarding) ABSOLUTELY NOT!

  11. Sandy says

    I too love this house and could live it in without adding more than a few things. I like “stuff” and have lots of it. However, I think the answer to your question is to have a big house with lots of storage space so that everything does not have to be out on display. I collect dishes amongst other things but keep them put away until they can be used for a dinner party for example. I know this is a very “let them eat cake” solution but works for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *