Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Nothing is the New Black

Rifle-through most any interior design or architectural magazine and you’ll notice something…or perhaps we should say you’ll notice nothing. Rooms with little furniture. Walls with almost no art. Counters with nary a tchotchke or adornment. “When It’s Cool To Have Nothing,” a recent article in the NY Times, explores the popular and somewhat counterintuitive phenomenon of equating less stuff with more style and affluence.

Author Anna North starts off citing a critique of this idea made by Ian Svenonius in Jacobin Magazine. He talks about the modern minimalist’s cultish idealization of Apple products, where everything is clean and sleek and all outmoded possessions–photos, CDs, DVDs, files–are tucked neatly in the cloud. Svenonius writes, “Apple has turned the world upside down in making possessions a symbol of poverty and having nothing a signifier of wealth and power.”

Svenonius even goes so far as to suggest a conspiratorial agenda by the tech industry in creating this minimalist ideal. They want to abolish the past, memories, totems, all things non-industrially-manufactured, all things non-tech. He writes:

The computer lords want to control everything, and central to controlling all things is controlling perception. Perception of the way things are, the way things work, and what’s happened in history so that they can frame their version of events and control the narrative; mind-controlling the masses to make them into better, more compliant consumers.

While North expands on Svenonius’ fairly tongue-in-cheek diatribe against the Church of Apple and all of its congregants, clutching their iPads like Bibles, she brings up some more level-headed charges as well. She addresses the idea that there’s an implicit affluence to anyone who chooses to have less. In other words, many people have less because they can’t afford more. North cites a Jezebel article in which author Tracy Moore writes, “Getting rid of things requires the having of things.”

On the surface, Moore’s claim makes sense, even though it contradicts Svenonius’ (perhaps misguided or incomplete) reverse claim that hyper-accumulation is the hallmark of poverty. It’s the same argument the NY Times lobbed at LifeEdited founder Graham Hill a couple years ago in their article “Selling the Pared Down Life.” It’s the idea that choosing less means that you could have more, and this ostensible hypocricy somehow cancels out the validity of the idea altogether.

While there is some truth to Moore’s (and others’) claim, the idea doesn’t withstand a visit to Walmart, where vast tracts of stuff–stuff that fills closets, storage lockers, nooks, crannies, landfills and neural pathways–are available for purchase to all but the most meager budgets.

North talked to Joshua Fields Millburn, who along with partner in minimalism Ryan Nicodemus, publishes the blog The Minimalists. He tries to dispel the notion that living with less is the rich man’s luxury. He says, “If anything, people with fewer resources, especially those with less money, can benefit most from minimalism because a minimalist lifestyle helps people determine what truly adds value to their lives— what things actually serve a purpose and bring joy,” and goes on to state that, “Rich or poor, married or single, black or white, simplifying one’s life can only benefit one’s circumstances.”

As to Svenonius’ claim of some Jony Ive-lead cabal shaping the techno-minimalist aesthetic, we have to respectfully disagree. Even he points to minimalism as part of a continuum of thought–from Bauhaus to Zen Buddhism, people have tried to live with less, to create clear open spaces free from noise and even the (often adored) artifacts of our past. Sure, there can be the tendency to obsess about, and even fetishize, reduction as much as others do addition, but the heart of the concept is becoming free from the unnecessary.

Svenonius misses some big, inconvenient truths. Minimalism is becoming such a movement now because of a widespread realization that the hoarding tendency he so cheekily lauds–a tendency with a massive grey scale is should be noted–is really screwing us up. Largely because of its accessibility across the various socioeconomic strata and across the world, it’s having a more pronounced negative impact on our collective pocketbooks, planet and emotional wellbeing. There’s no conspiracy, just exhaustion from dealing with all of our crap.

And we couldn’t agree more with Fields Millburn. The minimalist issue is not a rich or poor one, not a male or female, young or old, Apple or PC one. It’s a human one. Why wouldn’t everyone strive to only have what they need, to include only the things that bring joy and value, whether made by Apple or not?

