Clean lines, reductive, uncluttered, monochromatic, simplicity, "less is more" — these are some of the terms and concepts that immediately come to mind when thinking about minimalism. It's impossible to deny the serenity and simple beauty when confronted with a resolved minimalist interior, but achieving this look is more deliberate and frankly, difficult, than just choosing a few pieces of furniture for a white backdrop, which can leave a space feeling cold, sparse and unlived-in. Take a look at our guide below, crafted from conversations with three interior designers and two architects well-versed in designing simply stunning minimalist interiors; learn what the concept of minimalism is to them and how they have achieved form-focused interiors for their clients.
What is Minimalism?
“Minimalism for me is about keeping a space simple, uncluttered and accentuating the attractive architectural features of a space. The palette is mostly monochromatic and color is used as an accent,” says Sharon Blaustein, principal designer at B Interior LLC. "I think minimalism and functionality go hand in hand. A minimalist-designed space incorporates an open floor plan, lots of light, and simple line furnishings that are well-built and comfortable. All these create a soothing and inviting space that has a timeless aesthetic."
Form, Focus & Functionality
"Minimalism allows something other than the space to be the focus. For example, the people in the space or the view from the window might be more important than the room’s decoration," says Robert Brown of Robert Brown Interior Design. "[Everything] should be functional and add value to the space. You still need all of the items in a space for it to function, but in minimalist decor, 'form' is very important. For example, in a dining room, you need a table and chairs. These pieces need to speak to one another and relate in regards to things like line, color, mass, etc. They must work well together in their basic shape."
In a minimalist condominium living room designed by Brown and his team, he says, "All of the furniture was purposeful — chairs to comfortably sit in, tables for drinks, hidden window treatments to allow views from this high-story residence, a fireplace to warm. Even the art is simple in composition. The clients have extremely active lives and need their home to be restful, not stimulating to the eye."
While minimalist architecture also aims to condense content and streamline form and structure, it has a complex language on its own. "Minimalist architecture involves the use of reductive design elements, without ornamentation or decoration," says Lilian H. Weinreich of Lilian H. Weinreich Architects. "Proponents of minimalism believe that condensing the content and form of a design to its bare essentials reveals the true 'essence of architecture.'"
Illustrating aesthetic restraint — a key concept in formal simplicity and architectural minimalism — Weinreich renovated a Central Park South home built on "principles of ergonomics, functionality and sustainability." Working within a space with inherited elements that could not be altered, such as the existing plumbing chase (a false wall used to conceal plumbing), Weinreich prioritized reducing the bulk problem. "The chase has an unintended purpose — that of a visual barrier, thus blocking a direct view into the workings of the busy open plan kitchen," says Weinreich. "New full-height upper cabinets, floor-to-ceiling pantry closets, and the utilization of all under-the-counter island spaces increased the storage capacity of this kitchen by twenty percent. Simplicity in design and uniqueness in resolution are key to this alteration."
Impeccable Craft of Construction: Light, Form & Materials
Along the same line of thinking as Weinrich, the idea of "essential" is imperative to minimalism as Jennifer Tulley of Jennifer Tulley Architects explains: "Minimalism is an approach to design where the elements of the structure are simplified to their essential components. Nothing is added for effect. The design thrives on the beauty of the forms and the materials used to create the forms," she says. "The design needs to be clear and simple, but not boring. This is where the use of light, form and beautiful materials is so essential. The craft of the construction is incredibly important since you cannot add trim to cover misalignments."
Tulley also prioritized storage for a quiet and calm San Francisco kitchen, a key tool for maintaining a minimalist living space while meeting realistic functionality concerns for the typical homeowner or family. Tulley added an open box shelf to visually unite the column and wall and provide storage for her clients. "We were careful to align all of the openings, the glass to ledge, and edge of cabinets to calls," she says. "[In a minimalist space], walls and floors must be level to create connections between elements with minimal joint lines, and installation of cabinetry must be nearly perfect."
Benefits of a Minimalist Space for Homeowners
The idea of uncluttered and clean space is truly a driver behind the minimalist movement, and the desire to seek and adapt its principal ideas in interior design. "If we really stop to think about it we do not need so many things; we can live in any space with a lot less," says Annette Frommer of Annette Frommer Interior Design. "How many sofas do we really need? How many chairs? Do we need to hang pictures at all on walls? Maybe only on one wall? Or on none? How many knick-knacks do we really need on our coffee table or shelves? In reality, we need functionality and practicality that blends with no superfluous embellishments. Shapes should be quite uncomplicated, and colors and textures should harmoniously blend."
Tulley also mentions the firsthand benefits she has seen from employing a minimalist design aesthetic in her projects. "I think clients are inspired by their space to focus on the essentials and items of personal value," she says. "It has a calming effect to live in a well-designed and uncluttered space.We make sure to provide ample closed storage so that the architecture and interiors can be uncluttered. It creates a calm haven for living."
Philadelphia-based lighting designer OVUUD is an exemplary brand for products created with the same principals of contemporary minimalism, with a range of lighting situated "at the intersection of a minimalist aesthetic, natural materials, and cutting-edge light technology."
Minimalism Adapted by Different Design Movements
While minimalism erupted from the modern movement, its definition has expanded with its employment throughout various interior design movements. "Although minimalism is usually associated with a modern and contemporary look, I believe that minimalism can also take place in spaces that are classic and traditional in their design," says Frommer. "The key is for the space to feel clean and orderly and not cluttered with too many furnishings, accessories, and colors that do not complement and blend." In this contemporary dining area and foyer, Frommer went with a palette of mostly grey, with touches of white. "Note that only a single crystal vase with lilac flowers adorns the glass foyer top," she says. "The only real touch of color is in the brown dining room table which adds warmth and a welcoming feel. There are no paintings to decorate the walls adjacent to the dining room. The final look is an uncluttered, clean, airy, and sophisticated space, perfectly functional and harmonious, that offers tranquility to the eye and serenity to the soul."
"The modern movement introduced a new way to live with open floor plans and clean designs free of unnecessary ornament," says Weinreich." Our opportunity as architects is to learn how to handle the complexity and realize that the art of design is to make complex things simple. The pure sensibility of my work evolves not from a predetermined architectural style, but rather from the intent to design clean, intelligent, and functional space that operates as a background to what function is contained within them."
Challenges of Minimalist Design
"The biggest challenge is to make a space look warm and welcoming," says Blaustein. "When using a monochromatic color palette, atmosphere is created by combining different shades, tints and textures to create a dynamic atmosphere." This minimalist Manhattan pied-à-terre designed by Blaustein and her team contrasts greatly from the bustling city neighborhood in which it is located.
"Our clients wanted the apartment to be a serene refuge from the busy street, especially the bedroom," says Blaustein of the master bedroom created with a monochromatic palette of light grey and shades of texture —the bed is upholstered in a soft wool fabric, the walls are covered in a linen wallpaper and a distressed wool rug warms the floor. "The different textures compliment each other and create a soothing atmosphere. The sheer drapery filters the light through the large windows and a pop of color comes from the tufted light blue armchair."
As for Brown, he explains that his biggest challenge is knowing when to stop designing or adding to the space. "If the space functions well, is simple in its composition without being overly stimulating, you know that you are finished," he says.
"Just like artists must stop at some point and not add colors or brush strokes, a designer too must know when to stop," says Frommer. "With me, it's intuition. I feel it when the space is 'just so,' when it is right, balanced and congruent."
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