As one of the most influential architects in modern history, Mies van der Rohe (1866 – 1969) helped define modern architecture/design in the early 20th century and advocated a “less is more” approach to design. Reacting to rapid industrialization and drastic social changes – including two devastating world wars – he designed geometrically simple buildings, leveraging emerging industrial materials such as steel and glass, and pursued “universal” spaces open to anyone by eliminating extravagant and luxurious details that restricted who could use a building and for what purpose.
It may sound contradictory, but “less is more” was a product of radical twentieth century industrialization and technological change: Mies realized his no-frills, linear, international-style buildings took advantage of increasingly affordable industrial materials. It allowed him to respond to new requirements from the society at large, which was rapidly transforming from a rigid, hierarchical regime to a group of increasingly empowered individuals. “Less” was a device to decouple luxurious excessiveness from design so that products and buildings could become available, affordable and helpful to a large number of emerging citizens. “Less” helped advance design from pre-modern (the era of exclusiveness and closed-ness) to modern (the era of freedom and openness).
At the same time, “less is more” was also a product of social tension and stress caused by rapid industrialization. As this change realized unprecedented accumulation of wealth – “more” – it also started to trigger various kinds of confrontations with the ever-increasing population. People felt anxious and became aggressive, trying to defend their share of the pie, which resulted in two destructive world wars, bridged by a great depression. Such devastation made people question what “more” really meant, and what kind of benefits/challenges it brought to society. Dutch art movement “De Stijl” (1917 ~), which is considered to be an early stage expression of modern Western minimalism, was a reaction to the horror of World War I. By focusing on design elements that were purely universal and fundamental to anyone, such as straight lines and primary colors, De Stijl artists attempted to re-imagine essential values that could be naturally shared by people in restoring the order in a society thrown into chaos by violence.
Five hundred years before Mies van der Rohe and De Stijl, 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. When the Japanese version of “less is more” – usually known as “wabi-sabi” – emerged, Japanese society had just gone through a rapid economic growth and a devastating civil war (called the Onin-war) caused by competing regional leaders who tried to capitalize on accumulated wealth. Amid excruciating social unrest, wabi-sabi discovered beauty in seemingly negative factors such as less, small, absent, decaying, broken or abandoned.
“Less is more” and “wabi-sabi” both emerged from a bitter realization that “more” was a double-edged sword. While it brought about much-needed material affluence to free people from constraints and discrimination, the very affluence created severe social tensions and merciless competitions that led to massive destruction. Put in a devastating situation, Japanese Zen artists in the Middle Ages and De Stijl creators after WWI sought to offer an alternative to the value system that accelerated the competition for “more.” “Less” was their device to free people from the unintended negative consequences of “more.”
Today, about 600 years after the Ryoanji rock garden and 150 years after Mies van der Rohe was born, the power of “less is more” is needed more than ever, because society is looking increasingly volatile as we go through rapid social changes, which are accelerated by an ever-growing global economy. “More” – material affluence supported by a robust economic system that prioritizes maximization of economic output – seems to be at its pinnacle. But despite that, – or because of that, we don’t know – we are increasingly divided, feeling stressed, left out, anxious and insecure – instead of feeling happy. If happiness was what “more” was supposed to deliver to us, for many it’s going in the opposite direction. At the same time, resources are rapidly depleting and the environment is deteriorating, making our future even more uncertain.
It is critical to step back and ask ourselves what kind of “more” we really want from the robust economic system we have today. Of course we want to live a healthy, stable life. But what about the negative side-effects? If our pursuit of “more” results in increased competition and division, is that what we also want? Or do we want to change it?
Our Current Economic System is Centrifugal
The most confusing thing about “more” and “less” in an economic system is that they are two sides of the same coin, rather than a pair of opposing concepts. Because our resources are not infinite, there are always more than enough people who should be eligible for a fair share of the pie. When some people get “more,” others get “less” and the negative side effects of the “more”-centric economy are maximized when the economic output is maximized.
