Minimal: Design’s love affair with economy

Paul Epp

I’ve been intrigued by minimal expression for a long time: practically as long as I can remember. There were pictures of the cave paintings at Lascaux in the encyclopedia that we had at home, when I was a child, and I marvelled at how much was accomplished with so little. At the gestures that spoke beyond their size.

That seemed to be the essence of it: achieving a lot with a little. And I think that this was the path that brought me to design, and specifically Industrial Design. In that design discipline, unlike some others, there is an obvious benefit to achieving things economically. In fact, to one way of looking at it, efficiency is the ultimate objective. We seek to do a lot with as little as possible and then keep doing it over and over, maximizing the benefits to consumers and to the capitalists behind the venture.

Before I had decided on a career in design, I came upon the book How to Wrap Five Eggs, and I was once again struck by an intuitive satisfaction at the achievement of outcomes with little apparent effort. This wasn’t Industrial Design, but even I could sense the applicability.

So that became a kind of animating force for me, to do as much as I could with as little display of means as possible. If this is the discipline, then every gesture counts. There is a kind of perfection that is sought, and elegance, through economy and efficiency which I find to be innately satisfying.

Now, at times, I feel a bit old fashioned for thinking this way. Modernism, of course, has always displayed a strong interest in the minimal. Witness Van der Rohe’s famous mid-century dictum, “Less is More.” Recall as well, Robert Venturi’s late-century, post-modern rebuttal, “Less is a Bore.” At one time, to be minimal and efficient were seen as honourable objectives, virtuous in their own integrity. Minimal design seemed appropriate for many reasons, even ethical ones, like not wasting resources. And the challenge, well met, was acclaimed.

Time changes everything, to misappropriate the title of a song. Modernism has been buried and resurrected numerous times and been supplanted by all manner of alternatives. Minimalism isn’t gone; it’s just not as important as it used to be. Maybe that is how it should be, everything in its turn. The late, great German designer, Dieter Rams, was a kind of priest of minimal modernism. And he still has his followers, although I sometimes wonder if Apple products aren’t also a bit of caricature.

The opposite of minimal would be maximal, and this, too, has its place in design. Although, to show my time-worn prejudices, I sometimes think of the maximal as having more to do with decoration than design. But I certainly appreciate decoration, despite finding myself inadequate in its practice.

Besides Modernism’s minimalism, the challenge of minimal display achieving greater results has been an objective of many historical and current artists, poets, and other creative people. It’s a challenge with great potential to satisfy. I remain captivated by the style of printing usually called wood-block, although now much of it is fully digital. Why not? The computer is a wonderful tool. In this style of work, there are great limitations on the range of colour used and on the shapes and forms that delineate the image. How much can be done with how little? It may be ironic to consider that a minimal visual expression, like one of these pictures, can also be decorative?

Twitter has, in its requirement of concision, replaced telegrams, which I used to delight in. Haiku is another example of severe constrains yielding strong effects. Poetry used to be based on the strict limits. Minimalism, in its various forms, is an intellectual challenge as well as a practical one, and probably will continue to enchant some of us for a good while yet.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
(a fragment of a poem by A. E. Housman)
Paul Epp is a professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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