We live in the most affluent society in history today. Then why are we feeling so divided, anxious and angry? It’s because our economy has a furious desire to control the entire planet using its lethal weapon: efficiency. It’s time to check if this is bringing us a sustainable happiness, because plenty of information and wisdom tells us that we are now heading towards the next global-scale crisis.
Let’s turn the clock back to early 20th and start our journey from where the aesthetics of “less is more” were established. As you may already know, the first prominent artist who expressly used the term “less is more” was modern architect Mies van der Rohe (1866 – 1969). But while he used the aphorism very often, “less is more” was not really his invention; it was an approach widely shared by the like-minded modern creators of his times. They collectively helped transform design/architecture from a decorative/excessive pre-modern style to a simple/clean modern one, based on the aesthetic that favored subtraction over addition in many senses. The shift revolutionized design, but it was also a reaction to the tectonic change of the underlying society as it was rapidly transforming from a rigid, hierarchical regime to a group of increasingly empowered citizens. Innovative creators like Mies sensed completely new opportunities to democratize design/architecture, taking it out of the hands of people in power so that it could become an effective tool to solve the problems of the society at large.
Such democratization of design was boosted by the rapid industrialization which made many emerging materials, such as steel, glass and concrete available and affordable by a lot more people than before. Mies took advantage of them and realized buildings that embraced “less is more” – no-frills, clean, linear, often white and in the so-called International Style. Collectively, modern designers of his era passionately pursued functional, problem solving-oriented yet beautiful designs that eliminated superfluous and irrelevant details to serve a broader class of people who rightfully demanded “more” and “better” to improve their quality of life.
If pre-modern design was about “more luxurious” or “more exclusive” to advertise/strengthen the power of the privileged class, “less is more” was a promising weapon modern society acquired that opened up new potential accessible and affordable by substantially “more” people than before.
Tectonic Shift Manifested in Architecture
The movement “less is more” in design/architecture showed that “less” could outshine “more” and make a lot more people happier. But it had another face – a darker face – as a stark reflection of social tension and collisions caused by the very “more” that helped Mies van der Rohe and his fellow creators achieve their goal by making an increasing number of solutions affordable.
Mies was born in 1886 and died in 1969. His life (and of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius or Frank Lloyd Wright, to name a few) as one of the most prominent modern architects coincided with two deadly world wars. And it was probably not by accident. The rapid economic growth that democratized many aspects of the society spurred creative energy in modern artists like Mies van der Rohe, but the very force for growth also created enormous social tensions that resulted in deadly wars.
When Mies was born, Western Europe, especially his country Germany, was in the middle of an electrifying adventure for “more.” Boosted by the Industrial Revolution and colonialism, the regional GDP grew by about 500%, and the population almost doubled from 1800 to 1900. The booming economy created a countless number of new industrial/service jobs in urban areas, to which many rural peasants flocked to form a completely new but ballooning working class. The middle class also burgeoned.
Unprecedented industrialization resulted in population surge in Europe, especially in Germany from 1850 to 1900.
It was a tectonic shift on how people lived their lives – from rural to urban, grounded to mobile, suppressed to free – virtually from “less” to “more” in many ways. You could feel the excitement of the time – “joie de vivre” – from the French Belle Époque or English Victorian culture.
However, this unprecedented level of economic growth also created strains and fractures in society. By the early 20th century, Europe became divided into two blocs hanging in the balance: The England-France-Russia coalition and the Germany-Australia-Hungary-Italy alliance. Now that 200% more people were eyeing 500% more wealth accumulating within the same geographical boundaries, the tension had to keep rising. As symbolized by the Anglo-German naval arms race, the major economic powers escalated the contest for military expansion, and the eruption of WWI seemed just a matter of time. Reflecting such intense social atmosphere, Vienna had emerged as the cultural center for the fin-de-siècle movement, and very new art schools such as Dadaism and Surrealism followed suit, brewing in the atmosphere of decadence, pessimism or nihilism. It was as if “joie de vivre” and awareness/anticipation of destruction or death were two sides of the same coin.
Growing tension among European countries finally reached a tipping point in 1914 and WWI broke out. And people were just staggered by its devastating outcome – so many “more” people were harmed due to “more” destructive weapons that were produced leveraging “more” industrial materials and advanced technology. New types of deadly weapons such as flamethrowers or poison gas emerged, and more than 15 million people died, including many civilians. (For a comparison, about 150,000 soldiers were killed in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, a precursor of WWI.)
That was the social backdrop that spawned the modern aesthetics of “less is more.”
Mies van der Rohe started his career as an architect by working at the studio of Peter Behrens in 1908. It was during this time – an era of drastic societal change in Europe – Mies started embracing new concepts and experimenting with innovative materials and design techniques. When WWI erupted, modern creators including Mies were in the middle of progressive endeavors. In 1917, in reaction to the excruciating war, a group of artists, led by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, formed a movement in the Netherlanders named “De Stijl (The Style).” It is considered to be the very earliest expression of modern Western minimalism, and its iconic style influenced creators of the time. The works of Mondrian showcase how the shock of WWI accelerated his artistic journey for “less,” or “pure” abstraction, as he put it.
