In his first book, The Longing for Less, the writer and critic proposes a way of thinking about the minimalism that goes beyond your sock drawer.
BY ERIC ALLEN BEEN JANUARY 24, 2020
Before he started to write stinging deconstructions of modern living, Kyle Chayka was primarily an art critic. About five years ago, he realized that his background made him an unwitting expert on one aspect of the zeitgeist: minimalism.
The word has become a Swiss Army knife, applying to lofts with a single vase as a centerpiece, a kitchen sans toaster, a wardrobe with a slew of black T-shirts, or the products you “need” to buy to embrace it. In his new book, The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism, Chayka describes the attitude as “a lifestyle of living with less and being happy with, and more aware of, what you already own.”
He also contends that minimalism has a more entrenched meaning and history—one from the art world that signified new beginnings, not necessarily a void of less. Alongside the story of how minimalism-as-lifehack has spread during the 21st century, Chayka tracks its philosophy through the 20th. From the works of the minimalist masters, like Donald Judd (though he rejected the term), Agnes Martin, and John Cage, he narrows in on writer Susan Sontag’s belief that minimalist art can be a means for providing a “hedonistic” focus and life-affirming pleasure.
“I want readers to think about what minimalism could be as a deeper idea and how it could change the way you fundamentally see the world, and that goes way beyond organizing your sock drawer,” Chayka told Vanity Fair.
In the interview below, he also discusses the minimalist guru Marie Kondo, houseplants, and “AirSpace,” his coinage for the sterile coffee shop uncanny.
Vanity Fair: Tracking this new form of minimalism has been one of your main beats for a few years now. What made you want to start covering it?
Kyle Chayka: There was a moment in 2015 or 2016 when I realized that all sorts of different things were being described as minimalist. Like an Airbnb could be minimalist, a bar, an outfit, a chair. A lifestyle could be. And so when I realized that there were so many different things being called that, I was curious why, because my own reference point for minimalism came from art history.
I studied art history, and so I was familiar with minimalism from the art-historical movement of say the ’60s in New York, and I felt like people were not talking about that when they were talking about minimalism. They were referencing some other ideas. So I started writing about it to figure out what minimalism meant at the moment and why it was so popular. Why were suddenly all these people using the name of some kind of obscure art movement to describe themselves?
And you write the momentum of minimalism surprised you.
Yeah, I think just the fact that it was so widespread. Like looking up the minimalism hashtag on Instagram and there are millions of posts and more every minute. Last year you had the Marie Kondo Netflix show and that kind of incited another boom of minimalism—one about being proud to clean your apartment.
Kondo advises people to get rid of anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” Is that necessarily a bad thing?
I don’t think Kondo’s philosophy is necessarily bad, but I feel like it’s kind of been blown up into something that it’s not. I think having a conscientious relationship, or a conscious relationship, with stuff around you is good, like thinking about what you own, but some people have turned this into a kind of mania for living with nothing or living with as few objects as possible, and embracing empty space. That makes me uncomfortable.
And you say that there’s arrogance to this movement.
Yeah, I think this new style or aesthetic of minimalism can be oppressive to people. It’s a very particular kind of environment and atmosphere that often comes from like Western European modernism and it doesn’t necessarily allow for a diversity of feelings and style.
I think the arrogance of minimalism is that it kind of presumes that everything should look the same, that everything should have this very blank, empty aesthetic, and that’s the kind of minimalism that I wanted to challenge with the book and present a wider idea of it. An insight that there could be a diversity of aesthetics and viewpoints.
Why do you call this new definition of minimalism a “cultural sickness”?
I think minimalism is a natural reaction to a chaotic moment in history or in your own surroundings. You want to focus on what’s immediately around you and control your surroundings.
To me, minimalism always crops up as a solution to hard moments. You want to use it as a tool to understand yourself and what’s around you, but it never quite offers the whole solution, or it’s easy to mistake for a solution when it’s actually more of a question. So using it to narrow down your life and simplify your viewpoint, control what’s around you, that never really works out in the end. You can’t control everything. You can’t project a single style onto everything around you. And so that’s the sickness part, I suppose, but it never works out the way you think it’s going to work out.
Would you consider yourself a minimalist? You mentioned in the book that you don’t own too many things, and what you care about is just your books, your desk, artwork, et cetera.
Yeah, sure, I would consider myself a minimalist in some ways, but in the terms that I define in the book. So rather than having a totally empty apartment or obsessing over how many things I own, I just try to enjoy everything I do have and think about when I add something to my collection of stuff, that it kind of makes sense with everything else and fits into my life.
