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My view on minimalism, aesthetics and a sustainable future

 
pioneer
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I want to share my views and hear feedback on them. I'm certain there are points many will disagree with, thus posting here in the cider press. This is important to me though and I think by posting I can solidify my viewpoints, or at least get better at expressing them. My wife just let me talk to her about this for about 10 minutes, and I felt like I expressed my feelings better than I have for a long time, so I'm going to try to restate what I said to her.

Preface: We moved into my wife's grandfather's house five years ago and have lived with her father, and near to her aunt, for the entirety of that time. All three of them (grandfather, father, and aunt) are hoarders. They kept things they need and things they'd never use, bought things they would never use, and built new storage units to store many of these things in a climate where everything degrades swiftly due to mold, mildew, sun bleaching, weathering, and insect damage. At the beginning of last year my wife's grandfather died and a few months later we were given the go-ahead to start getting rid of the accumulated stuff. My wife had been reading, listening to, and watching various minimalists, tidy-up, and "danshari" experts for a while now, I think largely as a result of being put in this situation of living with other people's stuff. Furthermore, unfortunately, none of her family had a particularly good sense of interior design, ergonomics, or aesthetics in general. These points lead-in to my views.

My views/feelings/opinions on minimalism, aesthetics, and a sustainable future:

I think that
  • Utility is inherently beautiful
  • When things are stored efficiently they are often beautiful to see.
  • Superfluous decoration is a waste of energy to create and view and inherently detrimental because it draws our attention to the wrong places.
  • Having beauty in our environment is critical for motivation
  • Living in an overstuffed junk-filled environment will limit your happiness
  • Once perfect simplicity is achieved, there is no improving upon it.
  • Complexity is the enemy, but it is hard to achieve simplicity AND utility.
  • If we can learn to accept and live simply our needs become simple.
  • If we seek complicated solutions our needs are compounded.
  • In the long run simplicity requires less inputs and consumption.


  • I find the ideals I write here difficult to achieve, but worth striving for.

    For example, I have a hideous metal bookshelf in our living/dining room. Currently it has a land-line phone, an ADSL router, various things we're elevating to keep out of kids' reach, cookbooks, gardening books, two baskets full of stationary such as pens, pencils, notepads, calculators, etc on it. If I'm honest with myself we don't look at 90% of the books on that shelf and probably never will, even though we've already reduced to that from six times as many. We use maybe one pencil, one pen, and one marker from the stationary baskets, and some other items occasionally. However, we don't use the pencils or pens in that space. It is not the best place to put them, they are there because we haven't spent the time to think about where we really do use them. If we then think about where we do use them that brings us to another dilemma, that our note-taking systems are not very efficient. That then leads us to think about how best to take notes. And then, where should our phone be? The one person that uses it finds it a burden in its current place and re-arranges his furniture when he needs to use it. Clearly our systems are poorly thought-out and inefficient. We have not achieved simplicity, our utility is impaired by our storage solutions. Therefore they are hideous to behold.

    If I re-imagine this system now: The land-line phone is by the computer where it is used. The pencils are stored by the grocery list notepad on the refrigerator. We have three cookbooks on a floating shelf on the wall near the kitchen table. Already, this scene looks better to me in my minds-eye. If a visitor walked in, I'm sure they would see the cookbooks, read the three titles, see how well-worn and dough-spackled the volumes are, and immediately understand our values about food. They might even start a conversation about their own experiences with making food in the same vein. Our own cooking and dining experiences would be improved, we would spend more time with things we love and focus our dining more on cooked food instead of buying pre-made packaged food.

    This is just one example, and maybe it seems vain, but I truly think that if we take the time to consider these systems and intricacies of our environment then we take steps toward a more minimal, achievable, and sustainable future free of the wasted time, resources, and energy that seems to be so dominant in this day and age.

    The example I talked about is organizational. But I think if you have the opportunity and resources to think about the architecture of your living space, and before that the orientation, location, geography, and society surrounding your living space then you can go even further to create optimal systems that require less input produce better quality life. To this end, I think there is a lot of wisdom in tradition. Having grown up in suburban USA I felt almost completely detached from tradition. Architecture had no meaning other than the trend, it wasn't designed from a perspective of harmonious efficiency with the environment, it was built to suit a consumption trend, something that was shown to sell. Here in Japan I feel sad and lucky (because of the perspective it's given me) to live in a house that emulates western trends. Most of the traditional Japanese architectural features are absent, and I think we are worse off for it. We don't have windows that open to create a cross breeze through any room in the house. We don't have shikkui walls that breathe air to regulate the extreme humidity, we don't have long eaves to block the high summer sun from coming into the southern windows. These traditional features were arrived at because they were the simplest solution to a complicated problem, and it took generations to realize it.

