Be gone, Maximalism

Fast Company, who are usually on the forefront of forward-thinking design, recently published an article that I have to disagree with.
Read it first, and then come back here.
Did they really just publish an article promoting consumerism, with some conciliatory bits at the end? It seems like they did.
They start by featuring designers who see the rising trend of shouty design as a sign of abundance, and a healthy economy.
David Alhadeff credits the “…changing tastes, in part, to a healthy economy.” Here they’re associating design that’s bright, loud, and stimulating, with abundance — instead of associating it with excess.
The author goes on to say that, “While a strong economy can support more adventurous design–while during leaner times, consumers are more frugal and make purchases that aren’t likely to fall out of fashion…”

Obviously loudness will be preferred as long as peacocking is the motivation — nobody wants to be doing well without other people noticing.

Sure, when the economy is flush, people are more likely to spend more money on more things that display to other people just how well they’re doing. Not better, more durable, or more refined things. Obviously loudness will be preferred as long as peacocking is the motivation — nobody wants to be doing well without other people noticing. If a consumer zombie has lots of stuff in Consumer Land, but there’s no one around to see it, do they have any stuff at all? Also, their associating loud design with a good economy is implying that simple design is inherently cheap. Obviously this isn’t true.

When we buy things that are tied to a prevailing trend we’re supporting the cycle of trends that leads to the heaps of discarded, but still useful products…

In that second quote there’s another issue: not buying things that will go out of fashion is being associated with frugality, instead of with morality. When we buy things that are tied to a prevailing trend we’re supporting the cycle of trends that leads to the heaps of discarded, but still useful products, which are treated like smelly pariahs as soon as the new trend swings by, and end up polluting our smoggy landscapes.

Let’s not laud these objects as the height of design, but rather as a sign of a bigger problem.

“We are definitely in a moment where design is reconnecting with a more decorative impulse…” Is this another way of saying that design is resigning itself to trivial ornamentation, instead of solving problems and adding value? I’m all for tables inspired by computer glitches, and pastel blue couches that resemble iconic mountain ranges — within reason. Let’s not laud these objects as the height of design, but rather as a sign of a bigger problem. A sign of what people value. As David Alhadeff says in the article: “…markets will bring what they can bear” — the trend of maximalism is a reflection of what people are demanding. I think these objects undermine the uplifting, forward-thinking work that so many designers are doing out there in the world. I don’t have a problem with eclecticism or loudness itself, I have a problem with both in excess, and eclecticism and loudness for their own sake. I have a problem when the loudness is assembled with rare, unsustainable materials – when the loudness is motivated by a desperate call for attention, from the designer and the consumer.

I have a problem when the loudness is assembled with rare, unsustainable materials – when the loudness is motivated by a desperate call for attention, from the designer and the consumer.

In departing from “the church of Dieter Rams” we’re also departing from the values which he embedded in all of his work. Namely a spiritual and emotional satisfaction which comes from a harmonious environment, and compassion and consideration for the impact our designs have on the world around us. Just go and have a gander at his famous 10 principles. Minimalism is not about striving for a soulless, sterile environment. It’s about striving for a balanced, compassionate environment without excess. It’s about design that’s good — as in design that emanates goodness, makes people feel good, inspires goodness, and does no harm when it’s manufactured or when it’s eventually discarded.

Minimalism is not about striving for a soulless, sterile environment. It’s about striving for a balanced, compassionate environment without excess.

They quote the lighting designer Jason Miller as saying, “When the only goal is minimalism, you eventually end up with nothing.” Come on, man. The goal of minimalism is to reduce to the bare essentials. So you’re left with only what’s needed to fulfil a purpose — and that isn’t a cry for cold pragmatism, emotional fulfilment is still an essential need. Anything more than what’s essential is excessive, by definition. So, the statement should be: “When the only goal is minimalism, you eventually end up with exactly what you need, and nothing more.”

Anything more than what’s essential is excessive, by definition.

They also mention how intricate designs are coming back, not for a renewed appreciation for some craft, but because modern machinery allows it. Novelty. Not solving any new problems with the new capability, but catering to the whims of trend sheep.
To the credit of the author, they did slip in a few perfunctory paragraphs at the end acknowledging the potential harm of the maximalist ideology. But I don’t think this is enough. That last-minute hedging makes the article a bit wishy-washy. To make it worse, it ends in an opinion: “…right now, I’m glad to see modern design embrace its expressive side.” If it was an opinion piece, it should have been clearly labelled as that.

The objects we surround ourselves with should be physical reminders of what’s really important in this life, not overstimulating distractions.

On the whole, it was an article overwhelmingly in praise of the excess consumerism of which ‘maximalism’ is but a symptom. Let’s step back for a bit and contemplate what the rise of maximalism means, instead of blindly embracing it because it makes us feel good by stimulating and distracting us. The objects we surround ourselves with should be physical reminders of what’s really important in this life, not overstimulating distractions.
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