Left: Spring Sun (Lentezon): Castle Ruin: Brederode, c. late 1909 – early 1910
Center: Gray Tree, 1911 Influence of Cubism is observed.
Right: Tableau I, 1921 De Stijl’s signature black lines and primary colors emerged.
Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944) [Public Domain]
Mondrian lived in Paris but was staying at his home Netherlands when war broke. Since he couldn’t go back to Paris, he went to the Laren artists’ colony in north Holland. There, he met other artists who were exploring abstract painting. He was inspired to advance his Cubism practice into further abstraction in order to seek “universal beauty” – his answer to the horror of destructive war.
It must have looked for Mondrian as if rapid economic growth inadvertently opened up a can of worms that he called the “consciousness connected to the individual” – any unique, specific or personal elements, values or feelings that help shape/feed one’s ego. Such consciousness kept growing bigger and bigger, until it collectively generates irreconcilable/deadly collisions among people, and eventually backfires to shutter their own souls and throw the entire society into chaos.
So he was determined to eliminate those elements from his art. At the end of drastic reduction, he found his goal – universal beauty – in ultimate essentials such as straight lines and primary colors. “Universal” became the key philosophy of De Stijl movement.
In 1919, right after the end of WWI and two years after the birth of De Stijl, Walter Gropius, who had previously worked for Peter Behrens with Mies van der Rohe, founded a progressive art school Bauhaus in Germany. The Bauhaus was an ambitious endeavor to embrace and elevate every kind of creation – from fine arts, architecture to crafts and industrial design – as “total work of art.” As the Bauhaus artists produced a wide range of outputs from buildings, furniture, ceramics, textiles, graphic design to typefaces; functionality was their priority as much as aesthetics. Design details were streamlined and simple form was leveraged to expose materials’ real strength/beauty without coating or covering it. Bauhaus’ functionality, problem solving-orientation, no-frills minimalist style came to be called “International Style.” It had a lot in common with the notion of the “universal” pursued by De Stijl artists: both attempted to strip away all extraneous ornament from the structure and leave only essential elements. They were meant to be truly universal so that their beauty would overcome country-level hostility or personal-level differences and touch the fundamentals of every people.
It is critical to remind ourselves that both De Stijl and the Bauhaus emerged to expressly counter the unintended consequences of society’s aggressive pursuit for economic growth, or “more.” De Stijl was created in reaction to the devastation of WWI, and the Bauhaus was founded to stop the “soullessness” of emerging mass manufactured products. In the wake of staggering social changes, the artists dug deep into the core of human existence by stripping off everything they could in order to reveal the truth. What emerged from the painful endeavors was transcendent, pure and fundamental beauty of “less”.
But sadly, history repeated its cycle. As world’s economy started growing again recovering from the wounds of WWI, the society became even more volatile. Mies van der Rohe became the director of the Bauhaus in 1930, but the school was forced to close down in 1933 due to the pressure from the Nazi regime. Soon after, Mies reluctantly left Germany and moved to the U.S. And we all know what happened after that. It almost seems that the impetus for growth had to keep snowballing once it gained momentum, and no one could stop it until it fatally crashed. But the Bauhaus alumni, including Mies and Gropius, moved to different parts of the world and pursued their own quest for beauty despite the harsh social environment. Humans have inherent power to find beauty even in desperate situations.
I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…
Mondrian’s pursuit for “universal beauty” seems to have become stoic in the face of war, as if he was a Zen priest practicing strict mediation training to arrive at the “pure land,” leaving the “vulgar” world of humans full of greed and evilness. And actually, that is what the Zen priests did in the Middle Ages in Japan to cement the aesthetics of “wabi-sabi,” their own version of “less is more.” Regarded as one of the oldest manifestation of minimalism, “wabi-sabi” emerged from a turmoil created by a rapid economic growth, very similar to how De Stijl and the Bauhaus came to an existence reflecting social unrest caused by the harsh race for “more.”
Five hundred years before De Stijl, the Bauhaus and Mies van der Rohe, Japanese Zen culture had already embraced the philosophy of “less is more,” letting magnetic beauty emerge from a careful subtraction process to reveal essential elements. Called “wabi-sabi,” the Japanese version of “less is more” also emerged from a devastation of warfare, in the same way as WWI prompted De Stijl movement. The war is called the Onin War (1467 – 1477) which is considered to be Japan’s first all-out civil war, triggered by the assassination of then-Shogun Yoshinori. He was the son of very powerful Shogun Yoshimitsu (1358 – 1408) who expanded the influence of the Ashikaga Dynasty significantly by accumulating unprecedented levels of wealth from international trade with China.
Like Louis XIV (The Sun King) of France, Yoshimitsu’s power went uncontested – until he died unexpectedly. His sons and grandsons couldn’t protect his legacy after his death, and the vacuum led to political instability as regional military leaders sought to challenge weakened shoguns. They fought to the death, making the Onin War by far the most extensive and destructive war the Japanese have experienced up to that time. They obsessively tried to destroy Kyoto, the then capital and the city of culture and elegance. After 11 years of chaotic fights, the entire city was damaged and the people of Kyoto suffered from enormous losses, both physical and emotional.