    I'm not the best communicator, but I would love feedback to help me really express these things in a more useful and compelling way. Maybe I'm wrong? I could take some constructive criticism too.


     
    pollinator
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    Lew Johnson wrote:

    I think that

  • Utility is inherently beautiful
  • Yet you call a bookshelf which works "hideous" but that shelf has utility.
  • When things are stored efficiently they are often beautiful to see.
  • Most certainly a room of books or a shelf of food can be wonderful to behold if tidy.
  • Superfluous decoration is a waste of energy to create and view and inherently detrimental because it draws our attention to the wrong places.
  • one persons superfluous decoration is an others art. to me I call them dust collectors and in general avoid though I do have a few.
  • Having beauty in our environment is critical for motivation
  • Everyones needs are different, you can only try to match your needs
  • Living in an overstuffed junk-filled environment will limit your happiness
  • Most certainly
  • Once perfect simplicity is achieved, there is no improving upon it.
  • No simplicity to me is inherently boring, the horrible trend here for everything white and no decoration is soulless but simple.
  • Complexity is the enemy, but it is hard to achieve simplicity AND utility.
  • See above
  • If we can learn to accept and live simply our needs become simple.
  • Yes but that can be taken to far
  • If we seek complicated solutions our needs are compounded.
  • sometimes there is no simple solution
  • In the long run simplicity requires less inputs and consumption.
  • Sometimes, but it can also mean more consumption if you have thrown out yesterday the thing you need today.


     
    pollinator
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    Furthermore, unfortunately, none of her family had a particularly good sense of interior design, ergonomics, or aesthetics in general. These points lead-in to my views.



    I think design and aesthetics are very personal. For instance, my parents (also hoarders, so I understand your frustration) have two HIDEOUS, monstrously large, handpainted table lamps that are shaped like castles. These things take up the whole tables they're sitting on, rendering the tables useless for anything else. But my parents treasure those lamps. To them, they are beautiful.

    I also think what's "minimalist" varies from one person to the next. For you, a few treasured cookbooks that hold most of your "go to" recipes seem to suffice. Others, say a professional chef or caterer, might reference several cookbooks for menu inspiration.

    I sympathize with your computer, router, and phone being in awkward places to keep things away from children. As the children grow, that will change. Homes with curious youngsters are not always ergonomic, to be sure. That is only temporary, thankfully. In the meantime, embrace the chaos. You only get your children for a short time. Memories are more important than mess, I believe. As they grow, they can start to take more responsibility around the house with chores, cleaning up their toys, and learning general household management.

    I agree with your assertion that living in an overstuffed junk-filled environment will limit your happiness. I grew up with my parents' "junk." It clutters not only the house, but the mind. However, what one person views as "junk" is a useful tool to someone else. Finding the balance is tricky. And always changing.

    One final observation: I don't know how old your wife's grandfather, father, and aunt were. If they were alive during The Great Depression, that would have certainly clouded their view of what items were necessary to keep. I heard of people saving broken vacuum cleaner belts in the hopes they could be repaired.

    Edited to add: I see from your location that you're in Japan. If your wife's grandparents were alive shortly after WW2, they would have remembered their county in utter shambles. So much loss and tragedy. That would have perhaps colored their view of what was necessary to save.
     
    pollinator
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    I'm not a minimalist. I like my home to feel lived in, but not cluttered. Too much stuff stresses me out, I feel like I can't think, so I'm very organized. I find it helpful to view organization as an ongoing practice. I'm constantly tweaking it. For open shelving and bookcases, baskets and decorative, but functional boxes are very helpful.

    I agree with you that examining how and where you use things is important for making your spaces more useful, inside the house and outside for gardening, animal keeping etc.

    While suburban architecture may leave a lot of be desired in some areas, the post WWII housing that I grew up in and raised my kids in seemed very reasonable, small useful rooms. And kitchen design has improved over the years. While I love the look of old farmhouse kitchens, I've never seen one with a good work triangle.
     
