Small but Smug: Meet the New and Lapsed Minimalists


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March 27 2013 2:23 PM

Is Minimalism Really Sustainable?


It’s easy to live with very few things if you can buy whatever you want.

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It depends. Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan is now divorced and shares custody of Ursula. After the 265-square-footer, he lived in a 480-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, but it grew too small, so he recently moved to “a two-bedroom a little farther away.” In June, in an article titled “Tree by Tree, Yurt by Yurt” and subtitled “In East Hampton, the founder of Apartment Therapy learns from his design mistakes,” he shows reporter Elaine Louie around his family’s 18-acre property. He’s helped decorate a barn, six yurts, and a two-story house. Louie summarizes Gillingham-Ryan’s new aesthetic: “More important than perfection … is a home that feels expansive and approachable. And luxurious … it creates a feeling of abundance.” What about minimalism, its streamlined, utilitarian elegance? Well, Gillingham-Ryan told Louie, “people love restaurants because the kitchens are practical and simple.” But even better is the “sense of plenty: lots of wine, lots of candles.”  

Or take Everett Bogue, another seeming apostate from the minimalist church. According to his e-book, “The Art of Being Minimalist,” which is no longer available online, Bogue had an epiphany in 2009 that led him to quit his New York job, sell his possessions, and wander around the world. Yet after three years of living out of one bag (and feverishly blogging about his experiences), Bogue had had enough. “Fuck Minimalism,” he wrote in a valedictory post on his blog, Beyond the Stars. (The blog has since been deleted.) “Minimalism was cool for a while. Now, it’s simply the echo of a revolution that once was.” Though a lively chorus of minimalist writers begged to differ, many granted that their practice of the art was less extreme than Bogue’s. “The next time someone tells you to throw everything away, laugh,” instructed one such blogger. “You know the wisdom of moderation.”

Moderation is a watchword for Dave Bruno, inventor of the 100 Thing Challenge. These days, Bruno lives in California with his wife, three children, and “about 130 to 140 personal items,” he says. He’s no longer practicing the challenge, but its lessons remain: He finds himself less reliant on shopping to relieve stress. He takes walks, gardens, spends time with his family. Bruno prefers the term simple living to minimalism, because he thinks you can own a fair number of items and still adhere to the philosophy—as might an artist with an extensive supply of paints. For him, simple living is about “refusing the consumer culture that tells us we won’t be happy or satisfied unless we continually get stuff.”

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Though Bruno’s wife and kids didn’t participate in the challenge and do not consider themselves minimalists, he says it wasn’t too difficult for him to pare down his routine. (He acknowledges that objects shared among family members, like a kitchen table, don’t count toward his total number of possessions.) He is determined to live “a normal life, with a normal job and a normal suburban house. If you shadowed me for a day, there’s nothing about my existence that would seem super minimalist,” he explains. Does he ever relapse? Not often, but “last Christmas, I bought supplies to do lino-cuts, which are like wood carvings made of linoleum,” he admits. “I fell into the idea that if I buy the stuff, I’ll do the thing that I want to do.”

Stuff, it turns out, is pretty easy to defend. It can be useful. It can be evocative. It can embody, as one colleague phrased it, “memories and pacts and connections.” Ancient gods and goddesses had accoutrements that symbolized their power: Mercury carried a wand. Poseidon bore a trident. Demeter hauled around wreaths and fruit. “No ideas but in things,” insisted William Carlos Williams, voicing the mantra of the Imagists (not to mention Snooki and the Kardashians).

As for Bishop’s poem, “One Art” is a villanelle, the poetic form most suited to addicts because of the way its repeated lines enact a relapse. It’s the poetic form most suited to hoarders because it never lets anything go. There are exceptions like Dave Bruno, but for most of us, the things we try to lose keep returning to haunt us.

All of which is to say: Graham Hill, I’ve got my fingers crossed for you. I hope you can lead “a bigger, better, richer life with less.” But if you can’t, and you wind up backsliding into clutter along with the rest of us, that’s no disaster.

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