What is the first image that came to mind? A graphic design style? An interior? An empty, bleak, white-washed room?
Or did it make you think of a lifestyle?
A Tale of Two Houses
Like most of our friends and neighbors, my parents had a lot of stuff. Closets, attics, garages, kitchen cabinets… filled to the brim with things that we rarely used and hoped we wouldn’t need. That stuff provided a sense of security and comfort for my parents.
I’m a bit contrarian: all that unused, uncatalogued stuff gave me anxiety. Closed closet doors made me want to pour over their contents to dispel their hidden mysteries. We responded differently to having lots of stuff, but my family had one universal frustration: the things we did love were drowned out by what we didn’t.
When we entertained guests, we would spend a couple days cleaning, storing and tossing — but with a surplus of knick-knacks, we always had the inevitable temptation to display what we loved alongside mediocre pieces. It wasn’t that we lacked stunning pieces, but that they became diluted by less stunning items that we displayed for sheer need.
It was a bit like merging a fine art portfolio with Instagram selfies.
Last week, my brother Josh moved into his new place. I have to admit, for someone who professes to care little for stuff, I’m a little envious. He has a beautiful space to work from, and with his interior design skills he could turn the space into a gallery (and sell my fine art photography) or feature it on Houzz.
He owns very little. The space is huge and will remain empty for some time, but the few things he owns display a caliber of taste that fills up the space.
With Josh moved out, I resolved on my drive back to redouble my efforts to get rid of anything superfluous, especially larger furniture that would give me a moment’s hesitation. I felt inspired to clean things up a bit, only to find:
- Now that I have fewer things, it feels empty.
- The interior designer in me wants to turn my apartment into an art canvas.
- The bathroom screams for a makeover.
- I feel the need to fill the space up.
When a space is too empty, I feel a bit lonely. When I own too much stuff, I feel attached and anxious about it holding me down. The conflict that stirs within! What shall I do?
The Minimalist Ethos
“Surround yourself with (a few) things you love.”
Minimalism doesn’t mean owning nothing. Minimalism is an ethos: it means having nothing superfluous, and often that means choosing a few quality things over quantity. Minimalism can be framed in the negative: “Remove everything that is superfluous.” But sometimes I find it a bit contrary to the purpose of minimalism. So I start from the positive: “Be intentional about what you add: only add what brings exceptional value.”
What do I love, and what things make me happier? I have a handful of exceptional things, some that could be considered superfluous:
- Accent lighting. As a photographer, light strongly affects my mood.
- Travel clothes, and some dressier winter wear that I probably wouldn’t travel with like a scarf and sweater from Ireland.
- A few succulents, like lavender and ferns, that remind of my favorite places in the world.
- Candles and soaps. Yes guys, roll your eyes — of the five senses, the sense of smell creates the strongest ties to memories and has the strongest recall. I have a candle that smells like the Scottish Highlands and a soap like ferns in the Pacific Northwest. But ironically, my strongest memory trigger to date is a deodorant I used (and hated) while traveling non-stop for three months.
- A few small but unique knick-knacks that carry dual value.
- A chair that reminds me of the Alps, and a smaller desk chair that reminds me of Norway.
A lot of these items would be considered superfluous: extra lighting, plants and other decor accents. But “superfluous” implies they bring no value, when in fact they bring exceptional value to me by making my space a place I enjoy living in — but without holding me down.
Every posession you own will have a chance to posess you. Minimalism asks you to be intentional about every item you introduce to your life. Everything has a cost, so make each one count.
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