    Lew Johnson
    pioneer
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    Skandi Rogers wrote:

    Lew Johnson wrote:

    I think that

  • Utility is inherently beautiful
  • Yet you call a bookshelf which works "hideous" but that shelf has utility.
  • When things are stored efficiently they are often beautiful to see.
  • Most certainly a room of books or a shelf of food can be wonderful to behold if tidy.
  • Superfluous decoration is a waste of energy to create and view and inherently detrimental because it draws our attention to the wrong places.
  • one persons superfluous decoration is an others art. to me I call them dust collectors and in general avoid though I do have a few.
  • Having beauty in our environment is critical for motivation
  • Everyones needs are different, you can only try to match your needs
  • Living in an overstuffed junk-filled environment will limit your happiness
  • Most certainly
  • Once perfect simplicity is achieved, there is no improving upon it.
  • No simplicity to me is inherently boring, the horrible trend here for everything white and no decoration is soulless but simple.
  • Complexity is the enemy, but it is hard to achieve simplicity AND utility.
  • See above
  • If we can learn to accept and live simply our needs become simple.
  • Yes but that can be taken to far
  • If we seek complicated solutions our needs are compounded.
  • sometimes there is no simple solution
  • In the long run simplicity requires less inputs and consumption.
  • Sometimes, but it can also mean more consumption if you have thrown out yesterday the thing you need today.




    Thanks for the criticism. I think a lot of these are the natural points of argument for some of what I said.

    First of all, while I do feel strongly about this and I want to improve my ability to express it, I'm not a prescriptivist in any part of my life. I wouldn't harp on others about my ideals. I usually try to lead by example, and that's what I'm working on doing. Granted by posting this I am putting that out there which contradicts what I just said, but I also want to bounce the ideas around so that I can better understand them myself. And to that point, your criticism helps a lot!

    Your counterpoint about the bookshelf having utility is helpful. I think I see the ideal of utility and simplicity as opposing forces, pulling me in opposite directions. It is easiest to use the bookshelf because it's there, it doesn't require work to replace, or time to rethink. It certainly has utility. That aspect of it is beautiful. But the result of the bookshelf's utility in its current state is non-simple systems, thus complexity in how we use it. I don't think the bookshelf is hideous because of any inherent aspect of the bookshelf itself. In another situation that shelf might be the pillar of simplicity and utility. What I'm trying to get at is that when we succeed at achieving simplicity combined with utility the results are really beautiful. This is the aesthetic side of my argument.

    About superfluous decoration vs art. This is something I thought about after I posted this. Maybe some future version of myself will dismiss art as superfluous, but I doubt it and I think you have a good point. To me now, art has utility. When we view it it creates a feeling or response in us which we enjoy. That is definitely a form of utility and I don't want to dismiss it. And you are perfectly right in that the experience is subjective. More often than not people will disagree on what is art (I guess that's what makes it an interesting pursuit).

    Following that, and Stacie Kim's point about the lamps. I think learning to accept other people's point of view while being able to build and express your own is one of the biggest challenges in life, but a worthy pursuit as well. The point about my wife's father and grandfather's generation is spot on. They grew up or lived in a time when saving everything was necessary. My wife and I grudgingly learned to accept that. But when we were given the go ahead to start making changes, we definitely jumped at the opportunity. Her family definitely respects that we have different views and they want to support our ideas too. I am deeply appreciative of that. All that said, times are different. Right now as a society we overproduce low quality crap that can't be maintained and accumulating it only prevents us from spending time maintaining the things that we do need.

    About simplicity being boring, I wonder if that's really true. In my view simplicity doesn't have to be stark and barren. I think visually complex patterns are compelling, but a lot of that comes down to how they are arranged. A lot of times it's the structured chaos that really appeals to me. Though I'll admit I can't possibly see things through your eyes.

    Your last points about over-doing it and taking things too far, throwing out things you find you need are totally true. That has been the internal conflict in me while we have reduced the hoards these past few years. The real problem in our case, and I don't think it's universal, is that poorly kept things become useless here. They rot, dry out, or get eaten. We MUST keep the number of things to a manageable number if we want to be able to use those items respectfully, otherwise they go to waste in spite of our best efforts.
     
    pollinator
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    I've been working on becoming minimalist for awhile now. I've also been following other minimalists online, etc. Your wife probably wants to get rid of things because it is classically a womans job to maintain the inventory of the home. My husband just texts me to ask where something is and to my great disbelief I know where it is. I tend to know where things are everywhere in the house, even the things that the kids or I just moved. How much mental space am I wasting on that? I don't know but I intend to reduce it.

