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?

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  1. Karen C says

    I think the emptyish room looks like an impersonal motel room, not a true home where a family lives. Nothing wrong with it, but I would be bored in a home without books, a computer, favorite momentoes and art supplies, a sewing machine, and fabric.

  2. Scott says

    Yes, it’s very hard to be a minimalist. I love collecting stuff. But for me a room is like a painting, there has to be some negative space that invites the eye to travel around the room. The objects that make up the room gain more importance by being meaningfully grouped or by being framed with some open space.

    Of course there is today’s version of minimalist (a black mystery wood $8,000 table in a white room with a light fixture that very much resembles a bare light bulb on a cord) or the MCM version of minimalist.

    I think this picture hosted right here on RR is a great example of the MCM version of minimalist:

    The countertop in particular I love. Everything you really need is well within reach, yet there’s no clutter. The busier parts of the room, like the dishes in the corner cubbies, the patterned accents above the cabinets, and the flowers in the window do not seem like clutter as they are like objects that add a rhythm and flow that make you want to keep staring at this picture for a long time.

  3. says

    I have a pretty minimalist MCM house. Don’t care for clutter at all. I do tend to fall in love with things. If I can’t use it I pass it on. That’s how I ended up with an 8,000sqft MCM store. I love the objects… it brings me joy to collect them, restore them and find them a loving home. It’s like animal rescue, but with objects.

  4. says

    I find minimalism very calming. I don’t like clutter at all and I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older that it literally makes me uneasy. I grew up in a house that was very minimalist so I guess that is where I got it from. I actually like a few accessories around but I don’t consider that clutter. What I’ve noticed about myself is that I tend to like my accessories a little shiny or glam. So I guess that’s what gives a room a little bit of interest to me without it feeling cluttered. My husband and kids, on the other hand….it’s a constant battle:-)

  5. Corraun says

    I grew up in a house in which “cluttered” is an understatement. As a result, I have been a minimalist through my adult years. Like someone else said, buying things you really love and will use is key and passing up on the others helps eliminate the problem. Going through your stuff every year and getting rid of what you haven’t used or don’t wear really helps cut down on the nonessentials. Be cluttered in your mind, not in your surroundings.

  6. says

    I heard on a radio show sometime a few months back that for Americans, in particular, it was not enough to see something beautiful and appreciate it, we need to own it.

    That sentiment stuck with me and I think it’s totally and completely true.

    I ride the line between creative and minimalist. I really like how things look, so I want to have them, but I need to reign myself in. Before I buy something, I ask myself whether it fits with my “aesthetic plan” for my house. I also have “no” words that I keep in mind when shopping – ie “nothing trendy”, “nothing cute.”

    One of the things that I keep in mind when purging my “stuff” is whether it’s replaceable. If it is, most of the time, I will go-ahead and get rid of it. If I decide down the line that I really need it, I can re-buy it. 99% of the time, I’m not missing anything I’ve gotten rid of!

    I do, however, have a pack rat of a husband who rescues donations and things from the trash. So there’s that. :)

  7. tammyCA says

    I remember when I read that about Kagan I was like “oh, yes I know…we like things, we get emotionally attached to our things.” I know I curse and clear out stuff, but then I find some nifty things again at the Goodwill! When I was in my early 20s I had very few possessions (childhood things got wrecked, given away, tossed), then I met my husband and he started buying me things…said my apt. was depressing with nothing on the walls. I eventually discovered flea markets and was amazed that I found my long lost childhood toys, books, etc. And, then I became a rescuer of sad looking items & furniture in need of a make-over to save them from the landfills. Then you add in the inherited sentimental stuff from family and gifts over the years…and, then kids come along and there’s all of their stuff…plus, I craft & sew and so lots of that stuff around.
    Maybe, that is why I like looking at other people’s MCM homes…they look so clean and neat!
    Anyway, we do store stuff (we are big book lovers) so we aren’t living like hoarders and I do give away stuff…and, maybe one day I’ll sell on etsy.

  8. Jay says

    Wow! Profound thoughts. I don’t like clutter – I like the corners of rooms to be open and junk free but I’m hardly a minimalist. As much as I admire modern architecture and interiors, I can’t live it. For many, the pure MCM minimalist interiors leave them cold, myself included. I’m liable to have books and magazines piled up in the bedroom or the living room. I am always displaying pieces of glass and pottery around, switching things periodically and buying more. Everyone here seems to like thrifting and antiquing, me too. If it’s not sentimental or valuable, I can usually part with it at some point, donating to Good Will for someone else to discover.

  9. Dan says

    I think there’s a fine line between having stuff, and being cluttered. You can have a lot of stuff, but as long as everything is organized and has a place, then I think everything should be fine. Personally, I would want to have a reasonably clean, neat place to live, but I’d also want to have things in my house that I find interesting, special, or significant. As some other posters noted, having a house that is minimalist with absolutely no ornamentation makes it seem like you’re just a visitor in a house, as opposed to being in a home that is obviously and decidedly yours, complete with your tastes and personality.

