Glass House in New Canaan, by Philip Johnson. Photograph by Robin Hill

Design School

The History of Minimalism

By Meaghan O’Neill
December 6, 2017

The style proves that simple can be both beautiful and full of personality. Here’s how to make it your own.

There’s some debate within the design community about when, exactly, Minimalism began. Some consider its roots to be in the heart of the Modernist movement of the early 20th century, when new materials such as glass, steel, and concrete were becoming widely available. Others argue that it truly began much later, as an outcropping of the Minimalist art movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, when painters like Donald Judd and Ellsworth Kelly turned away from Abstract Expressionism in favor of even more extreme abstractions composed of simple geometric shapes.

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Despite its blurry timeline, Minimalism has been—and continues to be—one of the most influential movements of the 20th and 21st centuries across art, architecture, product design (think: the iPhone), music, and more. A reaction against excess, this Zen-like approach aims for the intersection of simplicity, utility, and elegance by stripping away ostentation and non-necessary layers.

Minimalism refers more to a philosophy than to an aesthetic or period in time, relying on a simple mantra: Do more with less. In the early 20th century, this idea began to take hold with Modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller, and Philip Johnson. Their buildings—such as the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain and the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—were monuments to clean lines, and open, light-filled spaces. But Minimalism takes the concept a step further.

Modern and Minimalist are both reductive and spare, but Minimalism is all about creating a specific ‘moment’—a feeling, an experience, or framing a particular view.

“Minimalism is not an era, like Modernism or Midcentury Modern,” explains architect Stephen Chung, who is based in Boston and Sarasota, Florida. “Modern and Minimalist are both reductive and spare, but Minimalism is all about creating a specific ‘moment’—a feeling, an experience, or framing a particular view.” For example, Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light in Ibaraki, Japan uses simple concrete volumes and two beams of sunlight in the shape of a cross to create a stunning, ethereal focal point and evoke reverential emotion. “That moment takes lots of effort and consideration,” says Chung. “It’s a heightening of certain experiences by reducing distractions. It’s trying to do the most with the fewest number of things.”

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Not all Minimalist architecture is equally severe in its palette or mood. Architects such as Luis Barragan, James Pawson, and Toshiko Mori have mastered the approach with widely varying aesthetics. The common elements, however, create uncluttered, purposeful environments.

Purists might argue that a space can only be defined as Minimal if an entire volume, inside and out, adheres to strict principles. But Chung, who doesn’t consider himself “self-disciplined enough” to be called a true Minimalist, makes the case that it’s possible to apply the movement’s principles to a single room in any interior. He advises the Minimal-curious to dedicate a small, outlying space—a porch or bathroom would be perfect—to trying out the less-is-more approach. He suggests designing the space around a single “moment:” a plant, lamp, chair, or artwork, perhaps. “Let that moment make you feel one specific thing,” says Chung. “It’s not about having a less interesting experience; it’s about enriching it.”