    So yes, organization. I have greatly organized where things are. If it doesn't have a place that it lives I get rid of it. I got rid of half my decorations and I'm trying to get rid of more and more with time. It's assisted with life. I still have problems with clutter. Our kitchen counters pretty much need to be completely cleared every week. I can't believe how much stuff we still have. Working on it though. With time.
     
    elle sagenev
    pollinator
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    Skandi Rogers wrote:

    Lew Johnson wrote:

  • In the long run simplicity requires less inputs and consumption.
  • Sometimes, but it can also mean more consumption if you have thrown out yesterday the thing you need today.




    That thinking does get people to hoard. I got rid of some things I rarely used knowing that if I needed them again by some chance i could just borrow them. Easy peasy.
     
    Skandi Rogers
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    elle sagenev wrote:

    Skandi Rogers wrote:

    Lew Johnson wrote:

  • In the long run simplicity requires less inputs and consumption.
  • Sometimes, but it can also mean more consumption if you have thrown out yesterday the thing you need today.




    That thinking does get people to hoard. I got rid of some things I rarely used knowing that if I needed them again by some chance i could just borrow them. Easy peasy.


    If it is something that can be borrowed, but screws wood etc cannot be borrowed, we keep a spare heater just in-case, we've never needed it but it's not something you can borrow in a hurry.
     
    pollinator
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    Order and clutter are in the eye of the beholder, and I believe that the state to which a person's living space settles depends on some core psychological traits.

    Some people enjoy having visually intricate artwork and knickknacks around, the same as some people like to have music playing throughout the day. Just keeping our senses happy. Others find the constant sensory stimulation stressful.

    People have differing needs for empty space. One person may find a spacious room with smooth empty surfaces tranquil, but another may feel threatened or exposed by the emptiness. Two men in my family who were widowed in their 50s became more or less hoarders, I suspect partly as a reaction finding themselves alone in large houses. Maybe a house full of stuff feels more like it is still full of life.

    Some people have a mental map in their head of every cupboard, drawer, closet in their house and fairly easily retrieve things that are put "away" even if it is all jumbled up inside. Other people just can't find items that are not right front and center. "Put away" to the latter sort might as well be "buried and forever forgotten."

    It can be stressful living in a household with people whose psychological traits and needs conflict with your own. It can help to think about what psychological need a person may be meeting with their own behavior, to find a way to harmonize.
     
    pollinator
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    I have been thinking about why I disagreed with the basic premise, because I did out of the gate, but I didn't know why.

    I think it's because that of every tenet of permaculture that I have observed and otherwise learned, the one that is most important in a variety of ways is that healthy systems self-complicate. They become more complex. Unhealthy systems pare off the "extraneous" elements until you have a very basic, circular or linear pattern of consumption, which as some have already noted, some consider boring.

    In nature I consider it unhealthy. I should be able to set up a system from the hydrology up and walk away for a decade and come back to something that behaves very much like a living organism. If I was to set up a traditional minimalist garden, complete with sand for raking, or doing mandalas, or pebble murals, as might befit a minimalist approach, and then walked away for a decade, it would degrade until a natural system took over, and then it would no longer be the minimalist garden.

    My parents and grandparents all had some hoarding to them. My grandparents on my dad's side served in the British military as Polish expats during WWII, and my mom's family endured Poland during the war and under Soviet rule until they were able to leave in the mid-60s.

    Hardship and deprivation breed coping mechanisms, and some of these aren't pretty to see. I have no doubt, though, that if we were suddenly hit by some kind of collapse, the attic full of used styrofoam meat trays, lidded plastic takeaway containers, and plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic grocery bags would have been put to some practical use.

    To agree in some measure with the OP, though, I watched Marie Kondo on Netflix, and in doing so, started my quest to pare down my wardrobe to functional and joy-sparking things. And yes, when I open my dresser drawer to find three rows of t-shirts folded into rectangles, each readily identifiable, and if I should choose to do it, colour-coordinated, it is satisfying. Extending that satisfaction to the way in which I store my necessary goods, and paring away those things, like the solid-black cheapie t-shirts I have in the back of my drawer but will never, ever wear, that I don't need, definitely improves my outlook and my workflow. Or lifeflow?

    I think minimalism has it's place, but it's definitely not a whole philosophy for me. I think, as in all things, moderation is key.

    -CK
     
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