Slowly, but steadily, the idea of “less is more” is spreading.  The magic of tidying-up and decluttering is gaining momentum.  More and more people are becoming minimalists, and choosing to live in a tiny houseMUJI, a Japanese brand that boasts simple, succinct design with no frills, is enjoying global expansion.  What’s behind all this?

In our society, “more” is highly rated.  “More” is better. “More” makes us happy.  But a considerable number of people are starting to take a different approach: they are starting to subtract some (or a lot) from “more.”  They are aggressively seeking to own “less,” instead of “more,” and say they feel much better and happier.

If you subtract something from “more,” you will be creating a physical vacuum where there once was “more.”  If less is generating an equal amount of, or more happiness, there must be something in this vacuum.  What’s in this vacuum that’s making so many of us feel comfortable and happy?

One of the clues can be found in the traditional Japanese culture, especially the Zen-inspired culture and philosohpy, which continues to attract many from around the world.

Kenya Hara (left: photo by  Yoshiaki Tsutsui) has a suggestion.

He is a prominent Japanese graphic designer who does a great job articulating the effectiveness of traditional Japanese aesthetics, even in today’s highly commercialized world.  He has played a pivotal role cementing MUJI‘s brand philosophy.

He observes that “less is more” (he calls it “emptiness”) has been one of the major tenets of Japanese traditional culture, and it is supported by resources called “aesthetics.” (”日本のデザイン” (Japanese Design) Kenya Hara, Iwanami Publishing, 2011)

Yes, resources.  According to Hara, aesthetics are resources just like natural resources or human resources, which add economic value.  Even though mostly ignored in today’s economic equations, aesthetics are undoubtedly adding quality to the work we produce.  And those qualities have been the differentiating factors for many Japanese arts, products and services – to this day.  Decades ago, Japanese cars established their reputation through their reliability.  And the reliability was supported by aesthetics of individual workers who were committed to complete each detail without compromise.  On another front, Japanese architecture has been playing a unique role by offering simple, minimalist and natural aesthetics.  MUJI, dubbed commercial Zen, is expanding leveraging the aesthetics of “emptiness,” which is actually advocated by Hara himself.

We can make an assumption that aesthetics could be filling the vacuum that emerges when we subtract things from “more” to create “less.”  And it comes with a subtle, but critical detail — whether or not aesthetics could fill the void will determine if the end result, or “less,” can bring us satisfaction and happiness.

Take cleaning, says Hara.  Is there such thing as aesthetic cleaning that generates more quality and more value, hence makes people happier? Can cleaning fill the void to make “less” more satisfying?

According to Hara, the answer is yes.

Cleaning can be done with sensitivity, concentration and precision, to make the end result serene.

The Japanese zen rock garden is often praised for its simplicity.  Called kare-sansui (meaning greens and water expressed by lifeless things), a zen garden typically uses a few iconic rocks to represent the abundance of nature.  Absence of “life” stirs vast imagination and a sense of tranquility in the visitors’ minds.  But it does not mean that it is simple to take care of.  Actually it’s the opposite: in order to keep the place so serene, you’d have to rake and weed on a regular basis.  And you need concentration when you rake.  Beautiful waves of pebbles can only be created through careful, aesthetic raking.  If you try to use a machine of any kind just to make the process “efficient,” the beauty will probably be spoiled.

And often times it is this invisible cleaning aesthetics that are making the Zen-inspired, minimalist products/services comforting, relaxing and purifying.  Even if it’s not explicitly displayed, the fact that someone has been taking care of it with love, determination and commitment, makes other people feel treated wholeheartedly. It’s so powerful that it can fill the void.  It can make products/services special and unique.

Zen rock garden shows us “less” can bring abundance, and “less” can bring satisfaction and happiness — as far as aesthetics are filling the void.  Visitors spend hours and hours sitting in front of the Zen rock garden, absorbed in its beauty.

And aesthetics can take various forms to take over “more.”  You could almost think of it as replacing “stuff” with our own efforts to let beauty emerge.

If you take a close look, you will find many “less is more” aesthetics around you.  Those magnetic products, services and arts can fill you without physical presence.  And the sense of satisfaction is soothing, rewarding and exciting.  Click each item to read more details.

MUJI Toothbrush stand
Reduced: size and material used
Aesthetics: product design cognizant of surroundings
(Image courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku)

MUJI House
Reduced: square footage
Aesthetics: Providing functional skeleton to facilitate infill flexibility
(Image courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku)

Reduced: New products purchased
Aesthetics: knowledge, skills to repair or fix something

Las Vegas Downtown Project
Reduced: New building development to revitalize communities
Aesthetics: people’s power to promote creative collision

Asahiyama Zoo
Reduced: Number of “star” animals, fancy facilities
Aesthetics: animals’ inherent resilience to perform great in nature

Reduced: Number of ingredients, condiments and amount of food
Aesthetics: quality of ingredients
(Note: authentic sushi are small in portion, does not call for a lot of soy sauce, wasabi, mayonnaise, cream cheese etc….)

Rental Space Tower designed by Sou Fujimoto
Reduced: Personal ownership
Aesthetics: radical sharing

Kintsugi (Japanese traditional technique to repair ceramics)
Reduced: Number of new ceramics purchased
Aesthetics: repair as an art

Glenn Gould
Reduced: Number of notes played in a certain duration
Aesthetics: musical serenity

Japanese souffle cheesecake
Reduced:  Amount of sugar
Aesthetics: Wobbly texture