Rob Mientjes

Character and emotion: minimalism with passion

“I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.” — Blaise Pascal (among others)

I stand firmly behind everything that quote has to offer, and rally fiercely against it. As with every quote that has to fit between two periods, the truth is a bit more complex. I have been in many discussions about this, most notably with Viktor, and I am beginning to think I have something of a point to make.

Writing is rewriting

Many things are improved by cutting bits out and refining what is there. Does this poster need this line right here? Do I really need this adverb? How much bezel can we remove around this television screen? It could be said that design is a large bowl of curation, with a teaspoon of creation. The selection shapes the final form.

In writing, the prevailing philosophy is to write until you’ve said what you want to say, and then cut until you can’t cut anymore without changing what you said. The cliche that is the title of this section, ‘Writing is rewriting’, is exactly what I want to say, but it doesn’t say all that I want to say about it. I could rewrite that title dozens of times and not get any further.

One word for two words, two words for three

Refining a text is focused on replacing words that are meaningful with fewer words that bear an equal amount of meaning, or perhaps even more. Any other edit loses the essence of the original text. Removing adverbs often tightens a text, but only so much. Cull too many, and the text is as meagerly descriptive as it gets. How you edit text is up to you. I think about text and style like this: when making a vase, you can be sloppy and leave fingerprints in the clay. If you polish the shapes too much, you lose character and definition in a hand-made object. A balance should be struck, where there is a clear hand that is not sloppy. A steady hand that is decisive, and does not leave traces of doubt.

This assumes that the original text should, for some reason, be the ultimate reference point. It should not. The reference point for the quality of a text, or indeed any thing, is floating. It floats up and down along with the many different choices that are made in the process of creation, redaction and deletion. Choices stylistic, semantic, technical, cultural, practical. Any choice is a not simply a tick on a great score card. Every choice you make is either the addition or removal of a stone in a Jenga tower.

How attractive is a purely functional thing?

Top left, the Olivetti Valentine (1969, Ettore Sottsass). Right, the Miramar Hotel in El Gouna (1995, Michael Graves). Bottom left, the Nokia Lumia (2011, Anton Fahlgren).

The Memphis Group was a collection of like-minded architects, product designers and artists, all looking for healthy new fusions between their own and other disciplines. Ettore Sottsass founded it in 1981, and their heritage is a cross-section of eighties design sensibilities. But not all the work that they produced in their own disciplines is that easily stamped an ‘eighties product’. A lot of the work is dated, but in most respects that is a fashion thing. The Belvedere console table (1982), by Aldo Cibic, has patterns on the materials that we easily discard as ‘retro’, but the shape, a half-circle with a sideboard and one leg, is so ridiculously rule-breaking that the idea outlasts the style it was rendered in irrelevant.

What caused the Memphis work to date so rapidly is probably the ornate decoration. But that decoration is a layer on top of a thing. The objects were desirable in the eighties exactly because of the layer on top. That the shapes were wildly different from what had been made before — they hark back to Bauhaus ideas of primary shapes and colours, but do so in the most extravagant way possible — makes it worthwhile to consider in a consideration of what it means for an object to be minimal.

In Memphis work, the style is not just a way of making something look different. It completely corresponded to the main drive behind the object: simple shapes in simple colours, with prints and shapes generally derived from nature — marble, leaves, fruit — but applied abstractly. It would weaken my point to simply state that the ‘outer look’ does not need to correspond to the ‘inner look’ — the shape unconnected to the paint — but that is what I am trying to do for myself. To make something out of simple shapes and colours (or make it seem simple), and let that be a guide. Simplicity, not minimalism, is key to making something people want to use. Minimalism is a stylistic choice as much as eclecticism or baroque is. Simplicity is a guiding principle to be simple, but not too simple, to be minimal but not necessarily in a style that is predefined. I think that many people who actually want simplicity try to achieve it by aiming for minimalism. It’s misguided and destructive.

If you carve a statue out of wood, there is a good chance that the material and the tool will be obvious and visible. You can hide the effects of the tool by refining and refining, but you can’t make the wood not like wood. All you can do is make the statue more like a statue. You do that by refining. That it is made of wood is simply the restricting factor. Your tool is not meant to be the point.

There are many ways to approach even the simplest of problems, and many of those approaches are more complex than the problem you’re trying to solve

The creative act is a business of culling, cutting, carving, stripping, scrapping, removing, reducing and destroying. I personally am consistently distracted by work that shows a lack of destruction. Work that showcases the tool more than the idea, the story, the Thing. Things with a capital ‘T’ are the story to tell, not the way they were created.

Minimalists try to hide behind the Thing they’re designing. I want to glorify and humanise all Things. A Thing should be fun to use. That should be the goal. Not to obscure but to enlighten. To add character where there is a need for it, and to strip it there where it is extraneous. Simplicity as the principle, leading to minimalism with a heart.