Empty White Room image via Shutterstock

  • Ani

    It’s interesting, but in my work I often see low-income households with mounds of “stuff” everywhere. Besides the downright hoarders, there does seem to be a tendency to stockpile everything. I’ve wondered about this, and I think that some of it resides in a fear that one might need the item in question someday so keeping it is prudent. Thus old broken down fridges and furniture, clothing that no longer fits, etc.Or a stockpile of CFL bulbs enough to last several lifetimes because they were free at the Food Shelf. Perhaps to some extent minimalism most appeals to those who feel secure in knowing that should they find themselves in need of an item, they will in fact be able to purchase one.

    • Skye Lon

      just before I looked at the bank draft which was of $4722 , I didn’t believe …that…my best friend woz like actually making money in their spare time from their computer. . there neighbor has done this for under 12 months and recently repaid the morgage on there house and got opel.

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  • Elvis Eddie

    “There’s no conspiracy, just exhaustion from dealing with all of our crap.” ABSOLUTELY!

  • clarkbennett

    I think different people come to a minimalist view point for different reasons and one can’t make blanket statements about it or completely dismiss others views of it. Nothing may be the new black for the affluent, but for me it’s about the freedom to put everything I own into the back of my car and leave without having to arrange to sell, store, or give way everything. The hardest thing for me is trying to convince friends and family that I don’t want anything for the holidays or my birthday, then deciding what to do with the expensive things they’ve given me that have no resale value.

    • Ani

      Yes, I’ve been working at paring down my possessions. Selling my home was a good way to continue the process. Now I’ve got way less “stuff”, with a list of items still to sell. I want to be able to easily move in the future and fit into an even smaller place. I also dislike the look and feel of clutter. I doubt I’d ever be able to fit everything I own into a car, unless I made a big move overseas, but would be content with fitting it all into say a 500 sq ft apt.

  • Kathy Black

    In 1974, an elderly friend gave me one of her prized possessions in celebration of HER birthday. She was turning 94; I was 15. She continued to give away personal items as she prepared herself for death. Her goal was to let go of as many material things as possible and spend her precious time and energy on what mattered most to her: friends and family. Forty years later, I’m still practicing what she taught me and from a spiritual perspective, see this as something anyone might benefit from, young or old; rich or poor; red & yellow, black & white, if it aligns with your values.

  • Chris

    I think that there’s some truth in that being a Minimalist is for people who are financially ok. I can afford to give away something that costs $20-30 because I can easily afford to buy it again, if I need it.

    If $20-30 meant the difference between being able to feed my family or pay rent or whatever, then I wouldn’t let the item go because I couldn’t afford to easily replace it.

    The challenge for the financially ok is not to buy lots of stuff just because you can.

  • DianaBGKY

    There are some excellent points made in the comments area about the finances of a person and whether he/she easily discards stuff.

    I’m middle-ground here. I have art work and such, but everything is now something I love and/or soimething important to me. Having stayed in hotels quite a bit in the past, I can say that the thing I loved at first was the minimalism. And the thing that eventually bored the shot out of me was the minimalism. Balance can be a wonderful thing.

  • Doug

    I work for an insurance restoration firm, I go in and clean up houses after they have been flooded due to a failed sump pump etc. It is a rare occasion when we get a house with an empty basement. It is unbelievable how much stuff people have. Sometimes it takes a crew three days to pack up the stuff before my crew can go and do demolition work. At one house I counted 45 pair of golf shoes for the three people that were living there. Crazy.

  • Bill

    “Apple has turned the world upside down in making possessions a symbol of poverty and having nothing a signifier of wealth and power.” – that is a brilliant quote. Well, written article. We are much more than what we accumulate and there is a different kind of wealth in that reality.

  • Maggie

    I’ve had the rooms full of ‘stuff’. My partner still has a desk and bookcase full of stuff. But one thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is how enervating stuff is. It has ceased to be a sign of freedom, as in the ability to buy things; instead stuff is a burden sucking the life out of me. It’s a slow process but every time I get rid of something, I can feel my life becoming a little lighter.