Sacrificing Joy, Not Sparking It: The Threat Minimalist Design Poses to Public Spaces

Contemporary mainstream minimalism, found in architecture and city aesthetics, attempts to streamline the individuality that makes design so wonderfully diverse. However, the indomitable human love of unique design prevails on internet threads and comment sections.


Photo by Oliver Hae / Unsplash

Arts & Culture

Perhaps a new apartment complex is built in one’s neighborhood, colorless and boxy. Or, once ornamented iron street lamps are replaced with detail-less silver posts. It is a phenomenon sneaking into cities, with each monotone building or unembellished piece of furniture that is created—minimalism. 

The minimalist movement came to fruition in the 1960s and 70s with the work of artists like Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt, with the opinion that art should exist in its own actuality, and not be based on something else. Importantly, a key intent during this era was the divergence from art as a vessel for storytelling and themes—focused instead on form and simplicity. With the rise of the internet and blogging/vlogging, minimalism became less of a niche in the 2000s, a term that congealed different strains of “less is more” living into one online mammoth. Beyond the individual level, minimalism can be spotted continuously popping up in cities and new developments, taking the initial context of intentionally statement-less art and transforming it into something that becomes an overarching go-to style. 

A telling poster created by @eatonprintshop.

Minimalism has strayed from its intended, noble artistic pursuit as the 21st century progresses—becoming an unconsciously unartistic vessel for conformity in the mainstream. Opposed to creative experimentation, the contemporary form of minimalism has become corporate and streamline: a way of removing detail from an object. Through removing detail, minimalism strips designs of their identity and heritage: providing a sterile, unoriginal “inoffensiveness.” It is important to clarify that the problem does not lie within minimalism as an individual or artistic movement, which has its merits, but instead on a larger scale conformity culture. People on social media platforms such as TikTok and Twitter have been critiquing what Twitter user Sheenan Quirke (aka @theculturaltutor), refers to as “small m minimalism,” stating in the now-viral twitter thread ‘The Death of Detail’ that it “has become the social default for everything from benches & bollards to skyscrapers & national assemblies.” 

Many are catching onto the faults of “small m minimalism” on the internet. A trend can be observed, for instance, in the comment sections of photos that show Victorian homes for sale, on preservation-positive sites like @cheapoldhouses. Users implore fellow Instagrammers to save the homes featured, before someone comes in with “buckets of gray and white paint,” stripping the structures of character and artisanship. The minimalist ‘restoration’ feared by Instagram users seems to advocate for a nothingness, a void of unoriginal space that refuses risk. What is left of architectural uniqueness, when a structure in Los Angeles is identical to a building in London? Distinction is stripped from spaces, implying that the purposeful “lack” apparent in white box minimalism is more prevalent than the intricately created, location- complementary design of historic architecture. 

Minimalism, as a mainstream fad, poses itself as anti-capitalist through mindful, ‘less is more’ consumption, but is just another trend that developers flock to with their wallets—overpriced sleek, gray and white designs that seem to preach practicality, but are instead more focused on a lack of originality. Detail in the public spaces of cities and regions can reflect culture and character, the aesthetic and artisanship that is uniquely iconic for a given area. Brooklyn, for instance, would seem strange without its ornate brownstones. Objects historically created for both functionality and beauty (i.e. bookcases, benches, buildings, etc…) become reduced by “small m minimalism,” into something that takes no artistic liberties or risks. What does it say about the future of public design, when a large sector of new developments in buildings/spaces say ‘nothing?’ Perhaps this is where the concern lies, that spaces are lacking character, leading to what Quirke calls “the death of detail.” It is valid for an individual to love the gray, geometric shapes of minimalism. But, when this style consumes other styles, streamline conformity becomes default… and design should intrinsically deny compliance. 
Long live intricate iron fences and imperfect tilework. Long live design that evokes beauty beyond its purpose. Humanity is not identity-less and neutral, so why should design be?