  10. Ann WesleyHardin says

    To me, minimalist means that something should have design AND function. Perfect examples of this are MCM lamps: sculpture — with light! Or hassock fans, and ottomans with storage. Broyhill Brasilia, Heywood Wakefield, Adrian Pearsall…and all those myriad other furniture designers who made sculpture you can sit on or store stuff in.. Even a simple cutting board with decorative tile (or something) that becomes a picture when stored on the kitchen wall. I think this beauty and sculpture is what’s missing in modern modern. Mid Mod minimalist is warm, colorful and alluring. Not gray, square and cold. Just my take ; )

  11. Elaine says

    The uncluttered look of space age modern is so easy on the eye, so peaceful for the troubled mind, and yet, it begs to be further personalized. There is space to add our own special touches, things we treasure that are not space age, and wonders we find that are perfectly in tune with the look. One good treasure deserves another, and it does seem as though, when you find that perfect one, it has a companion waiting to seek it out and join it.

    I’m fighting that trend right now in my 1963 time capsule. So far, I am winning, but not sure how long I can hold out. :)

  12. says

    As much as I love that photo, quite frankly it looks like a waiting room in an office. I want my home to have clean lines and yet be welcoming. I struggle (like most) with keeping it uncluttered, because I love to have “stuff”. I am hoping to meet somewhere in the middle.

  13. Paula says

    My mom subscribed to Better Homes and Gardens when I was a kid and the bare counters and clean/artfully arranged coffee tables always drove me crazy. We always had stuff, not to the level of hoarders, but not minimalist either. It took me 35 years to realize that the rooms in these magazines are staged for photos. An Art or Set Decorator goes around with a box and removes your clutter and re-envisions your space for the sake of a photo. Somewhere off camera is a box with the day to day stuff everyone has, then they put it all back. That is the picture they don’t show you and should

      • Christa says

        Yes! Exactly. The photos you see are for photos, not necessarily how the owners live. Homes for sale are staged to be as neutral as possible so that the largest number of potential buyers could imagine living there.

        Architectural photography involves a lot of moving things out of the “frame” so the picture looks balanced and the room itself is shown to advantage. Same thing for magazines — they are showing a particular story, not the full story of how people would live.

  14. Rick says

    It may be hard to be a good minimalist (such as Mr. Kagan) and using some of the WoW homes Retroren has shown with MCM furnishings because once, a home, room may be considered ‘done’ can you shut off the urge to still go looking for ‘good design’ (and want to own it)? Lack of space or $ or finding the right thing in person is a big help in nurturing minimalism.

    The areas that (for me) are hardest to push in the minimalist directions are ‘stored stuff’. My closets are not crammed to the gills, but there’s stuff that seems to only exist to be ‘kept and stored’ primarily because of the ‘F’ word attatched; ‘family’. Passing off to other ‘F’ members isn’t an option as they’re in the same ‘stuff’ situation.

  15. Chad D says

    It’s interesting to read about the history of modernism. The Bauhaus school was rooted in communism, and they wanted to wipe away class distinctions by designing things that everyone could afford and everyone would want. It was all so theoretical; I’ve long admired sparse modern spaces until it occurred to me that without ornament or clutter, the most striking “decorations” in my (theoretical) modern home would be the splatters from a carrot soup explosion and a gouge or two in the wall by the front door. In the end, I don’t want to sweep away things that gave me happy childhood memories either, so my place will be a perfect hodge podge, with at least one piece of furniture from each of the last 14 decades or so. My family never cared for modernism, so those are the gaps I’ll have to fill in myself.

  16. says

    Minimalism and different meanings for different people…members of the same family tend of have diff views in our travel, migration to other lands and wanting to keep the culture with u when u are away from homeland all leads to people like us merging styles..even if it was having a very retro or mcm furniture, we tend to mix a brass figurine or a traditional brass oil lamp from personalizing a space is very very important cos home is where our heart is afterall!

  17. Patty says

    Our brains are wired differently, and that can determine weather we are hoarders or minimalist or something in between.

    • lynda says

      I have thought about this subject a lot and have known hoarder and minimalist people. I tend to agree you are born with the tendencies. The older you get, the more you understand this.

  18. Teri Mills says

    I’ve always been a minimalist. When I was a teenager, my mom called my bedroom “the monk’s room.” I don’t have an overabundance of possessions. And I like everything tucked away neatly out of sight. I’ve never liked knick knacks or decor hung on walls. Wide open spaces and bare surfaces make me happy. You can never quite be sure whether someone actually lives in my house. It very possibly could be a home being sold (sparsely) furnished.

  19. AmyEbbertHill says

    I never can pull off a mnimalist look,although I have tried. I always wonder where minimalists put their books. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bookcase in a minimalist home in a magazine.