When a society is busy enjoying robust economic growth and the resulting material affluence, the threats from confrontations and divisions quietly but swiftly keep mounting behind the jubilation. And when the threats exceed a certain threshold, the coin suddenly flips, and the negative side-effects gush out: recessions often start abruptly, plunging society into turmoil in a blink of an eye.
But in today’s world, the mounting threats are becoming noticeable enough while the level of material affluence is undoubtedly the highest in the history. The levels on both sides of the coin are now very elevated and even saturated, and news on positive economic growth doesn’t quite soothe our nervousness.
What is unique about our current system that achieves such an exponential growth? Unlike the era of “wabi-sabi” or “less is more,” our society today is largely democratic and free. There are much fewer restrictions on the extent that the economy can become a controlling force in the global community. Indeed, it is almost looking as if it IS ruling the entire planet: nothing and no one can escape from being assessed on its economic value or given a price tag so that any intrinsic value can be traded for any potential profit.
As a result, the system is intensifying its centrifugal momentum for competition. We are now all thrown into a big, single bowl as potential resources and are spun very fast. Most of the conventional shields or barriers are no longer sturdy enough to protect individual communities or people from the intense competition. Only large capital, smart/competitive people and state-of-the-art technology are allowed to stay at its center so that the resources and investments can be concentrated on them.
Figure: Our economic system is centrifugal.
There are two commanding gatekeepers in this system that are accelerating centrifugal momentum: efficiency and productivity. It’s their job to put price tags on everyone and everything, because it is the most effective way to exploit the most potent resources, whether it’s material input, people or capital. Once chosen, the “elite” resources will swiftly engage in an intensive game of maximizing the economic output, which is the goal of the system.
Others are spun outward. Such concentration further accelerates the momentum, making the bowl spin even faster. As the system keeps growing – or snowballing – the centrifugal force become overwhelmingly strong. More and more people are spun outward, farther and farther from the center of the economic stage.
Figure: Centrifugal force denies inefficient resources.
Until pretty recently, such competition was rather at a national or regional level. If you were in a winning region, you were able to access the benefits of the centrifugal force, securing a stable job that allowed you to support your family and make your life comfortable and enjoyable. But today, the competition is so fierce on every front that we have to take on it at an individual level. It is as if each one of us is forced to compete in World Cup qualifiers on a daily basis. Your future/win is no longer guaranteed, no matter where you are and what you do. As a matter of fact, increasing number of communities, regions, and people are declared “disqualified” to participate in the global economic markets, even though they are located in a winning country, if their resume/agenda is slightly different from what the market requires. As a result, our society is becoming seriously divided and people are feeling insecure, anxious and angry.
If it wasn’t enough, the centrifugal force has been so strong that it has driven nature from the economic center to the farthest corner, only to let it deteriorate. Just like many of us are feeling exhausted from fierce competitions natural resources are squeezed like a lemon, which is starting to threaten our own future. Although it achieved unprecedented rapid growth, the centrifugal speed of our economic system has become too fast for many of us to keep up and enjoy the benefits it delivers.
Examining “maximized economic outputs”
It looks like the time has come for us to leverage “less” again, as we enter the crucial moment of history where an unprecedented level of economic affluence is triggering intense competition among 7 billion people, who are collectively putting enormous stress on natural resources. And as a matter of fact, people are already starting to re-imagine “less” in today’s context. Things like the minimalist life style, decluttering, the tiny house or Zen-inspired mindfulness are gaining traction – surprisingly rapidly. But still, those are considered personal choices, not the choice of how our economic system can potentially work. In order to embrace “less” at an economy-wide scale, it is imperative to understand how “less” can actually “maximize” economic output. How is the ever-intensifying centrifugal force improving products and services? How can “less” do better? Take strawberries as an example.