Amid excruciating social unrest, one group increased its prominence: the Zen priests. They were highly sought after as mentors for military leaders who had to constantly face fear of death, but also played a critical role as prominent artists to philosophically guide the demoralized society. Zen is a school of Buddhism that focuses on sitting meditation (zazen) that cemented its foundation in Japanese society during the 12th -14th century. Zen is unique in that it denies studying textbooks (there are tens of thousands of them in Buddhism) and believes that only physical transcendence could achieve the religious goal of Buddhism, which is to reach the state of “Nirvana” – the ultimate stage in which you’ve completely extinguished the flames of desire and greed, become empty and dissolved in the vast universe. There is no more pain, sorrow nor sufferings.
Buddhism teaches that everything in this world is transient, evanescent, inconstant and destined to change. You couldn’t, and shouldn’t count on anything as absolute or permanent, even yourself. But such a vast relativity is the very source of boundless potential and profound peace. As you will see, Buddhism is inherently a religion of “less is more” that calls for a drastic upending of perceived positive values and negative ones. If you think of the “glass half empty or half full” discussion, Buddhism goes further and completely empties the glass in order to fill it with boundless potential.
Buddhism and Zen resonated with people who had to experience the heart-wrenching destruction caused by people’s greed for “more.” Facing tough reality, Zen Buddhists pursued strict meditation training in order to “extinguish the flame of desire and greed” and to become “empty”. And at the culmination of their journey, they found their version of “universal beauty” – wabi-sabi.
“Wabi” in wabi-sabi means “become distressed, depressed, depreciated or dismayed.” “Sabi” means “deteriorate.” All in all, it is an aesthetic philosophy that finds beauty and satisfaction in things usually regarded as valueless, such as less, small, old, rustic, broken, decaying or lonely. Zen artists found boundless beauty in things that were “wabi” or “sabi,” because they knew that wabi-sabi represented the profound truth that we all live in a transient world in which everything will come and go. They crystallized this concept in various forms of art such as the tea ceremony, the Zen rock garden, calligraphy, ink painting, flower arranging, and Noh theater. After 500 years of its emergence, wabi-sabi culture continues to define Japanese aesthetics today.
You may have noticed by now that the “less is more” approach – De Stijl, the Bauhaus or wabi-sabi – emerged at the point of history when “more” exposed its most extreme aspects – unprecedented accumulation of resources/wealth followed by the violent race to seize them. While it is very true that “more” brought about a much-needed material affluence to free people from constraints and social suppression, the very affluence achieved by “more” turned out to be prone to merciless competition, and the greater the “more” became, the more destructive the contention became.
Torn between the positive power and devastating impacts of “more,” Japanese Zen artists in the Middle Ages and the modern creators after WWI seriously attempted to reveal its true face, which inevitably led to the discovery of the beauty of “less.”
As contradictory as it may sound, sincere and thorough pursuit of “more” will eventually lead to “less,” because they are two sides of the same coin, not a pair of opposite concepts that never converge. If you keep tilting a coin that has “more” on its surface, it ultimately will flip and become “less.” By the same token, if you keep tilting a coin that has “less” on its surface, it will ultimately become “more.” And the aesthetic of “less is more” kept surfacing when “more” abruptly flipped to “less.”
The heads-tails relationship of “more” and “less” can be likened to the queen and Snow White in a fairy tale written by the Brothers Grimm. The queen, who took pride in being beautiful, would ask her magic mirror every day who was the fairest one of all. The mirror, which could only tell the truth, initially answered that it was the queen. But to her dismay, one day it started answering that it was now Snow White, her step daughter. The queen was infuriated and tried in evil ways to get rid of Snow White. But none of her plots worked, and she eventually had to succumb to Snow White and her true beauty.
History indicates that “more” was the queen, “less” was Snow White, and “less is more” was the queen’s magic mirror that revealed the critical turning point at which the beauty of “more” peaked and started deteriorating. Beauty is never everlasting, but in the tale the queen not only refused to accept the reality, but also tried to resort to violence to resist it. It was a definitive mistake that ruined her beauty and turned it into a source of threat.
Is our pursuit for “more” today at the point-of-no-return that the queen wrongfully ignored? Is “more” starting to reveal its dangerous side, as its benefits evaporate? If you were to ask our own version of magic mirror, it might say yes. It is now reflecting a slew of new “less is more” movements that are gaining traction quietly, but rapidly: minimalist life styles, de-cluttering, the tiny house, digital nomads, the sharing economy, the early retirement boom among millennials…just to name a few. People, especially the younger generation, are disillusioned by the current material/information-ridden, winners-take-all-so-you-have-to-be-the-winner kind of social pressure and are choosing a freer, slow-paced and non-competitive environment even sacrificing affluence and social status. They might well be the “canary in a coal mine” that are sending us a warning for what’s coming.