As the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has been attracting millions of viewers, it seems like the society is increasingly intrigued by the idea of decluttering, owning less belongings, going minimalist, and even living in a tiny house. If people are seeing these approaches as remedies/therapies from stress, it must mean that the material overload has become a modern syndrome, as much as pleasure. It just took us long time to realize it.
But why did it take so long? It’s because humans are instinctive animals that always seek prey, as much as they are logical/rational beings. And as far as the economy is concerned, the latter is at the mercy of the first – to our surprise. As Scott Galloway, distinguished Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern School of Business wrote that: “instinct is a powerful chaperone, always watching and whispering in your ear, telling what you must do to survive…Instinct, coupled with a profit motive, makes for excess. And the worst economic system, except for all the rest – capitalism – is specifically designed to maximize the equation,” (From his best-selling book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.)
Ever since the Industrial Revolution start giving us effective tools, our instinct, coupled with the profit motive, kept “maximizing the equation” under increasingly free markets. In reaction, we kept buying products, listening to the whispers of our inner hunter instincts: “it’s now or never. Go get it!” In doing so, we totally miscalculated or ignored our capacity to manage them. Things kept piling up, and bills kept piling up. When things got out of hand, we felt desperate and ran for KonMari methodTM.
What will happen if we allow logical/rational thinking to guide instinctive desire in our economy? Instead of caving into the sweet whisper to “go get it” whenever prey is in front of us, is it possible to let our sensitivity overcome the urge? Is it possible to make decisions to only make and buy things that make our lives better, happier and more beautiful?
Let’s ask designers, because they are the experts at finding and creating beauty in our everyday life. Japanese graphic designer Kenya Hara, who has been behind Japanese brand MUJI’s simple (he rather calls it “empty”) aesthetics, observed in this book “Japanese design”: “It’s better to reduce the number of your belongings in order to keep your living environment neat, clean and agreeable. It was common sense, but we somehow forgot over the course as we busied ourselves buying more and more things.” He continues: “Imagine if traditional Japanese rooms that boast uniquely simple beauty were full of clutter?”
Keeping the place neat is not a novel idea at all, but it’s getting increasingly difficult as we are surrounded by more products. Hara continues: “Each and every product has its own process to finally arrive at consumers’ hands, starting from material extraction, manufacturing to marketing. But what if the majority of those products, after people invested so many resources, energy and efforts, were trivial and inconsequential that they didn’t make any difference to your life?” “It’s pathetic if the only change they ended up delivering is distraction and degrades the quality of your life.”
“The ultimate goal of mass production/consumption should be to make our world a comfortable and pleasant place to live. We have to remember to stick to the goal. Keep acquiring irrelevant things doesn’t help us achieve our goal.”
Then what does a life without material overload look like? In the book, Hara gives some examples of how an environment that is devoid of irrelevant things activates your senses, excites your aesthetic curiosity and makes you feel good. Take a hotel that is simple but well taken care of, he suggests. Since it focuses on essentials, it won’t bombard you with excessive visuals, sounds or commercial stimuli. Instead they will make sure that all important (relevant) details are nailed and maintained perfectly. If it was a Japanese-style hotel (ryokan), you would sit on neatly cleaned tatami mattress. Since there’s nothing to distract your attention, you will fully appreciate its feeling under your bare feet, while noticing seasonal flowers arranged in a traditional vase, or calligraphy displayed in tokono-ma, a small recessed area (You can see it in the below picture (left)).
If it was a Western-style hotel, you would probably be reminded of how good high-quality bed linens and bathrobes feel on your skin. It’s the kind of bliss you can only feel when you fully concentrate on and unleash the potential of your five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.
What about a life without material overload at home? Hara says that decluttering – removing unnecessary items to make your life simpler – is about setting the stage on which you can truly enjoy what you decided to keep, whether it’s a piece of furniture or tools. “It’s not just pieces of art that are beautiful – indeed, each and every daily product or tool has its own beauty if they were made with great attention to every detail.”
By now, you may have realized that Hara is not really advocating for quantitative reduction when it comes to decluttering. When the whole point of decluttering is to make your life joyful, comfortable and beautiful, the items you keep need to be products of aesthetic and functional quality. But that’s not the end of the story. In order to be able to enjoy them, you need to be engaged. You need to be concentrated and activate your abilities and senses. Hara further writes: “Imagine you kept a crystal glass. A simple, clear, empty, just a regular glass. But once you put an ice cube (probably single large one) and pour good quality whiskey in it, an aromatic, beautiful amber emerges in front of you. If you have a clean table and a neat coaster, your glass of whiskey would look even more pleasing.” It is as if you collaborate with your belongings or surroundings to let beautiful and pleasing things emerge: instead of buying an auto whiskey-making machine (a typical “good deal” marketing approach), you arrange the glass, the ice and whiskey in the way you like, and place that arrangement in a setting that pleases you.
But Hara laments that we have forgotten that kind of bliss. Take traditional craftsmanship. There are so many brands that have been delivering beautiful and functional products for centuries: furniture, timepieces, leather products, chinaware…the list goes on. But unfortunately, traditional industries are struggling everywhere in the world because they simply cannot compete in the market led by our “go get good deals” instincts. “It’s not because those products lost their quality or charm. There still are so many beautiful products today, whether they are pottery or tools. They are struggling because modern people simply lost the mental (and physical) space to engage with them…The problem is not on the production side: it’s on the user side. People no longer pay enough attention to each item nor give them the sufficient time, physical and mental space that are needed to truly appreciate them. We’ve lost the environment that makes them shine.”
He concludes: “It’s not how luxurious your belongings are or how many of them you have that make your life truly rich. It’s the depth of engagement you make with each item you own.” Truly good items can “mature” if you use and take care of them on a regular basis. And you need to be surrounded by those products to achieve a truly, rich living environment. It is for this reason that house is an important product.
So Hara has been working actively to imagine the next generation house and living environment through “HOUSE VISION” which he directs, and MUJI HOUSE. MUJI HOUSE recently released the Yo no Ie (Sun House) in Japan, which was supervised by Hara. It was the first time a MUJI HOUSE product was supervised by a designer instead of an architect. There is no doubt that this house will be the place to engage with your “hand-picked” products only, and enjoy a life that is joyous, comfortable and beautiful.