Genetically, strawberries are strawberries as long as they are grown from strawberry seeds. And in an economics textbook, a strawberry is considered a strawberry associated with a fixed amount of “utility” no matter where/how they are grown. But we all know that is not the case.
The kind of strawberries that are produced in the current agro/economic system would look large in size, compared to the strawberries in the past. The one in the picture is about 1 ½ inches in diameter. If you remember the size of the strawberries you used to eat as a child, it’s obvious that centrifugal force is making them larger and larger. Our current system is so good at identifying the most efficient way to produce large amounts of larger strawberries from less investment and effort per piece – whether it means operating large-scale production, applying genetic modifications to make them grow faster and easier, choosing stronger fertilizer or more effective pesticides/herbicides. These are all efficient strategies to increase productivity that reduce/replace time and labor-intensive – inefficient – farming practices that local farmers have developed in the past, spending years and years interacting with their surrounding environment.
So the size/volume of strawberries is definitely what efficiency/productivity has maximized. What else did they maximize? You won’t know until you cut and eat them – and that is when things start to look a bit questionable. When you cut the “efficient” strawberries, you may find that the meat is mostly white and rather firm. They don’t have much aroma/flavor. And since they are not very sweet either, you would have to use sugar to increase your enjoyment.
Since strawberries are food, their primary values should be their tastefulness and nutrition. However, efficient strawberries don’t score high in either category. And as a matter of fact, the volume – the only obvious advantage we’ve identified so far – might not have have improved, because the size increase might have been achieved by simply increasing water content, which probably dilutes the flavor with no gain in calories. If that’s the case, there might not be much benefit in consuming “efficient” strawberries.
Then what do strawberries of “less,” or smaller strawberries look like?
Let’s take a look at strawberries that come in a “natural” size – the size that is inherent to the species, and the size at which they can grow best. It may not be the size humans want to see – it is often much, much smaller than the gigantic strawberries that come from the “more”–centric economic system.
But when you cut and eat them, you will realize how much those “small” strawberries can offer. Even before cutting them, you smell a pleasant aroma. The meat is beautifully red inside and out. The flesh is dense but tender, and has delicious juice. Both flavors and nutrients are “maximized.” Such delicious/nutritious strawberries have been produced by devoted farmers who know how to cooperate with the local climate and soil conditions to let strawberries thrive, using only good quality/healthy fertilizers and limited amounts of pesticides.
If a strawberry from the “more”-centric economy was diluted to become large, its counterpart is condensed.
In addition to the maximized eating experience, these strawberries have been grown locally and are sold at a farmers’ market in your neighborhood. You can buy directly from the people who grew them, feeling great about supporting the local economy. You may also learn at the farmer’s stand what it means to grow strawberries, the best season to enjoy them, and a tip or two on how to make delicious strawberry jam. And last but not least, you will amaze your family and/or your guests, rejoicing to discover how “real” strawberries taste.
Demystifying the myth of “more”
We have found that the “more” that comes from our productivity/efficiency-dominated system may not have as much benefit as we once believed. Why does it happen? It is because maximized value at the point of sales is not necessarily equal to a maximized user experience, and our system focuses on the former, not the latter. When it happens, our clear-as-day assumption that “more” is always “more” actually falls apart. When efficiency and productivity dominate the entire game, “more” is often “manufactured” by diluting quality in order to increase the volume. But since the actual content or the source of satisfaction embedded in a product might not have changed, or even decreased in order to improve cost efficiency, “more” becomes “less.” That is when we need to flip our value system and start embracing “less is more.”
Less is more economy
In an economic system in which maximized economic output is not directly correlated with maximized user experience, “more” becomes “less” and “less is more” becomes true. As you might have realized by now, “less is more” is not a quantitative comparison: it is a correction process to make maximized economic output equal to maximized user experience.
So how does the correction process work? We need to replace the intimidating gatekeepers of our system– efficiency and productivity – with something else so that production can regain its focus on user experience.
