Min versus max

By Paul Epp

By Paul Epp

An ongoing divide in design

“Less is more,” according to the famous architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Contrarily, another famous architect, Robert Venturi, claimed: “Less is a bore.” Thus is established a fundamental dichotomy within design, the visual arts and many other areas of culture and personality. And it is a conflicted discrepancy with many ways of revealing itself.

Mies van der Rohe was possibly called Viky by his mother, which strikes me as a nice simple designation. But to be famous, regardless of philosophical posturing, less wasn’t enough and “van der Rohe” was stitched on. On the other hand, the more easily bored Robert Charles Venturi, Jr., made do with a smaller slice of what his patrimony entitled him to. But then, who determined that we ought to expect consistency?

Picking sides

Another way to describe this divergent reality would be to use the terms minimalism and maximalism. And these things tend to come in cycles. Mies’s minimalism was an expression of the burgeoning early modernism that he represented and gave expression to. Subsequently, and reflecting an exhaustion of that earlier trend, Venturi was speaking for the postmodernists when he expressed his rebellious view of what the modernists held sacred.

Eventually, at least to some extent, postmodernism gave way to a neomodernism that, once again, treasured the sparse and austere. This cycle has been repeated before, along with many variations of it: the Baroque giving way to the Rococo, for instance.

I was recently in Macao, that Mecca of gambling, license and excess adjacent to China’s mainland. For those that think Las Vegas is overdone, they should realize that LV is merely a warm-up act for what has been built in the east.

I was there at the invitation of a Chinese business colleague and he asked for my impression, expecting me to be as awed as he was. I was, but probably not in the same way. No lily has gone ungilded. No surface is unadorned. To my friend, this is an expression of design. It surely is, and a highly effective one, but not one that I could replicate. In fact, my sense of what design is is at odds with what I observed there.

A matter of personality

By both training and inclination (or even character), I have pursued design solutions that are a simplified expression of some aspiration. As an industrial designer, my goal has been to design problem-solving artefacts that can be produced in quantity at an affordable price. In this, simplicity is a virtue. So a design exercise that consists of troweling on the doodads, with little or no consideration of expense or replicability, seems like a very different kind of exercise entirely.

However, some people like excess. And why not? Our palaces of pleasure are an exercise in fantasy and we would be worse off without our dreams. But not everyone enjoys the same level of excess. Or noise. Or riots of colour. I have come to wonder if our preferences for minimal or maximal expressions might not also have something to do with our divide into introverted and extroverted personalities.

I’ve had a preference for a more sparse expression for as long as I can recall. In early grade school, I was strongly impressed with the images of the cave paintings of Lascaux. So much was achieved with such an economy of means. It encouraged me to pursue a more minimal expression, as it showed me not only that it was possible, but that it could be powerful.

A lot of good design, or the efforts of those designers acknowledged as “good,” have been based on the value of achieving as much as possible with as little as possible. This neatly corresponds to some of the requirements of industrial design but also exists as a certain kind of aesthetic preference in and of itself.

And then there is Martha Stewart, the famous designer and inspiration for many, who popularly likes to tack fringes on to things. She’s definitely not an introvert.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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