I’m more minimalist in my clothing, because I really don’t own very much of it, and I find myself buying the same things that look very similar over and over. I think I now own five or six blue chore coats. Not quite creating a uniform, but you know what works for you.
You write that minimalism, and this is a quote, “It used to be considered a mode of expressing more, not less, not just in art, but life.” How so?
We always use this phrase, “less is more,” right? The interpretation is that by owning fewer things or getting rid of stuff, you can enjoy the stuff you do have more. It’s a process of simplification, but I think in the ’60s definition of minimalism, like with artists like Donald Judd, it wasn’t about simplifying anything. It was about creating an entirely new way of looking at the world and perceive more in each objects.
You could look at a red box on the gallery floor and see that as a beautiful work of art. Specifically, with Judd, he was like, “I’m done with narrative and painting. I’m done expressing individual emotion. Instead, I thought the viewer to really perceive the red paint of the box. Like really perceive the space that a box picks up.” And I think that’s the way of seeing more, you see more in less, rather than simplifying something.
An art historian described minimalism in the ’60s to me as psychedelic, if you look at every object for itself and see so many different things in it. I think that’s really powerful. It’s also very challenging because it’s hard to look at a red box and see it as an art object.
Did you read the Wall Street Journal review of your book? Here’s a line from it: “Chayka’s mistaken assumption is that today’s professed minimalists, by taming their consumerism, are expressing their entire life ethos. Some just want organized sock drawers.” What do you make of that critique?
I didn’t read it but that’s actually a good line. It’s a very fine point that everyone uses minimalism to different degrees and ends, so you can easily adopt it as an attitude for organizing your socks. But that wasn’t the purpose of the book. I didn’t want to tell people how to organize things or clean. I want readers to think about what minimalism could be as a deeper idea and how it could change the way you fundamentally see the world, and that goes way beyond organizing your sock drawer.
To me, minimalism should be a radical idea. It should help you kind of start from scratch and look at reality around you without preconceptions or something. If you use minimalism like that, yeah, it might change how you look at your socks. But it also changes a lot of other things.
In a piece for the Verge, you coined the term AirSpace, which was one you use to explore how Silicon Valley is spreading “the same sterile aesthetic across the world.” What would be the opposite of AirSpace, though?
If AirSpace is this generic style that crops up in an Airbnb or in technology-influenced spaces, I feel like the opposite is the kind of space that can only be a local one. It can only be in one place or have been done in one place. You can almost think of a kind of kitschy roadside restaurant. It’s also any environment that’s very individual and aware of its choices, anything that’s been created and curated very intentionally to an individualist taste, rather than catering to the general tastes of the world.
I think the opposite of AirSpace is following your individual taste, even when it goes against cultural norms or what’s seen as tasteful at the time. I’m in an Airbnb right now and there are so many plants that it almost feels oppressive. There are plants hanging from the ceiling, plants on the windowsill, there are like five trees, and all this is a choice. You’ve committed to your plan. This would not be to everyone’s taste, but since it’s what you like, this is good for you. So I’m impressed by it, even though I’m kind of put off by it a little bit.
You think minimalism shouldn’t just be for the elite.
I don’t think it should be. I often think that the objects we see as branded as minimalist are really expensive and fancy. Even something like an Eames chair, which is like an icon of modern design, it can be like a $5,000. That’s a piece of furniture that very few people can actually afford. To me, minimalism should be this more populist thing. It should be accessible to everyone, in part because it’s not something that you can’t buy. It’s not about your possessions, necessarily, it’s about how you see the world. Often minimalism just gets mistaken for being a luxury good, right now. A style that is only for the elite. I would hope that, through the book or through thinking about different ideas of minimalism, that it’s clear that everyone can do it, or can participate in it.
Toward the end of the book, you talk about Zen Buddhism. What is the correlation between that and minimalism?
The book is kind of a process of deconstructing minimalism. I start with mostly superficially apparent stuff like the style and the products and everything like that. And by the end of the book, I think my research about Japanese culture, that was kind of my ideal version of minimalism. In Zen Buddhism, there’s such an appreciation of absence, ambiguity and an awareness of the ephemerality of life. But also, a kind of playfulness and joy. So, there’s this mixture of the awareness of death and the knowledge that our lives don’t really matter. But also, there is this search for beauty, sensation, and for the appreciation of what’s around you and for the possibilities of the human mind and creativity. And you can’t call all that minimalist necessarily.
So, you can’t call a 10th-century Buddhist monk minimalist necessarily. But, I think those ideas have a lot to do with what minimalism could be now. Helping us understand that humanity isn’t the endpoint of the world. That everything is fleeting and that your possessions don’t matter quite so much. What you can or should be doing is looking for moments of beauty in the passing world. And that, to me, is a really nice lesson.