In the “less is more” economy, we propose to replace productivity with our own potential, and replace efficiency with beauty (aesthetics). You may react: “So are you simply replacing efficiency with inefficiency?” Well, it’s not that simple, so bear with us. The replacement process is not so much about denying efficiency or productivity and going back to old-fashioned, labor-intensive economy. It is rather about identifying and eliminating the negative side-effects of the current system that result in damaging our happiness, either by unnecessarily intensifying competition or decreasing user experience. In other word, the “less is more” economy questions what kind of “more” we really need to feel happy. And surprisingly enough, it also becomes about blurring the boundaries between “producers” and “consumers,” and setting up a stage in which anyone can engage and be involved.
The reason why we need to leverage our own potential is not because we deny productivity, but because that’s the only way you can feel accomplished and proud. If you’ve ever created something, you will remember the feeling of being a proud producer even if your production was not something marketable. But do you ever remember feeling like a proud consumer? You need your own engagement in some fashion for real satisfaction.
Likewise, the reason why we need to leverage beauty is because it is a source of happiness: We call things that resonate with our fundamental values “beautiful,” and not only things that are cosmetic or artistic. Products are beautiful when they are natural, humane, kind, caring, nutritious, inspiring, encouraging or engaging. The buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe and Zen gardens are beautiful, but strawberries grown by dedicated farmers are also beautiful. Unlike efficiency, which is quantified using common profit and loss units, beauty can take many shapes and the potential is boundless. You could and should have your own aesthetic standards by which you decide what kind of products makes you happy.
When you leverage our own power, you are no longer a mere “consumer” – someone who is only good at consuming, or someone who is consumed by an efficiency-driven system – but are an engaged and proactive player in the entire experience. When you leverage your ability to create/find beauty around you, you discover a wide ranging potential to find happiness, so you no longer have to rely entirely on material things. And since nature is our primary source of happiness, it will never be sidelined – it is crucial part of our daily life.
Figure: The “Less is more” economy prioritizes our own happiness.
As society has accelerated its pursuit toward “more,” we’ve somehow come to believe that happiness had to be and could be manufactured somewhere else and delivered to us as a great value. We somehow separated people who produce the source of happiness (the winners in the efficiency game) and people who would receive it as consumers. Efficiency escalated the division because it’s faster to let only large capital, competitive people and state-of-the-art technology engage in the production process and exclude the less-efficient others. But it turns out that becoming a mere consumer was very similar to being rejected in the efficiency game, deprived of opportunities to contribute to the society and receive a recognition for your unique work. The kind of “more” that emerges from such a divisive system is not something that makes you happy, but makes you anxious.
By leveraging “less,” we can revive the values that are labelled “inefficient” and “unproductive” in the current system but have boundless potential to unleash happiness.
At the end of the day, only you can design/determine your own happiness, and there is no efficient route to achieve your goal. If mass-produced, bargain products cannot satisfy you, it’s not because they are not efficient enough, but because they are not resonating with your fundamental values. If you can’t shine by competing for good grades, you should be allowed to contribute through collaboration. There should be many ways for you to explore your own happiness.
Through his “less is more” design, Mies van der Rohe opened up new opportunities for emerging citizens who were starting to design new lifestyles/futures in an emerging urban environment. Zen rock gardens discovered vast beauty in the voids created by eliminating plants and water – presumed essential elements – from a garden. “Less” gives us unexplored potential for beauty and happiness, and the tradition still persists. There are many examples of “less is more” today which will inspire you to start embracing new kinds of happiness.
Inspiring stories of “less is more” economy
Useful External Resources
There are also various movements that attempt to re-think and re-imagine our system as a whole. Although they take different approaches and pursue unique goals, there is one thing they have in common: which is a realization that we may not fix the “mega challenges” we face today using the same system that created them. Emerging ideas embrace “less is more” in their own way, including by leveraging sustainability, empowering individuals and local communities or decentralizing the economic blocks.