  20. Jeanne says

    For a funny skit, google George Carlin’s “Stuff” routine on You Tube. I once heard a quote that we spend the first half of our lives collecting stuff and the second half getting rid of it. I think I’m in the second half (ok, I know I’m in the second half). Now that the kids are gone, I’m really trying to pare down my possessions.

    Minimalist rooms are nice to look at but I don’t think they are realistic to live in (for most people). I do like a clean look, but it seems I’ve never been able to achieve that. Now that I live alone, I am in charge of my possessions (!) and I’m really trying to get rid of as much as I can. I do have some hobbies (art, sewing, some crafts) so I can’t completely get rid of everything. Also, I’ve found that if I put things away in cupboards/bins/closets – I forget I have them! So if I forget that I have them anyway, why have them?! It’s a constant battle, but I would like to win someday. :-)

  21. Lauryn says

    Though you would never know it walking into my house, I despise too much stuff. I once lived in a 400 square foot studio and it was the best thing for preventing the accumulation of too much stuff. We now live in what’s considered a small house (about 1000 sq. ft.) and I’m amazed at how much more stuff we have! I love our house, but sometimes when I see those “tiny” houses, I start fantasizing about a minimalist home (much to my hubby’s chagrin). We try to live by the give-something-away-when-you-buy-something-new rule, but to not much success.

    What I know to be true for me, and is probably true for many of the RR readers, is the love of the story behind the stuff … how we found it, why we fell in love with it, how it suits our particular midcentury home. I guess it’s about striking a balance between creating a space that is unique to you and but does not go down the dangerous path of hoarding.

  22. Christa says

    Most people would say our house is minimal or at least very uncluttered. We have good storage and lots of shelves so everything has a place, including books, family art pieces and favorite objects. We have a ritual around getting new things — decide what we need, decide what that item should look like (proportion, color, texture), then go out and try to find the object of our dreams. Once found, we save up for it, and once purchsed, we treasure it.

    Even when we see something we love, we have to decide if we need it, if it will work in our existing space, etc. Many times I have fallen in love with a light or table but did not buy it because it just wasn’t right. We have also sold things that were beautiful in one home but didn’t work in the next. If I can pass the loved piece on to someone else who will love it, it’s much easier to let it go.

    I strongly dislike clutter and feel anxious when things aren’t organized into a visual hierarchy. That’s why I became a designer – making a career out of the OCD need to get things to harmonize and look “right” on a page, a package, a sign or a room. haha! I’m very aware of our consumer culture (having spent many professional years working for retailers figuring out how to get y’all to buy stuff).

  23. Ashly says

    I don’t think living a minimalist lifestyle is difficult. On the contrary, I believe that it would be remarkably easier and (hyuck) simpler to do so. I also think that linking to Unhappy Hipster is a little disingenuous because these are all editorial shots showcasing homes, not families or lifestyles. All of these photos have had designers come in, move things around (and out), these homes were also built to hide appliances and accessories, so this is not a true representation of what a minimalist life looks like – to be without clutter doesn’t mean to be without joy.

    I often feel that a lot of people who enjoy the mid-century aesthetic takes things to the extreme in acquiring. It’s been my experience that mid-century-minded people often acquire period-correct items simply to have them because they are period-correct, regardless of whether they have a valid function in that person’s/family’s life or even a place to put them. This behavior is encouraged because we convince ourselves that we’re saving or protecting history, that we must obtain these things because someone else could not possibly value them as much as we do. This is reinforced within the community and on this website with things like the eBay carousals “What to Collect,” as if to be a mid-century aficionado you have to collect something, anything. We didn’t know we needed to have something unless we were told we should. We are encouraged to share or gloat about our finds here, on facebook, etc. I would say that most of us here have a collection (or two) of SOMETHING; whether it’s pottery, lamps or hoarding of vintage appliances.

    I love looking at time capsule homes, or old photos from the 40s and 50s because there WERE minimalistic AND warm. Families had the furniture that they needed and kept them for a lifetime, home accessories had a purpose and were kept to a minimum. Granted, people didn’t have the kind of disposable income that we take for granted today, but mid-century was not and should not be synonymous with collecting lots of things (and I fear that it is). Minimalistic families/households DO have collections – they just tend to be more thoughtful, well-curated and less compulsively acquired. A space might look sparse to us because we’re accustomed to lots of patterns and tchotchkes, and may overlook the shadows from the windows, the richness to the leather or patina in the furniture or the well-placed California pottery in nooks. There’s real thought and love put into a minimalist home.

    • Angela says

      Love your angleI I agree with you completely, and I’m proud to say I have no collections.
      Modern day MCM fans do seem to aspire for the minimalist look by paradoxically collecting all kinds of period Stuff.
      Thanks for the post.

  24. 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!

  25. 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.

  26. 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!

  27. 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!

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.


  33. 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!

  34. 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.

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